I was working with a group, and we were starting a new project. In this particular case, one group thought the project was for one set of users with a scope set. Another thought the goal was different, and yet another thought there was an other stakeholder.
I want to focus on the folks who thought there was a different goal. See, in this case, the goal one group thought was to deliver a solution that would generate new revenue, the other thought the purpose was to retire an existing system. These aren’t inherently at odds with one another, but very different decisions get made when those goals exist independently.
Eventually, this reaches the point where we needed to get clarity from the leaders involved. When we laid out the options, and one group said they couldn’t retire the old system as the leader wanted, they said, “I never said that!”
Let’s rewind months prior to a set of conversations that likely happened, translated, and further interpreted. This one leader probably said something like, “It’d be great if we could be off these old systems soon.”
That was heard, then communicated down as, “They want us off the old systems.”
Then further down, this was communicated as, “We must get off these old systems.”
This pattern happens in every group I’m with, where people place extra emphasis on what a leader says when it isn’t there. The problem is that leaders often are unaware of how their words sound, and their reports less aware of the intent.
So what can we do?
I’ll start with what many companies love to say, but infrequently do. Try pulling that leader aside and offering some feedback. It doesn’t have to be very formal. You can start with, “Hey, you said something in that meeting, and I wanted to playback to you and see if that is right.”
If they can spare a few minutes, many leaders will happily take the time to clarify and be glad you took the time too. What tends not to go so well is that disconnect that tends to happen when you play things back.
More often than not, the leader will realize you heard something different, and also, a lot of essential context was missing that would help. Usually that is enough to put these statements off to the side where they belong, and begin to work with a leader slowly about this, “I heard you say…”
If I’m in the room and detect one of these statements that sound like people will interpret it as a mission, I’ll quickly follow up with a simple request.
“How does that rank compared to the other things you have going on right now?”
Without exception, the answer has always been, “Oh, the very bottom!”
That one request to rank that statement against all the other things in flight puts these little statements where they belong, like a child’s Christmas wish.
If I can’t quite catch things early on and things progress to the point where a statement has turned into a mission that is now affecting projects, I’ll begin to ask:
“At what cost?”
In other words, when someone puts the statement out, “We have to retire those systems.” I’ll ask, “At what cost?”
It turns out many people haven’t tried to put what has felt like an absolute mission into relative terms, but there is always a trade happening, and this forces that conversation.
Once we can talk about what we are trying to gain and what we are willing to lose, that usually brings up the fundamental nature that we aren’t sure if this is what the leadership wanted, and we can ask.
By the time things get here, a lot of organizational machinery is in gear, and it is a lot harder to stop it than it is to prevent it. So if you find yourself wanting to use this question, realize it may be the first of many conversations to help people come to terms with the assumptions everyone is making about what the goals are.