Friday, June 08, 2007

There's another problem, too

In my last two postings, I've written about what I think is a very important issue we face as individuals, as businesses, and as a society. I think there's another issue that goes hand-in-hand with that issue: how we deal with tough, stressful problems, how we deal with conflict, and how we deal with perceived inequities. In almost any significant situation, we'll have differences of opinion, some small, some very large. (If we didn't, we should perhaps wonder if we're considering all the evidence.) How we deal with those differences can make all the difference as to what sort of outcomes we achieve.

No matter whether we're talking about differences between individuals, differences between groups in our companies or organizations, differences between factions involved in our local or national governments, or differences between nations, we have various approaches. Some approaches are violent; some are not. Some seem to lead to good resolutions; others do not. Some seem coercive, at least to some involved in those deliberations; others do not. Some seem to solve the problem today while creating new problems for the future; others don't.

If we can't figure out how to act effectively in such situations, I fear we'll have increasingly difficult times as stress mounts from climate change, from energy shortages, from perceived inequities (whether between individuals, groups, or nations), or simply from the challenges of doing business in competitive markets.

There are many ways to make communications in such situations more productive. As I've advocated for the use of multiple approaches (triangulation) in making sense of problems, I will say that I don't think any one approach has ability to save all deliberations about differences. Yet I have found the work of Chris Argyis, work he calls action science, to be impressively powerful in helping groups to hold productive discussions, to make breakthroughs in their organizations' abilities to get work done, and, as a nice side benefit, to help people feel good about working in their groups, not because they get their way, but because they get heard. It's based on three premises about productive decision-making in times of conflict and stress:

  • Free and open decision making
  • Testable and tested data
  • Mutual commitment

The first, among other things, means I can't force you to use this approach. I can at best model the behavior I believe in and that I would like you to adopt; I have to give you the right to decide whether you want to follow suit.

The second means that we are willing to test data about all our important assumptions, not just the ones about quantitative data. Perhaps I (think I) know you'll never accept a certain proposal. If I'm following my principles, I'll figure out a effective way to test that assumption on my part (perhaps as simple as asking); otherwise, I'm unilaterally taking one possible solution off the table without us having the ability to talk about it.

While these are all hard in practice, while they require great attention to one's self, and while they sometimes require great courage, the third sometimes seems the hardest. Perhaps you and I disagree about a situation. Perhaps you've made your best case, and I see important issues I perceive as favorable to your position that you didn't bring up. If I'm committed to the first two premises of making free and open decisions with tested and testable data, then I'm committed to bringing up those issues, even if I perceive they weaken my case, for that's the path towards more productive, effective decisions. That may sound easy now; it isn't always so easy when I'm in a discussion involving a strongly-held belief.

I can introduce this approach to a group in perhaps 15 minutes, including some techniques for applying these premises in practice. It's hard work, though; it may take months of active help before a group begins to internalize these ideas in their routine interactions. This work is some of the hardest and yet some of the most rewarding I do. The first time I saw a group I had helped really begin to act this way, I was blown away by the progress they had made. Using these ideas along with others, they had shortened their process times by over 80%. They were highly effective at working together, cutting the time of making decisions from hours and days down to minutes, and the quality of those decisions had improved markedly. Deliberations were sometimes amazingly direct, and yet people felt really good about them. As one said (paraphrasing), "Now I know that people really hear me." If you're curious, you can read about that project in "Emphasis on Business, Technology, and People Cuts Turnaround Time at Hewlett-Packard's Lake Stevens Division." If you'd like to talk about this for your organization, give me a call.

And, when you're thinking about the topics of climate change and oil depletion (or business strategy and customer satisfaction), remember that how we talk about those issues may be as important as what we now think about those issues in achieving good results.

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