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7 November 2023

Five dimensions for leadership teams who talk, think, and decide together.  

Written by
Marco Valente

In this blog post I will touch upon five different dimensions that seem important for leadership teams when they face difficult, tough problems, and must make important decisions.

Leadership teams are tasked to make sense of incomplete information and make decisions all the time. If often the work may be effective and easy, there are just as many times when leadership teams feel pressure to perform better, and it’s often hard to even know if they are doing it “right”.
In this post I explore five things to look out for about the ways in which leadership teams think (make meaning), talk, and decide together.

While I promise that I will resist the urge of an all-encompassing framework, I do believe that these dimensions are important to consider–so let’s take a look.

For leadership teams that navigate complex issues that hold no straightforward answer, it might be super helpful to 1) treat an issue at its right level of complexity; 2) make their ‘rituals’ and habits for decision making visible and clear to all; 3) be aware of their ingrained patterns of listening, speaking, and advocating together; 4) consider how are they treating each agenda point during a meeting, depending on the kind of collaboration that is needed; 5) tend to the social fabric of the team.

Let’s jump right in

1) Don’t just problem-hunt: treat problems by their levels of complexity. 
Not all problems are created equal, and treating them as such can lead to suboptimal outcomes. Executive teams must recognize the varying levels of complexity and uncertainty within the issues they confront. Some challenges require in-depth exploration and novel solutions, while others may benefit from a more streamlined approach. We often witness teams rushing into solving a problem as if a straightforward answer exists. However, this hasty approach can lead to narrow problem definition and limited exploration of potential solutions. It is imperative to discern when to delegate, when to troubleshoot, and when to embrace complexity as an opportunity for innovation.

Practices that seem to help:
The Cynefin framework is a great example of a lens that helps you see the difference between different problems according to their complexity and unpredictability.
– A simple approach is to map the nature of the problems discussed alongside the Cynefin map. I have also discussed and compared various theories here.

2) Don’t just decide by silence: rituals and clarity in decision making.
Making decisions, alone or together, is one of those things that often happens at speed and in unconscious ways. Most of the time that serves us well, and speed is not an issue. But I have seen over time how unconscious habits can shape a team’s decision-making rituals, often to their detriment. While simplicity has its place, it is essential to make these ingrained patterns visible, especially when decisions involve significant risks, opportunities, or long-term consequences. Teams should examine their decision-making rituals in context, considering the stakes at hand and the required level of open discussion and disagreement.

Practices that can help:
– Explicitly define decision-making processes within your meeting agendas.
– Consider at what temporal scale the effects of that decision may play out. Today’s problems are largely the results of yesterday’s decisions on what seemed to be a great solution.
– Leverage tools such as Deep Democracy to enhance decision-making effectiveness.
– I am a big fan of Gary Klein’s Pre-Mortem to assess potential risks

3) Don’t just chat the usual way: habits of speaking and listening.
In a now famous social psychology study, researchers tried to find some common factors for the “collective intelligence” of small teams. Small groups were given complicated tasks that they needed to perform well and fast. What they found across many groups was that one of the strongest factors that correlated with an effective small team was equal turn-taking. If people shared airtime more equally, they performed better. An important dimension to look for is that one does not monopolize the conversation.

But sometimes one holds expertise, or strong views, or needs to make a case. So, the second dimension to pay attention to is the polarity of Advocacy and Inquiry: on one hand we speak our mind, make our case, express our views to persuade, and on the other hand we show genuine curiosity and listen with openness. This does not require a team to always strike a balance, but it means that teams benefit a lot from differentiating between their advocacy-moves (I am pushing an idea, making my case, trying to persuade) and inquiry-moves (I listen with real curiosity and openness to what you are saying and am open to novel data). Teams with high achievers may lean a lot on the side of advocacy, because they are often made of people who have been promoted for having a lot of good ideas. The risk is that this may result in people not putting the required effort into truly listening in open-ended ways for novel information.

Practices that can help:
– There are many facilitation techniques that you can use (or even custom design) to ensure a more balanced turn-taking when discussions on a tough topic require hearing a lot of different views without the risk of someone monopolizing the conversation.

4) Do you need to tell us something? Do we need to decide together? Or what else?
Probably the most common mistake in agenda design and in the running of a meeting looks something like this. An item is on the agenda, somebody who holds some info shares a bit of background, and then there is a moment of uncertainty about what to do or even to talk about. Does this need a decision? Do you need a round of views on this? Or something else?

One of the most helpful frames I found in participatory decision making is the “ladder of participation”. A decision simply could be communicated to the constituents, all the way to the other end of the spectrum when a decision is wholly co-created with everybody involved. Over the years I found a simplified way of explaining the ladder to clients that ask me to facilitate an event. I divide the option space into four ways of serving a cake: 1) At the minimum level of engagement, I bring you my cake and I hope you love it–please, I am not really up for hearing any criticism. 2) I can be a bit more open to hear from you, so I serve you my cake, listen to all the views and feedback on how you all liked it, and that will end up informing the next time I create a cake for everybody. 3) I send out a survey in advance to hear about dietary requirements, collect all the input, and create a cake trying to solve for all the needs. 4) We create the recipe together, using the chefs as a resource, in a true co-creation fashion. 

Back to the common problem in meetings, if you think about an agenda item you can ask what type of engagement or input is needed. As you present your agenda point to the leadership team, will you need a round of comments from them (but then you will end up making a decision yourself)? Do you need to gather all concerns and vetoes so that you know that you have a green light? Or, do you need to put something up for discussion, on which you expect the whole team to make a decision in the end? (And if so, how? By majority? By unanimity?)

Ideas that help:
Another classic facilitation framework that is helpful:
– The ladder of engagement is a practical way to consider how participatory (versus one-sided) a decision needs to be. The ladder will help you see the different “layers” of required input, and you will have to judge what is fit for purpose.

5) What is the relationship space that produces our talking and deciding?
This last dimension is a lot more elusive and harder to pin down because it’s relational, and it’s even more present because of its invisibility. You can call it the relational space: a mix of shared history of the team, the sum of the relationships, the human dynamics of the team, and how it operates and listens to itself because of that shared history. What is the social texture? What are the conflicts in the room? Given this history, these relationships, you might want to ask: what conversations and patterns of talking and listening does this social texture favour? What becomes harder to do because of it? 

Ideas that can help:
– Some of my colleagues and friends have been practicing with different tools for mapping relationships within a team.
– At the cost of stating the obvious, you might want to hear the story of a team in the words of various team members themselves. I may not want to try to eliminate biases, but rather acknowledge that given a certain history a team has propensities for some conversations rather than others.

Conclusion: Keeping an awareness of these five dimensions can help your leadership team bring more intentionality to the way you talk, think, and make decisions. By recognizing the complexity of problems, clarifying decision-making rituals, optimizing communication, clarifying expectations, and understanding the team’s social fabric, executive teams can navigate challenging issues more effectively.

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