I had a call with an up-and-coming middle manager who presented a complex situation and then asked a sincere question.
A small cross-functional working group was trying to resolve some interdepartmental workflow and boundary issues. They had been dealing with — and avoiding — the same difficulties and discrepancies for almost 18 months out of fear of impending loss of status, staff, self-determination, etc., for at least some of the group’s members.
“We have the brains” to work on the problem, she assured me. “But how can we break out of our normal constraints to make a new agreement that will let us work together more effectively?”
Step 1: Create the Context
It’s typically a leadership responsibility to create a frame of reference and show how — with real effort and serious collaboration — it’s possible to move forward, even when it’s excruciatingly hard. But if there’s no clear leader — as in this mid-level group of peers — then someone must be willing to step forward to hold the idea of a vision and facilitate it from the group.
So I asked if she could describe a context in which everyone could peacefully and safely coexist without feeling forced to give anything up. I suggested she start by asking the group to look five years into the future, imagining that they’ve already succeeded together despite not yet being able to see the steps forward.
Step 2: Chart a Course Backwards from Success
Then, once they envision a successful future together, the next stage would be for her to help the group chart a course retrospectively. In a reverse journey, there are usually several potential paths that make sense to everyone. After identifying the potential paths, the group can begin to talk through how to make one or more of those paths real.
“I can do that,” the middle manager said. “We all agree that we’re all in the same boat, and we’re committed to working on it. But how do I get the discussion started?”
Here’s how I suggested she position the conversation:
“We can’t accomplish anything we can’t think or talk about, and we need to find ways to think and talk about a situation that doesn’t exist today. How can we put all our brains to work so that we all end up with great jobs in a growing company?
“Let’s try looking five years out, and assume we’ve been wildly successful. What business scenarios would have created the successful outcome — by both market and product line? For now, let’s not worry about how we would get there, or who would do what to whom. Let’s just think about what it would look like to be wildly successful in the future.
“The picture should assume that everything is truly functioning well — at senior levels and at our level — and that we’ve got good mechanics, strong infrastructure, and whatever else we would need to be in that wildly successful place.”
Step 3: Map the Specifics That Will Make Your Imagined Success Real
Once the group brainstorms the ideal 5-year future, the manager can ask people to consider what would have had to be true about the activities, resources, and structure four years out and then three years out, etc. in order to attain their projected success. I suggested she explain further:
“Because there are going to be multiple paths or scenarios, let’s get all the possible scenarios on the board, and then, next time we meet, we can figure out the specifics of our own roles and where we fit.”
“I can do that,” she said. “But what are the things that could blow up in my face?”
Step 4: Make Yourself Vulnerable to Reduce the Group’s Fear of Risks
Most people worry about potential reorganizations in which their job, role, or status may change, so the manager should acknowledge those fears directly to help them continue the conversation:
“Given the way we’re structured today, maybe that’s true. But in the new vision, there are options! Maybe you’d prefer a different role. Or, by then, you might have been hired away by the vendor you work with closely, or you may have moved over to our other division. What role would you want to have? There are always more alternatives than the ones we see based on what’s true today.”
She could also make this declaration:
“We will look for ways to protect you and create new opportunities for you, before we formalize any draft proposal to send out of this group.”
“Okay, I can do that,” she said. “But what about the one or two people who are always too closed or fearful to participate well?”
She could set an example for the group by going first and exposing her own vulnerabilities and potential weaknesses, with an explanation like this:
“I’m going to use myself as an example of how we can put our risky situations on the table without trying to resolve them at the beginning. Instead of saying how I’d like my personal risk to be resolved, let me tell you what I see as the potential risks for me … and that I’m confident that there will be good options for me in this good picture of the future once we start to work on it. Okay, who wants to go next?”
Then she could open the floor to the others.
“That’s good,” she said. “I can do that.”
And so she did. And after a couple of admittedly uncomfortable meetings, this group of peers put together an eminently workable plan, without external leadership, and with great pride and relief.
Onward and upward,