Saturday, January 26, 2008

Listening to the Lone Dissenter

While leading City Harvest, I focused on creating a culture that fostered continuous improvement. One key strategy was to listen to the lone dissenter in a discussion. 10 out of 10 times, we ended up with a better decision, project, plan or outcome.

It's a very simple strategy that requires patience from all team members, and a disciplined consistency from the team leader. Patience is required because often teams come to a point where almost everyone agrees on a solution and those in agreement want to use "majority rules" and move on. The last thing they want to do is listen to the one person who seems unwilling to go along with the group. That's why the leader must consistently use the strategy and resist the pressure to close discussion.

I often implemented this strategy when my team and I were deciding whether and when to start a project, or to change some kind of personnel practice. My team of 7 or 8 people would discuss the desired outcome and how to implement it for a period of time. Someone would keep notes and usually I facilitated the discussion to reach conclusions and keep us on track toward making a group decision.

At a certain point, it was obvious that people were repeating points and we were ready to see if we could end the discussion with a decision. When I polled team members, I encouraged them to voice any objections or hesitations. If someone did so, then the group gave that person the floor to lay out his or her concern or issue.

The group then discussed those objections or hesitations, seeking to resolve them satisfactorily. Usually, this meant some kind of revision in the decision or plan - its content, its timing, the delivery mechanism, communication methods, people responsible, feedback mechanisms, etc. Sometimes, we realized we were not ready to make a decision and needed more research. Interestingly, the subsequent discussion usually took far less time than people feared - another 20 to 30 minutes. This extra time saved us from potential ruinous results.

Whatever the result, it was improved dramatically by listening to the lone dissenter. Our strategy demonstrated respect for everyone's opinion, made room for the less vocal team members to make their points, and allowed someone who thought more deliberately to raise questions. By not rushing to follow a "majority rule" decision, I ensured that our decisions were as thoughtful and effective as possible.

I intend to provide an example of how this worked so will have to do some research into my old notes. In the meantime, give it a try!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Break It Down: Planning for a Cascade Effect

Identifying what it will take for YOU to achieve your goal is reverse engineering – identifying the steps you’ll need to take to reach your desired goal and get the results you want. Break down each project into a series of actions and intermediate outcomes.

It’s like building a house: first you dream about what you want and an architect translates it into a drawing. Then the architect creates a blueprint that clarifies the specific dimensions and characteristics of the house. Once that’s done, the architect creates specifications: the exact materials and products to be used, weight loads, wiring and lighting required, plumbing needs, etc. – what the contractor needs to actually build the house. The contractor then has a whole series of activities to plan, from laying the foundation to erecting the shell to installing all the building systems to putting in all the finishes inside and out, and finally landscaping.

The key to all this is that they all work backwards from the ultimate goal – a fabulous new move-in ready house – to develop the plan of action for achieving that goal. Each step depends on a preceding one, until ultimately we arrive at the beginning action. What is the first thing that needs to be done to build the house?

You wouldn’t start to build a house by digging a hole in the ground and going from there – even though digging a hole in the ground is the first concrete step in building a house. You would need to know how big a hole – how deep, how long, how wide – and how to dig the hole – is a back-hoe enough or is a bull-dozer needed? That depends on what kind of soil there is, what currently is on the land (trees to be removed? An existing structure? Nothing?), how big the hole needs to be, and how fast the digging has to be done.

Envisioning the outcome isn’t enough, either. To build a house, we will have to take action: actually dig the hole, pound nails, order lumber, hire crews, check work, make decisions, spend money and time.

Similarly, every project we do will have a series of steps, involving decisions and actions. This form can help you work backwards from your goal, thinking through all the intermediate outcomes and actions needed to get you to that goal, all the way to the first thing you need to do.

If I want X, what will it take to get it? To get X, I have to do A. To be able to do A, I need to do B. To be able to do B, I need to do C. To be able to do C, I need to do D. And so on it goes.

Obviously, writing it down is essential. On a blank sheet of paper, make a simple chart divided into two colums and several rows. The first column is for your labels, and the second is for you to write in. In the top left box, write "Outcome." This is for the goal or end result you desire. In the box below, write "Action." This is for the step you must take in order to achieve the action listed above. The third box in column one is labeled "Outcome," the fourth is labeled "Action" and so on down the column.

To fill in the form, start with the final outcome or end result you want. For example, I want to have a beautiful perennial garden that blooms all season. The action immediately before that is to plant diverse perennials. The outcome before that is to have the perennials to plant. The action needed is to buy the perennials. The outcome before that is to have a source of the plants. Thus, I need to select a source. To make a choice, I need a few options. So my action is to identify several nurseries. To identify nurseries that have perennials suited to my growing climate (outcome), I need to do two things: identify my growing climate, and do some research on nurseries.

Now I might divide each box in the second column into two pieces, to follow each thread. For thread one, the outcome of knowing my growing climate requires that I look on websites or in magazines for this information. And to find those sources (outcome), I need to use an on-line search engine and/or go to the library or bookstore. To have a successful search, I need to simply know my state and zip code.

For thread two, I can research nurseries in two ways: talking to friends who garden, or finding them through reference guides. Knowing friends who garden (outcome) means asking people if they garden (action). Having useful reference guides means listing possible sources of information about nurseries - the internet, a local website, the Yellow Pages, gardening magazines, or some of the newer GPS devices that have local sites loaded in to their memory. Of course, there's always driving around the area to see what nurseries might exist. That's a little hit-or-miss, although perhaps a great way to orient yourself to a new community and a serendipitous way to find fun things in and about your area.

Practically any goal you have can be achieved simply by identifying the small steps that go into reaching that goal. In this way, you can break down something daunting into manageable, doable actions. So instead of being afraid you'll never achieve something, you can remove the fear factor and empower yourself to do just about anything you want to do.