One of the more common complaints I hear from leaders and teams alike is, “nothing ever moves forward around here.” People describe how discussions go on and on, or get revisited in meeting after meeting, without ever leading to a decision. (Or, decisions get made but there’s no follow through. I’ll cover this in an upcoming post.) Six months later, you find yourself saying, “didn’t we make a decision about this already? What ever happened with that?”
This pattern costs teams in terms of lost productivity and missed opportunities. If you’re spending so much time on an issue that could have been dealt with in one discussion, what isn’t getting done? What important issues aren’t getting talked about? This pattern can also be a deadly hit to morale and enthusiasm. Who wants to sit through endless discussions that never seem to lead to action?
Luckily, there are three things you can do as a leader to limit endless discussion and move your team to decisions:
If you’re rigorous about doing these three things in every meeting, you will get more focused discussions, more timely decisions, and more engaged teams.
Have a clear outcome for every agenda item in every meeting. This may seem basic, but I’m continually surprised by how vague meeting outcomes usually are. A typical agenda item might be “discuss the budget process,” with no specific desired results identified. Well, who needs what information about the budget? For what purpose? Is there a decision to be made about the budget process? A much more clearly defined agenda item, with specific outcomes, might be “Budget process: share estimated expenses with Operations and decide timeline.”
Here’s why this matters. First, if you aren’t clear about the outcomes you need from a discussion, it will be much more difficult to know when you’re done, or when you’ve begun to stray from the immediate topic. Teams waste a lot of time this way. Second, if a discussion needs to result in a decision, it’s helpful for team members to know this up front and be clear about what the decision is. That way, they’ll be able to participate in the discussion in a much more focused way, rather than meandering through every possible point of interest about the budget process.
Define the decision making process for every issue that needs a decision. Again, this seems basic, but my experience has been that teams waste time and get embroiled in unnecessary conflict when the decision making process isn’t clear. I still vividly remember an experience from more than 15 years ago, when I was participating on a team of three consultants doing some pro bono work for a local organization. The three of us were talking about next steps with the client, and disagreeing about the best course of action. We got more and more caught in the conflict, until our senior adviser said, “Who’s decision is this?” Once we were all clear that two of us were providing input to the lead on the project, who would then make the final decision, we were able to quickly wrap up the conversation and move on.
So, if you’re leading your team through a decision, ask yourself, Who’s decision is this? Is the team providing input to me and I’ll make the final call? Will we vote? Am I delegating this to the team? Be clear about the process, and communicate it, before you begin the discussion.
Use the “thumbs up” method for assessing your team’s level of agreement on an issue and identifying where to focus discussion. I’ve witnessed countless teams continue to talk on and on about an issue or decision about which they all agree. A variation on this theme happens when team members continually repeat points that have already been made. A colleague and I use a simple tool called “thumbs up, thumbs down” with teams to help them break these time-wasting patterns.
It works like this: at any point in a discussion, the leader or facilitator states the question on the table – for example, “are we all in agreement that one month is sufficient time for the budget process?” Every team member, on the count of three, puts out a hand with the thumb either up or down. Up, obviously, means “I agree.” Down, in this method, means “I have something to say about this.” What I have to say could be the reason I disagree, or something I need more information about, or anything else that’s relevant to making a good decision about the question.
The thumbs up method is meant for gathering information and focusing discussion, not for making decisions. As leader, you still need to follow through with whatever decision-making process you’ve identified for the issue on the table. As a tool, though, the thumbs up method accomplishes two things very effectively:
If your team struggles to turn discussions into decisions, these three methods will help you stop wasting time and effectively move to action instead.
Your turn: What are your frustrations with moving teams from discussions to decisions? What have you found that works?