No matter what your political persuasion, I believe everyone right now is frustrated about the government shutdown. For some the fall-out is tangible and frightening, such as the government workers who worry about paying their rent or mortgage and putting food on the table for their families. For others it is merely annoying, such as airline travelers held up in long lines before understaffed TSA checkpoints. In any case, this is a clear demonstration what happens when people are digging their heels in and refuse to compromise and move forward: in the end everyone suffers.
While the consequences are rarely as dramatic we face similar problems in business when teams cannot come together and reach a decision about how to solve a problem or what to do next. Important actions get delayed and we are stalled while everyone argues their point or follows their own agenda and refuses to budge. To avoid this stalemate from the get-go a facilitator can take certain steps when setting up a team-discussion on a divisive topic.
I have used this technique on many occasions, and I find that it cuts down on meeting time considerably. It also removes a lot of arguments that go round in circles. Instead it makes team members much less confrontational and more cooperative. In the end everyone walks away with a decision or solution they feel they helped shape, so people are much more inclined to own it. The trick is to reduce or even eliminate confrontational dynamics from thinking through the problem.
Here is what usually happens:
- As a problem is posed or the team is asked to make a decision someone throws out a suggestion of what could be done
- Team members will assess the suggestion, consider what’s in it for them, perhaps also judge whether they like the person who made the suggestion or not and then throw in either for or against it
- For the next 20 minutes or half an hour of the meeting people will argue back and forth about the suggestion and try to make a case whether it is a feasible option or not. Perhaps in the end one side “wins” and overrules the other, or we run out of meeting time altogether and nothing gets decided until a new session is convened
- In the end if we walk out with a decision or solution, we cannot be sure if the “losers” will actually endorse it. If we had to stop and resume the discussion later on we’ve lost valuable time. We’ve also lost the opportunity to explore other solutions and ways to decide, because everyone got consumed with arguing
To sidestep this scenario I recommend that a facilitator sets the discussion up in a way that people argue “with” each other rather than “against” each other. By working in a meeting that’s structured like a collaborative competition rather than a battle the team can achieve much better results with less acrimony and effort.
- Describe the situation and allow team members to add any other relevant information that sheds light on the scenario – we are not making any suggestions for solutions, we just ensure that everyone understands the problem in the same way
- Invite people to brainstorm solutions/ decisions. We’re not evaluating anything, we’re just throwing out ideas. Now the focus shifts not to who has the best idea or whose idea “wins”, but who can come up with the most or with the most creative ideas. Everyone collaborates
- Next collect arguments for each of the ideas. Ask everyone to only concentrate on aspects that would recommend the ideas or solutions. Some people will want to offer counterarguments, but ask them to hold it for now
- Switch direction and ask people to play “devil’s advocate” and try to come up with reasons why any of the proposed ideas would not work. Again you have shifted the dynamics. People content with each other who can come up with the most and best reasons for and against, but no one is taking any particular position
- Once you have completed this exercise you will most likely end up with a handful of ideas, each with their unique threats and opportunities. At this point it will be much easier for the team to review the information objectively and come to a decision about what to do. You may find that one idea accumulated a lot of arguments supporting it and few against it, more than any of the others, and the decision will be quite easy
In comparison to the traditional approach of letting a discussion evolve (or devolve) by itself this approach has a lot of advantages:
- You end up with more than one idea
- People work together to uncover information rather than against each other
- All of the arguments and information is laid out for everyone to see and evaluate. People will feel that the final decision is arrived at much more objectively and not by people following their own (hidden) agendas
- You don’t waste much time going back and forth covering the same ground and reiterating arguments in the hope of recruiting others
- Decisions are more likely to be made in a way that’s perceived as fair, so buy-in and follow-through is greater