The meeting is on your calendar but you don't want to go. You went last week and the week before. The players are the same. They'll be there to raise the same concerns. Again. Your team is stuck in an endless discussion loop, always weighing options and never deciding.
People say they hate meetings, but what they really hate is going to the same meeting twice. If meetings really were moments when smart people hash out on idea, narrow to a couple of options, then make a decision, everyone would love meetings. They'd be exciting. Each one would be a new episode instead of a rerun.
The reluctance to make decisions is a symptom of bigger organizational issues and it pervades most business. Do you have a standing meeting when the same essential topic has been discussed for weeks? Are there things on your collective "to do" list that never seem to get off the starting block? Are there big initiatives from your strategic plan that have been lingering with no real progress for years? If your answer is yes to any of these, there are unmade decisions that are holding your team back.
Decisions linger when there are concerns that are either unstated or unrecognized. Fear holds people back from committing one way or another. This can cause change to come at a glacial pace -- or not at all.
You can save your sanity and be a hero to your work team by changing this dynamic, one decision at a time. And you don't have to have a fancy title to do this. No official management position is required. All you need is a seat at the table.
The mistake most people make in leading decision-making is that they think they need the right answer. In fact, moving your organization forward is rooted in asking more thought-provoking and definitive questions.
Questions cause people to think, clarify their position, and unearth concerns. Asking questions brings the issues to the surface so you can deal with them and move on.
If your team is stuck in a discussion loop, here are the simple steps you can take to move them forward.
First, call it like you see it. Exactly when and how you do this will depend on your role. If you're in charge, you can simply tell people that the next meeting will result in a decision. If you're a newbie on the team, you offer to draft the agenda. You then build in time limits and outcomes for each issue. If you get pushback from someone in charge, you can ask about their concerns. Are there other factors we're not aware of? Are there risks we haven't discussed? Has the problem changed? Getting everyone on the team to name their concern is the first step to addressing it.
Next, take a couple of minutes to ask some go-to questions similar to the examples below. This set comes from "Beyond Measure: the Big Impact of Small Changes," by Margaret Heffernan. These are general enough to work in almost any business setting and will help your group get to the heart of any concerns.
- "Who needs to benefit from our decision? How?
- What else would we need to know to be more confident of this decision?
- Who are the people affected by this decision; who have the least power to influence it?
- How much of this decision must we make today?
- Why is this important? And what's important about that?
- If we had infinite resources- time, money, people- what would we do? What would we do if we had none?
- What are all the reasons this is the right decision? What are all the reasons it is the wrong decision?"
Listen as the group responds, then draft a statement that simplifies the choice between the options on the table. About halfway through the allotted meeting time, find your opening and say, "After listening to the discussion, it sounds like we're choosing between option 1, 2, and 3. Are there any other scenarios I missed?" If there are none, ask each participant to weigh in on their preferred option -- typically starting with the most junior ranking person in the room. (Going the other way and starting with the most senior will typically result in a chorus of agreement. This isn't the best scenario when trying to encourage diversity of thought and opinion.)
Once the preferred option is identified, steer the discussion to identifying the very next step needed to move forward. The first step should be clear and simple and something ideally that can be done between that moment and the next meeting.
By playing a more active role in meetings, you can end the discussion loop and help your organization reach decisions more effectively. You do this by asking more thought-provoking questions and polling for the preferred option. If you're able to execute these steps consistently on issue after issue, you will build a reputation as a leader and someone who gets stuff done.
The discussion loop is an unfortunate but common condition in our businesses. But stopping the unproductive cycle requires just one person willing to assert themselves as decision facilitator.