Groups often fear working on a consensus basis because they are afraid of the time it will take to make a decision. They are afraid of being caught in a spiral of discussion, more discussion and yet more discussion and no resolution. They may be afraid of this because they may assume that everyone has to be 100% behind a decision for the group to move ahead.
When a group is considering an issue, ideally there is a discussion that considers a wide range of options. Then the discussion comes to a clear end point with a decision. Once a decision is made the group moves to action. This image illustrates this ideal.
Americans tend to be quite action oriented and in our culture we can get impatient easily, wanting to jump to a decision. And thus more frequently it feels like this:
Part of the group thinks a decision has been made and others thinks the item is still up for discussion. And still others may not be clear what decision is on the table.
Once the group is clear about what they are deciding, a useful tool for testing the level of agreement is the consensus continuum.
Applying the continuum
I was part of a board that used this continuum when it was deliberating about a very challenging situation. There was no good solution to the high stakes problem we were facing. There were only several bad choices to choose from. Which bad choice was better than the other? We deliberated for a long time. Deliberation happened over multiple meetings, over multiple weeks. Ultimately we were able to make a decision that everyone in the group could live with even if it was not their preferred option by using this tool.
How many people you need to have in the 1-3 zone will depend on how high stakes a decision it is. Using this as a check in can move along even decisions that may seem like they are low stakes but are taking a long time. You may find it is higher stakes for some in the group.
Making time for process
Groups often want to jump to action and resist taking time on ‘process’ issues. Being clear about how the group makes decisions is a core process issue that rarely gets discussed. Taking the time can actually save the group both time and angst in the long run.
Have a group that needs help with how they are working together? Reach out for a coaching session.
Despite the popularity of Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why,” leadership groups often have trouble staying at that level. Think of a time when your board or leadership team was meeting and someone brought up a new idea for a new program. It’s likely that without a lot of discussion about why you should or should not do the program, the discussion jumped into how you would do the program.
Is this new initiative strategically important?
I was working with an organization and another organization had come to them with an idea for a partnership. The senior leadership charged with managing the strategic direction of the organization assembled to consider the proposal. Rather than staying in the ‘why’ – why should we enter into this partnership? Is it in alignment with our mission? Does it support the goals articulated in our strategic plan? Will it help us reach a key audience? Will it build our brand and reputation? Does it capitalize on our core competencies? Will it help us strengthen key capacities? Will we be filling an important gap in the market? Instead they skipped right over those questions and had a long discussion about how the partnership could work. Who would be involved? When would be good timing to get started? So the key question of whether the partnership was important for the organization was missed.
Why are we working on this project?
Too often when teams start working together on a project they make the same mistake. Without talking about why they are assembled, what is important about the project, what they each bring to the project, they jump to project management. They start outlining and assigning tasks. This is why I find the Drexel-Sibbet model of team development particularly useful. It reminds the group to start with why. Its second stage considers who is in the group and takes some time to get to know each other. Only after why and who has been answered is the group truly ready to shift into what and how.
So the next time you are starting something new – considering a new idea for a new program or initiative or starting a new project, spend some time discussing the why. Why is this important for us? And if there is not enough ‘there, there’ when you answer why, remember you can also choose not to pursue the new idea!
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Your organization is designed for a specific mission with the goal of having an impact in the world. The world is different in some way because of the work you do. Homeless people are cared for and fed who wouldn’t be otherwise. First generation college students increase their understanding of financial aid so that they can make better decisions about paying for their education. They’d make costly mistakes without you. Emerging leaders in marginalized communities are supported to strengthen their self-awareness and skills so that they can advocate for their community. You undertake the activities and programs with the aim of furthering your mission. Have you taken the time to look at how all the pieces fit together and whether it all adds up?
Creating a picture
When you create an impact map, you create a visual representation of what your organization is doing and how it creates the impact you want to have in the world. It makes clear how you leverage resources and organizational capacities to deliver your core strategies to achieve tangible results. By creating an impact map, you are able to create a model that illustrates your beliefs about the change you are trying to make.
It also can help you uncover the assumptions inherent in your programs and activities. You can also describe what short, medium and long term outcomes you believe result from each program or activity. A good question for identifying assumptions is to ask, “what has to be true for this outcome to happen?” These essentially are the hypotheses embedded in your program design.
Are there gaps in logic?
Once you have created your map and identified the assumptions inherent with each program, you can consider how you might measure whether you are having the impact you are aiming for. An impact map can also uncover gaps in your logic.
Creating shared understanding
Engaging in the process of impact mapping can be a useful exercise for staff and/or your board. Have small groups create an impact map of your organization. Then compare the maps. Do people envision the same organization? Where are the gaps in knowledge and understanding?
Once you have agreement on your organization’s impact map, take it one step further. Have a conversation about the implications of the map. Ask questions such as:
Think this might be helpful for your organization and would like some help? Inquire about a coaching session.
Once upon a time there was a boss who wanted to be everyone’s friend. As he tried to be nice, he was indirect in his communication. He wanted everyone to feel like they were on equal footing. He rarely gave direction. Unfortunately for the boss, this left his team members frustrated rather than happy. He actually did have specific ideas about how he wanted certain things done. But team members would not find this out until after they had invested a fair amount into the project.
How far can I go?
Clarity in scope and purpose would have helped this situation a lot. As a manager, you will frequently hear the recommendation to delegate. When you delegate tasks or projects to your team are you clear how far they can go? Do they know the parameters they are working within? Or are you erring on the side of Mr. Nice Guy.
Clarity helps build trust
I am certainly not advocating being a jerk. But without clarity, team members may invest a lot of time pursuing an approach that you are not happy with. Alternatively they may be asking for your direction and input in a case where you do not have strong feelings about an approach. Or you may have sought input and were going to make the final decision but your team got the impression that they would be part of the decision making as well. Each of these instances can create frustration and breed mistrust.
A useful tool for thinking about this issue is Tannenbaum and Schmidt’s delegation continuum.
There could be a step beyond the end of ‘subordinate-centered leadership’ in which the boss defines the end goal and asks the team to define the parameters and scope of the project.
Try it with your team
Have a discussion with your team. Where do you usually fall on the continuum? In what instances do they find the scope of the delegation confusing or unclear? What could bring more clarity to those instances?
When you are delegating a larger project, working with the team to create a project charter can help the group start with greater certainty. This charter should include project goals, roles and responsibilities, timelines, budget. The team should also spend time as they get started talking about how they will work together, how they will make decisions and what skills and talents each person brings to the team.
Lacking shared understanding
So often the challenges at work come down to the lack of shared understanding. How can you use these tools to bring greater shared understanding to how your team and your direct reports work together?
Having team challenges? Inquire about a free coaching call.
The primary mistake that organizations make in strategic planning is failing to fully engage their constituents to get buy in to the plan. “Getting buy in” too often takes on the meaning of, “I have told you what I want and what we will be doing” and then I assume because I have ‘communicated’ that to you, you are by definition ‘bought in.’ I write more extensively about this mistake in this blog post.
Other mistakes include a plan that is based on anecdotes rather than data as well as a plan that is not truly grounded in reality.
Anecdotes rather than data
How are you integrating reliable data into your process? When you are doing your scan of the external environment, are you just relying on the observations of those in the room at the planning retreat, or are you doing some searching for research on current trends in your field?
Think about asking 1-2 people working on your strategic plan to gather reports and research, summarize it and share it with the larger group. What data do you already have available about your organization? And how are you using it to inform your thinking? What data is missing? How can you gather it? Your up front data gathering with constituents that could include interviews, focus groups and/or surveys will also give you a wider and more grounded view. Be aware of not letting your thinking be swayed by the most recent member/constituent conversation you have had.
Pie in Sky Planning
Organizations usually look for ways to stretch themselves and set ambitious goals during a strategic planning process. But when it is going too far? When your strategic planning group gets caught up in grand visions, the plan can have little connection to reality. Have you considered what it will take to get from here to your vision? Does the plan just add new things? Have you made decisions about what you are going to stop? When your goals are so lofty or such a departure from what you are currently doing, the plan is likely to end up just talk.
Ground your thinking in research and data, create stretch goals that are also realistic to achieve. These leading practices will help ensure that your plan will be put into action rather than just sitting on the shelf.
Thinking of engaging in a strategic planning process with your organization and want to learn more? Get in touch with me for a complementary coaching session.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.