SOMETIMES A LEADER must step in, take charge and call the shots. This directive style of management is vital when a crisis looms or the team shows signs of letting things drift. However, it is not always appropriate. If a strategic planning session has been called, it is more important to listen, stimulate discussion and ideas and give the participants a chance to shine. Directing people to be creative does not work.
To adopt the correct approach, a leader should remember three things when chairing a meeting – people are more committed to ideas and plans they help create; groups can make better decisions than individuals; and people willingly accept responsibility for decisions they have made. Meetings will have a positive atmosphere and enthusiastic attendance if they are guided by these principles. They will also be more likely to achieve results.
To ensure that difficulties are resolved along the way, make use of the following tools.
Root cause analysis
This is a systematic approach to identify the real cause of a problem. Managers often spend time dealing with the symptoms rather than the causes. They need to delve beneath the surface and trace problems to their sources. This is the only way they can come up with a complete and accurate diagnosis.
When using this tool, be sure that your team can distinguish between cause and effect. Tell them that they should identify effects, but focus their attention on dealing with causes. This can be done by taking one of the two approaches – cause and effect charting and fish-bone diagrams.
The first usually requires compiling a list that pairs an effect with its known or presumed cause. This should lead to a detailed debate as the team puts forward ideas and attempts to trace each cause to its origin. The exercise can then be reversed to analyse the range of short- and long-term effects that might result from each of the causes.
The second uses a branching, or fish-bone, diagram to separate the factors that contribute to the problem under discussion. These may include people, machinery, processes, materials, management policies, competition, pricing and systems. Start by writing the observed effect at the top of the diagram and ask the team to brainstorm about all the possible causes, which you can then arrange in order of priority.
When all the problems have been noted down, concentrate on finding solutions. Root cause analysis works well because it forces people to take a close look at the causes and encourages them to find permanent solutions.
Systematic problem solving
This method works best when a large group of opinionated people needs to work together toward a definite outcome. It provides a structured and disciplined approach. It also ensures the situation is analysed in detail and that people do not jump in with half-baked ideas.
The first step is to state the problem and eliminate basic misconceptions. To reinforce the point, get the group to write a summary and place it somewhere prominent. Next, ask the group to describe the ideal situation in which the problem does not exist or to outline how things will be when it is solved. Again, summarize the key comments in a brief statement.
Then ask a series of questions to make the team think analytically. Categorize their observations under headings that’s might be linked to departments or different business processes. Ask for examples and details and do not let anyone get away with superficial answers or general platitudes. You need to find out how people are affected, where the damage occurs and what obstacles there are to sorting things out.
After brainstorming, review the best ideas and see ones that are most applicable. Finally, decide on an action plan and spell out the specific steps for each person or department. Give deadlines and, if necessary, some intermediate targets.
The systematic process may take a little longer, but it creates a sense of discipline and gets to the source of the problem by focusing on workable solutions.
This involves using a matrix to evaluate ideas that are most likely to offer the best outcomes. It is a great way of bringing more objectivity to the decision-making process. What leaders like about it is that it entails judging each proposal against the same criteria.
When using this tool, start by clearly defining the categories in the grid to avoid excessive debate later on about where to place different items. There should be four main categories: easy to do and yields a big improvement; easy but only a small overall improvement; difficult and yields a big improvement; and difficult but just limited progress. After debating ideas, criticisms, suggestions and possible solutions, assign them to one of the four boxes.
On examining the matrix, it will be clear that items in the first category should be implemented immediately. Those in the second category also deserve a high priority. More planning may be needed for ideas that fall in the third category but there should be no delay in getting started Anything that falls into the fourth category can be forgotten.
The decision grid helps to sort out disparate ideas effectively and provides the basis for an action plan at the same time. It also encourages participation and helps build consensus among the team because everyone gets the chance to express an opinion or cast a vote.
All these tools work but the key is to decide on the right one for your meeting. Generally, you will want to get the maximum input from team members and reach decisions in the shortest possible time.
Of course, different tools can be used during a meeting or they can be modified into a form that works best for you. Remember that, in the end, it is not the process but the outcome that matters most.
Reaching a consensus
This is something that must be achieved by any effective leader. Consensus means agreement, and it allows a group to come to a decision. Getting there is essentially a structured process. It moves from identifying the desired goal and setting appropriate time frames to agreeing on the process and analyzing the situation. When options have been discussed, they can be evaluated against fixed criteria before an action plan is finalized. The plan can then be reviewed and a progress report prepared.
When presented with a challenging situation, people tend to look at things rationally. If you really need your team to be creative instead, ask a few hypothetical questions to change their perspective. You might ask them to consider their course of action if enough money was made available or if they owned the company. Alternatively, you might suggest looking at the problem from the customer's point of view or as a major supplier. Everyone will have opinions; you just need to find a way to bring them out.
Three types of conflict can arise when any group gets together to solve business problems. These revolve around people, processes and priorities. Conflict is not necessarily bad. It can add a competitive edge to the meeting, keep participants on their toes and spark new ideas. If you sense conflict, try to find the cause. It may well be the result of a long-running inter-departmental rivalry or a personality clash. If that is the case and there is no realistic chance of resolving things immediately, just move ahead with the meeting.
Make sure you provide specific feedback to your team. Give them facts rather than impressions and gauge what level of detail they expect. Do not keep people guessing about important information or speculating about things you know for certain.