There are all manner of leaders and leadership models that range from benevolent and democratic to overbearing and autocratic. Still, it’s hard to find any leader who isn’t surrounded by advisors who are there to help make good decisions. A dictator still has generals; a powerful CEO has a C-suite with its aggregate expertise.
Of course, bringing people together can be messy, time consuming and unproductive. It can, therefore, be tempting as a leader to forgo meetings or to run them as a façade that gets you the result you envisioned from the start. But even if this very real follow-the-leader model is faster and more straightforward, it frequently means that leaders–and their organizations–arrive at bad decisions. That flawed thinking may be seen in invading a neighbouring country or divesting a business unit.
Here are ways that leaders and organizations can tap into the wisdom around them and arrive at better conclusions rather than simply reinforcing their own preordained beliefs.
- Bring in an outsider. In many organizations, the boss runs the meetings. But that’s not always true or wise. Running an effective meeting requires a specific skill set; this is why professional facilitators exist. Like a doctor or pilot, a facilitator has special training–and that person is objective and shouldn’t put a thumb on the scale. That facilitator will also save leaders from what many see as the boring, beneath-me drudgery of preparing for a meeting. And if you can’t hire an outside expert, at least bring in someone neutral. The marketing department could ask someone from accounting; your non-profit board could bring in a peer from a partner organization.
- Understand your why. A lot of leaders go into meetings believing they already know what the best solution is. They skip over asking “What’s the real problem?” and make a beeline to “How can we execute my idea?” If you are, for example, trying to return your faded empire to glory, start with how that can best be achieved rather than assuming the answer is on the battlefield. In another context, an executive may believe a new slate of products is needed. However, if the real question is, “How can we increase customer loyalty and profitability?” then the solution may mean keeping the products but fixing the much maligned tech support hotline.
- Hear what isn’t being said. When someone sees a leader making a bad decision, it’s more the exception than the rule that a subordinate will stand up and dissent. This is true for grizzled veterans and babyfaced junior managers. So if people are unlikely to offer contrary advice, look for ways to anonymize their thoughts. One of the oldest methods is to have them write out ideas on notecards with no names attached. It’s important to give your people a way to share unpopular opinions when doing so can be risky–but those very objections may save your neck.
- Pod up. A meeting of 10 people means there will almost always be one person talking and nine people listening. With 20 people, it’s 19 listening as one person talks, and so on. But if you break big groups into smaller pods–groups of two to five people–and let them discuss the issue and report back, you get very different results. This approach activates many more voices, including the ones who would otherwise not speak up. It lets many more discussions happen, with many more ideas or solutions being considered and debated.
- Create a red team. If we rely on brave individuals to speak up, we may be left waiting forever. Instead, assign a team of people to an adversarial position. The role of this “red team” may be to think of a solution that’s different from the one on the table or they may be assigned to shoot holes in the blue team’s concept. It’s much easier to give a different opinion if it’s your job to do so.
- Picture the problem. Whether a meeting is held in an ornate drawing room or in drab basement, it almost always looks like people just talking to each other. There is rarely any visual record of what’s being said, what the options and objections are, etc. More than someone simply typing up notes and more than scribbling a bit on a whiteboard, using some form of graphic recording or visual facilitation helps keep a group focused and informed during a meeting. It’s a collective memory of what’s being said. As a participant, it’s easier to understand and participate as we see the issue unfold. It also gives participants the freedom to direct their qualms at the visuals and not a specific person.
- Take your time. Yes, some decisions really have to be made immediately. But rather than emailing emergency meeting invitations, many decisions can wait a day or a week. And a lot of decisions are better made over the course of a longer meeting than a rushed one. After all, it’s easy to do a quick, bad meeting–and come to a bad conclusion. However, it takes time to run a good meeting and get things right. Partly it’s making sure the right people are at the table and have the right information. Partly it’s making sure that we really understand why we’re meeting. And then it just takes time to really draw on the knowledge and expertise in the room.
- Slow your roll with breaks. On a related note, consider adding breaks to improve decision-making. Long meetings exhaust people to the point where attendees accept any decision just to be able to leave. Therefore, in one key way, taking a break lets people refocus and take care of distractions like eating or going to the bathroom. But other, less obvious things happen during downtime. People have a moment to plant a seed and ask a colleague if another idea may be better than what’s on the table. Or they may have a chance to whisper a confidence to the boss that they wouldn’t announce to the full group.
- Take steps, not giant leaps. Think of decision-making as a series of steps instead of giant leaps. Maybe you don’t need to decide every facet of a marketing plan right now. Instead, can you think of it as a series of more manageable, digestible meetings that tackle parts of the whole? Organizations frequently try to resolve big issues with big plans and as soon as the first step is implemented, something unexpected happens and it means rethinking the next step anyway. Don’t give up on long-term planning, but there are certainly many cases where it makes sense for a group to decide on a first phase and then plan to come together again to reassess and decide what comes next.
Making good decisions takes more effort than simply being a leader driving through an idea. It’s certainly understandable that leaders often want to skip meetings or simply make them a formality. But with only a few changes, meetings can result in much better decision-making while also saving a leader from fatal missteps that doom a career, an organization or a country.