There are some people who are naturally gifted at understanding a group vibe. These folks always seem to know the “right thing to do” and are often rewarded well for their savvy. And, kind of like the old LIFE cereal commercial, other people begin to depend on the few that have a sense of right and wrong for decisions. When pondering a difficult decision they say, “Let’s get Mikey!” and run off to seek direction as if that one person really knows the answer by some divine right.
In this manner, many people rely on their boss for direction. “We’d better get Jim’s input on this before we proceed!” While Supervisor Jim may have a good sense of what won’t work, it’s doubtful that he will be able to provide much insight on some new idea or direction. Of course his opinion matters and his experience helps, but he probably has no more perspective on a new situation than you (sometimes less). This is a huge threat to innovation, because most controversial decisions are “kicked upstairs” and new ideas are almost always killed.
In reality, great decisions come from being connected to an appropriate set of stakeholders who provide diverse and independent input on a situation.
A great boss should say, “Well, I’m not sure about this… who else have you asked?” This attitude leads people to check things out more broadly before coming to a conclusion. You’re probably thinking, sure I can ask a lot of people and get 20 different opinions, but I’ll still have 20 opinions… there’s no way to please everyone. That might be true, but it’s no reason not to proceed. Since we already know that deciding in a vacuum leads to bad decisions, how might we overcome the problem of having too many opinions?
Ask the Magic 8-ball! (this is a very retro post) Not that Magic 8-Ball… create a new kind of organization chart that helps you magically determine who to ask and what to ask in order to get better decisions. It works like this:
1. Clarify your question (anything can be decided this way, from small to large issues).
2. Determine who cares about this issue (think broadly) or will be impacted by your decision (commonly known as stakeholders).
3. Gather their thoughts on the issue via a series of short 1-1 discussions (build an evolving, proposed solution as you move from person to person, and share it as you go). This approach is better than a group meeting because it avoids group think or an information cascade that bias the outcome.
4. Test your proposal as you gather input (i.e. ask what they like/don’t like, how they would change it and assure them that you’ll share the “final” proposal before you move forward).
There are two valuable benefits of this approach:
1. You get better insight based on the various perspectives and independent reactions.
2. You build support for your issue as the stakeholders get better context and understand your constraints more deeply by participating in the process.
Here’s one way to chart your stakeholders. Each “orbit” around you is an existing group (e.g. “sales team” or “senior leaders” or “women in our company”). Use the orbit to help you identify specific individuals in each stakeholder group and test your breadth and diversity of input. Tap the wisdom of this crowd by sampling a small set (2-3) of people from each orbit, for a total stakeholder group of 12-20 people.