How to ensure the best ideas win, not just the loudest. (Driving for Alignment)

How to ensure the best ideas win: Do you like meetings? I mean, honestly… do you?  At one time, I often felt that meetings were the bane of my existence.  We would spend an hour talking in circles, and walk out in more disagreement then when we walked in.  And in the rare instances I felt like my team walked out with a decision, I would later find out that people just hid their disagreements or felt railroaded into a decision they didn’t support.

Research and surveys show that I am not alone in my reluctance as 71% of senior leaders say their meetings are unproductive and inefficient, and 65% say that meetings prevent them from completing their work.  At the same time, research has shown that meeting length and frequency has increased over the past 50 years, and senior leaders now spend 58% of their work week in meetings.

Inefficient meetings have a huge impact

What is truly unsettling thing is that these meetings are not only a waste of time: they also have a huge monetary cost.  It is estimated that US companies waste $37 billion in unnecessary meetings every year.  Let that sink in for a second.  US companies waste $37 billion from having unproductive meetings! And this figure does not include the impact and costs of people walking out of meetings misaligned or without a clear decision.

So, what can we do about it? The best approach I have seen so far is used by my current company, Unity Technologies.  Driving for Alignment is a foundational skill of our culture. Every employee takes part in a program which includes: “Driving for Alignment,” Active Listening,” “Delivering Fierce Feedback,” and “How to Build Relationships.”

It is our hope, that by ensuring every employee (from our C-Levels to our frontline) has these skills, we can maintain our culture where everyone feels like owners, where they put our customers first, and where bold ideas become a reality.  But before we dive into the practical skills of conducting effective meetings that drive alignment, we need to ensure we have the right mindset.

The Driving for Alignment Mindset

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Having the right mindset is critical.  In fact, I often think having the right mindset is even more important than having the right skills.  Consider this:  would you rather have a colleague who truly believes in aligned decision making, but just doesn’t have the right skills? Or would you rather have a person who knows the right way to conduct effective meetings that drive alignment, but just doesn’t care to invest the time and effort to do so?

Personally, I’d rather have the person who believes in the importance of aligned decision making, but just doesn’t know how.  This type of person will try and figure out their own ways of reaching alignment. Even if they don’t have the right skills, they are still trying to do things in the right way.

When it comes to Driving for Alignment, we believe there are two main mindsets that you need to hold:

Believe you will leave with better ideas than you contributed

In all likelihood you are a humble and curious person, otherwise you probably wouldn’t even be interested in reading this article.  It’s important to nurture these qualities as many intelligent people can walk into the pride trap where they think they are usually the ones who are right.  They have the right take on identifying the problem.  They have the right set of data that supports their opinion.  Their idea is the right solution that would be best for everyone.

When you think you are “right,” this automatically makes everyone else “wrong.”  And once you decide that other people are wrong, then you will stop actively listening to other people, or you will ignore data that runs contrary to your perspective. This is when a bad decision is made, or even worse, a decision is made that everyone on the team secretly wants to fail.

We recommend having a mindset where you enter meetings curious about your colleagues’ perspectives. Believe that your perspective is just one of many, and that by carefully listening and understanding the perspectives of your colleagues, you will finish the meeting with a better idea than when you started it. 

You are here for the greater good, not just your agenda

Office politics is just a fact of life that we all have to deal with.  In an unhealthy culture, it can lead to scheming or planning on how to win at the expense of other colleagues or departments.  But even in a healthy culture, office politics can undermine collaboration.  Budgets, resources, and focus from senior leadership are finite.  Sometimes your great idea cannot be supported at the same time as someone else’s, and in these situations, it is not surprising that a person wants to defend their idea.

We need humility and openness to consider that our idea might not be the best one for others.  By only thinking about what works for us, we risk creating problems, not only for ourselves, but for other areas of our companies.  We have all been on the receiving end of a malfunctioning process or a useless piece of technology because a person or team, earlier in the decision making process, made a decision without factoring in the rest of the consequences.  

Driving towards aligned decisions is not about winning.  It is about making decisions for the greater good of the team, the company, and the customer.

Driving for Alignment Skills: Frame, Build & Credit, Align, and Validate

How to ensure the best ideas win, not just the loudest. (Driving for Alignment) - image on http://cavemaninasuit.com

The concept of Driving for Alignment may be simple to grasp, but the skills involved can be difficult to master.  The 4 actions of Frame, Build (and Credit), Align, and Validate might seem like common sense to you, and in truth they are common sense actions.  But as you are learning more about them, reflect and truly ask yourself if you consistently practise them in your meetings and when talking with your colleagues.

Frame

It is impossible to align around a decision if you don’t all agree on what you are talking about.  Now that might sound silly, but think back to how many times you’ve been in a meeting where people seem to be arguing about two completely different topics.  In order to have an effective meeting and to reach some sort of aligned decision, you need to frame the meeting so that all participants know what will be discussed.

In an ideal world, you would frame a meeting when you are sending out the invitations, so that the participants understand what will be discussed and come prepared.  Not everyone can quickly absorb surprise topics, and most would benefit from being able to gather their thoughts on a topic before discussing it.  But for spur of the moment meetings or conversations, it is still possible to frame what is to be discussed right at the beginning.

Framing (or better yet Re-Framing) can also be used throughout the meeting as a way to bring the conversation back on track.  Too many meetings are derailed because people go down a rabbit hole, and miss the overall purpose of the meeting.  This doesn’t mean you can’t explore interesting tangents or new information.  In fact, you might learn that the original frame of the meeting doesn’t work based on some new information, and in these occasions , it is important to Re-Frame around a new purpose.

Here are some example ways to Frame or Re-Frame your next meeting or important discussion:

  • The purpose of today’s meeting is to discuss X, and ideally, we can come up with a solution for problem Y.
  • I think we are getting side-tracked by discussing Z.  While I think Z is important, I want to make sure we spend enough time discussing X.
  • While we originally said we could decide on X, Petra has brought up a key point that X is dependent on Y.  So, let’s re-frame today’s meeting for deciding on Y.

Build (and Credit)

The best ideas are not built in isolation.  They are built by teams listening to each other’s perspectives, and then combining their different perspectives.  Unfortunately, most people treat decision making like a win-lose debate, and this is a quick way to make poor decisions.  Instead, we recommend you build on others’ ideas.  As people share their perspectives see where you are aligned, and then try to add to or enhance their ideas.  In this way you work together to build a great idea, and avoid competing against each other’s ideas.

But building on someone else’s idea isn’t enough.  You also need to credit them.  Have you ever been in a meeting where you express an idea that you think is good, but no one reacts to it.  And then 15 minutes later someone else shares almost the same idea, and your colleagues treat that person like they are a genius?  This can be incredibly frustrating and demotivating which is why we recommend the step “Build and Credit.”  You not only build on the great ideas of someone else, you also give them the recognition they deserve.

Here are some example ways to “Build” on other people’s ideas and ultimately “Credit” them:

  • Everyone seems to love your idea, Sam. What if we combined it with Suzie’s X idea?
  • I’d like to build on Leo’s idea.  I think if we can factor in Y issues to his idea, we could have something special.
  • Li, that’s a great idea.  Lukas, how would you suggest your idea about X might work with Li’s idea. 

Align

Ultimately, the goal of “Driving for Alignment” is to reach a common viewpoint on what is the best idea.  Instead of trying to reach alignment by debating the merits of each idea, we recommend as a first step, figuring out where your different ideas are already aligned.  I have been in too many meetings where 2 people are vigorously debating their ideas like it was life or death.  But what was infuriating was that the 2 people were 95% aligned, and they were just debating the last 5%. 

By knowing where the team is already aligned, you can spend your meeting discussing the important differences.  Often times, I even recommend re-framing the meeting.  “It seems like we are all aligned that we need to do X and Y, but it seems like we still need to debate if we want to do A or B.  Why don’t we spend the rest of the meeting discussing A and B?”  Re-framing your conversation after you have partially aligned is a key way to make sure you are discussing the critical issues, and ultimately reach the best idea.

Here are examples of ways to align people around some aspects of an idea:

  • We seem to be aligned on points A and B, but not C.  Is that right?
  • Ideas A and B seem closest to the needs of our customers.  Is that how the rest of you see it?
  • I feel like we are all dancing around the same idea.  I think we have landed on ABC.  Is that right?

Validate

In order to make sure that the idea on which everyone aligns is actually the best idea, we recommend that you validate the decision.  Validation means that you stress test the idea, especially when it comes to testing whether it is relevant and doable.  Some people call this playing the devil’s advocate, but I don’t think this name does the validation step justice.  Playing the devil’s advocate can sometimes come across as being unnecessarily provocative or argumentative in opposing an idea,  but validation is much more than this.

Validation is about trying to find the best idea for the greater good, and it is a critical step in avoiding the biggest pitfall in team decision making: Groupthink.  Groupthink is when a team quickly aligns around an idea, and any contrary information or differing ideas are silenced.  Even when they think it’s a bad idea, team members will go along with it, because of their desire to conform or be in harmony with the group decision.   In essence, they don’t want to rock the boat.  The “Validate” step gives people the cover for the need to question the team’s ideas.  Without validation, we risk choosing the easiest idea, but with validation, we are more likely to figure out the best idea.

Here are some example of ways that you can validate the ideas of your team, without coming across as the pain-in-the-neck who questions everything:

  • What do we lose by not going with X idea?  How can we build that goodness back into Y idea?
  • What are the potential risks and downsides of the proposed solution?
  • Will this idea have adverse impact on other teams within our company?

Driving for Alignment doesn’t mean Driving for Consensus

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One of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to Drive for Alignment is to try and achieve consensus amongst the team.  Driving for Alignment is about trying to find the best ideas that lead to the greater good, but this doesn’t mean the best idea is something everyone agrees with or something that doesn’t negatively impact others. 

For example, the best idea may be to shut down a project or in the extreme shutter a division of a company.  It shouldn’t be surprising that people will fight these ideas, and trying to achieve consensus is pointless.  And even if you do somehow achieve consensus, I would be worried that it was only at the surface level, and that people had hidden their true perspectives in the meeting. 

Sometimes coming to an aligned decision will be easy, and other times it will be hard and people will disagree with it.  In the difficult situations, it is your job to make sure that everyone is listening to all of the different perspectives and that everyone feels like their perspective has been heard.  For most people, being given the opportunity to be heard will help them accept if their idea isn’t chosen.

Disagree and Commit

For really tough or contentious decisions, we recommend the tactic “Disagree and Commit.” Made famous by the company, Amazon, this tactic is a simple rule where everyone on the team is given an opportunity to share their perspective. And even if the person disagrees with the final decision, they still need to commit to it as a team.  Hence, disagree and commit. 

While some people struggle with not having their ideas selected, it is important to remember that it’s not about your personal agenda anymore, it’s about aligning around the greater good.

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