Have you ever been in a meeting where it became obvious that people had different views of why they were there?
Have you ever been in a working session where it was clear people were working on different things and at cross-purposes?
Have you ever assumed that everyone understood a problem the same way, only to discover that there were many different interpretations of the problem?
Of course you have. We all have. We all go into situations where we assume that what we know, others know. We assume others share our view of the situation. We assume others have the same objectives and the same understanding. We assume what’s in our head is in everyone’s head. It’s so obvious to us, it must be obvious to everyone. When we assume these things, we are usually surprised. And we’re not as productive as we could be.
The most productive meetings, collaborations, problem-solving sessions and important conversations occur when we assume nothing about shared objectives, information or perceptions and instead build common purpose step by careful step.
I recently led a meeting of colleagues to make progress on a problem we’d all been talking about for a long time. Everyone used the same words to describe the problem and frustration was mounting that we’d never taken the time to truly tackle it. Rather than assuming we all knew why we were there, I took the time to explain the objectives for the meeting, why we were gathering now on this topic, what we hoped to accomplish and what would be our next steps following the meeting. As is always the case, this clarity prompted questions. It turned out some people had different ideas of our purpose, and alternative suggestions as to how we should proceed following this meeting. We took the time to talk all this through before we got to the substance of the discussion. Our meeting could not be as productive as necessary until we were all explicitly on the same page about why we were there, what we hoped to accomplish, and what would come next. Never assume. Explain.
Because we all had been using the same words to describe the problem, it would have been easy to assume we all agreed on the problem. Instead, I asked every meeting participant to describe their definition of the problem and their view of the consequences of our failure to solve it. I didn’t ask leading, close-ended questions. For example, I didn’t ask: “Do we all agree the problem is X?” I didn’t ask: “Don’t you think if we did Y we could make great progress?” And I didn’t ask: “Is there anyone here who disagrees that the problem is Z?”
I asked open-ended questions intended to encourage people to fully articulate their point of view.
- “How would you define the problem?”
- “How do you think this problem impacts us?”
- • “What do you think are the most important first steps to resolve the problem?”
Everyone had ample time to thoughtfully answer and then to engage with each other. Never assume. Explore. Does this take time? Yes. Does the time taken pay off later? Absolutely. As we left the meeting, people were energized about the work ahead, educated by the perspectives of others, and aligned around shared purpose.
Carly Fiorina has spent decades building diverse, high-performance teams and advising Fortune 500 executives on strategy, culture, and communications. Today, as the Founder and Chairman of Carly Fiorina Enterprises, she counsels companies to create an equitable workplace culture, build high-performance teams, foster female leaders, enable diversity and inclusion, and teach the fundamentals of leadership. For more information, visit www.carlyfiorina.com