Years ago I was hired by Tandem Computers to join, and a few months later, run the Tandem Executive Institute. Though primarily a marketing program, the goal of TEI was to bring together the best ‘movers and shakers’ of academia, the consulting world, customer senior IT leaders, and senior Tandem technologists to share and discuss the latest trends in a particular industry. Over 2.5 days, of working sessions and social activities, all manner of issues and implications for the future of IT solutions in that industry were shared, debated, and wrestled to the ground. One of the highlights was the kickoff strategic planning session, usually with a business consultant, Ram Charan, who was just starting out on his blockbuster career. The session’s objective was pretty simple – How Do We Reshape the Jungle? Though the focus, of course, was primarily on strategy and the competitive jungle, the concepts and approaches were useful for any kind of jungle. I, of course, inhaled the philosophical concepts and used them for years to orchestrate and facilitate strategy brainstorming sessions at leadership off-sites, annual planning retreats, and quarterly business reviews.
Fast-forward to today and it turns out that really good ideas never die, they just get re-worked and sometimes repurposed to meet the current situation. Today this same simple Socratic approach, which I and my Attentive Leadership© colleague Dana deNault call the Attentive Pause,™ works really well for re-engaging hybrid work teams. It can be used for proactive ‘listening’ to customers and partners, for more traditional ’after-action’ program reviews, for the capturing of ‘lessons learned’, or even (with a few modifications) as an individual self-reflecting leadership assessment exercise. This is because of its ability to engage people in high-quality conversation through both self and team reflection.
At its core are four distinct people engagement processes built around a set of Socratic questions.
1. Gain Alignment on the Positive! – What Worked or is Working and Why?
The best way to start any conversation is with positive feelings that can both be used as an ice-breaker to get things going and capture what the team is most proud of or energized by. The orchestrator trick here is to focus in on nudging people to share their ‘whys’ – which most people don’t answer. This encourages the uncovering of underlying team dynamics and cultural assumptions that are always enlightening.
2. Provide An Appropriate Escape Valve! – What Didn’t Work or Isn’t Working and Why Not?
Next is to shift the conversation to what didn’t’ work so as to uncover the most visible pain points and/or issues that are perceived to have made things far more difficult than they needed to be. Again the orchestrator trick of trying to proactively understand the ‘whys’ helps uncover areas of misunderstanding, lack of alignment, underlying assumptions that turned out not to be true, or just plain mistakes in judgment, resource allocations, strategy, and/ or execution processes.
3. Redirect to Forward Action! – How Could/Can We Reshape the Jungle?
In this phase, the goal is to redirect, what can be a lot of negative energy, into a path forward. Here the orchestrator trick is to frame this question around the idea that if we had unlimited energy, resources, time money, enthusiasm, and authority what would we do differently next time or could we do differently now? It never ceases to amaze me the number and type of great ideas, both strategic and tactical, that usually results if people are given the right space, time, and comfort level to reflect.
4. Focus on What is Achievable! – What New Skills, Capabilities, or Investments Would Help Us Be More Successful?
Alas, most teams don’t have unlimited time, resources, money, enthusiasm, or authority, so it’s important to then focus both on the specifics of what can be achieved by this specific team and on key messages that leadership of this team needs to hear. At this stage, the orchestrator trick is to direct the discussion towards the top issues that if not addressed, it won’t matter what else is worked on. Sometimes if there are a lot of issues previously identified, a separate collaborative exercise will need to be done to ensure consensus as to the top issues that need to be addressed.
Another orchestrator trick is to assess overall sentiments and identify top issues by asking these same questions ahead of time using a Cisco Webex-Slido poll, or any other type of polling or survey software. Though response rates are often not great, such an exercise helps the orchestrator by providing an overall sense of where the team is at strategically, tactically, and emotionally. Sometimes I’ve also found if it is a large team (more than 12-15 team members) to break up the participants into a set of concurrently run focus groups that can then be re-convened in a single ‘main-tent’ session to share results and feedback.
I’ve yet to ever run a session that doesn’t provide incredibly rich and useful feedback for both team members and leaders. Sessions also seem to trigger greater team alignment, engagement, and even fun. This is especially true if conducted periodically, such as quarterly, for standing cross-functional operational teams or long-running strategic project, program, or initiative teams. What also works well is orchestrating a follow-on process of reviewing the final results with senior leaders and getting their feedback and impressions. This helps not just in solidifying organizational alignment, but also can provide useful actionable intelligence for assessing overall team performance. As always, comments and suggestions are welcome.