Deja Vu – Haven’t We Had This Conversation Before?

May 17, 2012 by  Filed under: Management 

Do you have a sense of deja vu when you attend meetings to solve age-old problems? You probably think to yourself “Haven’t we had this conversation before? Didn’t we come up with these same solutions? Why are we here again, talking about the same thing?”

You are not alone. I facilitated a workshop recently where one of the objectives was to identify and determine solutions to the major issues the team felt were preventing them from being successful. In my preparation I reviewed the agendas and objectives from the previous two workshops that the team had attended over the past twelve months. I discovered that the very same objective was listed in each of the agendas. As I researched further and spoke to the manager and team members it became clear that yes, they had spent a lot of time discussing the issues, determining what needed to change, lamenting the uncooperative behaviour of other divisions and documenting some action they all agreed would make it all work better.

When asked how they were progressing with the implementation of the solutions they had come up with, I got the same answer from each person – “… well, you know how it is, when I left the last workshop I felt as though things would be different – but I got back to the office and was swamped with urgent work. I intended to do my actions but I guess time moved on and no one checked up on them and I just didn’t get around to doing anything.” The manager admitted that she should have followed up on how they were progressing. She said that the team left the previous workshops fired up that they were going to put some of the issues to bed – and she just didn’t understand what had occurred to dissipate that energy and commitment.

Jeffrey Pfeffer & Robert Sutton in their book “The Knowing Doing Gap – How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge Into Action”1 talks about this very phenomenon in terms of ‘talk substituting for action’. They were fascinated by the amount that managers could tell them about issues they were facing and how to improve organisational performance (knowing) and yet this knowledge was seldom translated into action (doing).

There seems to be no lack of skill in being able to articulate and discuss problems and their impact on the team’s ability to deliver their objectives. In fact there is a great willingness and even enthusiasm to do so. It appears that the very act of talking about the problems – (restating the issues, recounting the history, the past hurts and disappointments, as well as how this has held them back), in conjunction with discussions about how they would like the situation to be in the future and what success would look like, provides a sense of achievement and satisfaction – and yet at this point nothing has changed. This sense of achievement appears to dilute the very bias for action that the team came together to leverage.

Here are some tips for how to encourage teams to move from knowing what the solution is to actually implementing it.

• Identify and accept the brutal facts of past failure to take action. If the team has come together again to talk about the same problems and come up with solutions in the same way – they will end up with the same results. The team needs a circuit breaker – and time to individually and collectively review the brutal facts of past solution implementation efforts. An examination of what is at risk if they are not able to fully implement the solutions, what do they need to do more of or less of to ensure that the solution moves off the paper into action.

• Reflect on Thoughts & Beliefs – Build time into the problem identification and solution definition process for team members to reflect on ‘what and how’ they think about the problem and the solution, and to articulate what beliefs are sitting under their thoughts. Our beliefs drive how we think about situations- and these in turn underpin how we act or behave in those situations. If the team think that the problem is caused by others they are unlikely to take personal or collective responsibility and accountability for the implementation of the solutions. If they don’t really believe the solution will solve part or all of the problem they will not be able to wholeheartedly commit to the implementation of the solution.

• Appreciative Inquiry – Have the team spend time on identifying the strengths that they bring to the situation. Focus their energies and attention on the individual and team attributes that they will need to leverage to ensure that the solution they have identified will be implemented fully.

• Rigorous planning and monitoring of progress – Ensure that optimism, confidence and shared commitment created during the solution definition phase is harnessed and sustained by developing a rigorous implementation plan that includes regular reviews and monitoring of progress.

• Personal and shared accountability for the implementation of the solution – create an expectation that at the end of the session each team member is to make a public commitment to the solution, their actions within the plan and to hold each other accountable for their part in the implementation of the solution. This can include each person being asked what they are specifically going to do in the next 24 hours, in the next seven days etc, to address the problem.

• Celebration – Assist the group to come together to review their success – what worked well and what they would do differently in the future. With the confidence of a successful solution implementation they will have experienced the closing of the gap between knowing what to do and actually doing it and be well placed to tackle their next issue resolution.

1 Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I Sutton, The Knowing Doing Gap – How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action, (Harvard Business School Press) 2000

The author, Dana Crees is a Partner at Reveur. Reveur make culture tangible and help clients build a plan to proactively manage or transform the culture of their business as a part of their strategy to achieve business outcomes. We work with individuals, teams and organisations to build capability and capacity to enable transformation. Reveur Partners are cultural experts with senior line management, academic and consultancy experience. For more information about Reveur please go to http://www.reveur.com.au.

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