Have you ever left a conversation confident you agreed on the problem and what to do next, only to discover later that he had a completely different idea? Yeah, me too. Often.
I dislike the oft-told Hindu story of the blind men describing the elephant, each feeling only one part. In truth, I like the story, but I dislike where people usually leave the story. Everyone gets the big Aha that the blind men independently have only part of the story. But what next?
Elephants are a successful species; they were not designed by a bureaucratic committee. Your organization probably looks like an elephant. There are multiple parts with radically different functions, even in “one” body. People closely associated with one part may not know much about other parts.
What could the blind men have done next? What should leaders in your elephantine organization do next? The two keys are (1) build a collective understanding, and (2) dialogue about the future. Said another way, what’s the current reality, and where should we go from here?
Practical tips for building a collective understanding
- Listen as though you will be quizzed on the content. This requires disciplined attention.
- Draw it. I had a virology professor in grad school who insisted we sketch out your understanding. “If you can draw it, I know if you understand it,” he said. As much as I love words, even simple doodles and diagrams can be more powerful – and much less likely to be misunderstood.
- Test it. Ask people to summarize or restate what you have shared. Let them check your summary or restatement of what they shared. Better to be a little embarrassed early than execute a career-ending flub later because someone misunderstood.
Now you have a better, fuller picture of the elephant.
Practical tips for dialogue about the future
Dialogue means mutually sharing perceptions and ideas. Dialogue is not an “I-dictate-you-do-it-now-please” statement. Dialogue requires you start with the idea that the other person knows something you don’t.
- Draw people out with questions which build on what they already shared. Ask for the Why behind the idea. “Can you say more about this?” “What comes next?” “What are the implications of _______?”
- Use tools like SWOT (strength weakness opportunity threat) and failure scenarios to explore potential solutions. The collective work of critically examination helps everyone develop a shared understanding.
- Create a short explanation and a longer explanation. The work of crafting two different versions inevitably helps cement ideas, and gives more modes for critique.
Leaders who are skilled in building collective understanding and facilitating dialogue about the future are organizational treasures.