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Dealing with Seymour (See More)

What do you do when you are working in a group, and the group's progress is impaired by the person in charge? This is a dilemma many of us have faced, and it can lead to frustration, anger and a sense of helplessness - not to mention the negative impact on results. How can you redirect or refocus group work when your authority is superseded by the very person inhibiting that direction and focus?

Here's the scenario: you are a member of a management team, working to develop plans for a new initiative. The group's focus could be planning for a project, a new product or service, a business unit or even for a company. The team is trying to determine which of many paths to take. Team members are struggling to gain an understanding of a complicated and dynamic landscape. There is considerable uncertainty - usually the case when planning for the future. As alternatives are presented and discussed, the conversation seems to gravitate as much toward risk as it does toward opportunity.

Every path seems viable, and potentially rewarding - but also risky. Very risky.

It becomes clear that the person in charge is uncomfortable with that risk, and they keep asking for additional data and information - seeking certainty - before endorsing any course of action. So the team's work stalls out, with its members unwillingly plunged into more and more analysis. Weeks pass, maybe even months, with no progress in the team's planning.

We'll call this manager Seymour (because of the compulsion to always SEE MORE data before deciding). Everyone on the team knows the delays are costly, and there is a growing sense of urgency, a feeling among members that the team is missing opportunities. Frustration mounts, and the risks associated with NOT acting begin to increase. Everyone seems to see this except Seymour, who continues to seek certainty before changing course or planning for alternative pursuits. Unfortunately, aside from a few failed attempts to persuade Seymour of the merits of one choice or another, no one knows what to do since Seymour is in charge. They just don't have the authority.

Fortunately, this impasse does not have to be a dead end; there is a solution, and it is two-fold. The first part of the solution involves redefining the group's work, while the second part involves creating and maintaining a context that enables the group to succeed in doing that work. Usually, when a group reaches the type of impasse described above, the members become entrenched in their positions. They debate from individual, subjective perspectives and try to convince or persuade other members to their way of thinking. This behavior is competitive, and impairs the group's ability to achieve results.

In order for the group to achieve the highest levels of results, they must instead cooperate - working from an objective perspective and seeking a COMMON purpose.

To create that commonality of purpose, the group's work must be redefined. Instead of working in opposition to convince or persuade, the work might be redefined like this:

The purpose of this meeting is to list the alternative courses ahead (including the current path), and then list the risks and opportun-ities associated with each. The success of this work depends on our ability to think through unpredictable and uncertain futures, not on past data or assumption-laden projections.

Inevitably, EVERY path - including the current path - involves both risk and opportunity. The trick is to help Seymour understand this by shifting the focus of the group's work so the team members are able to objectively discuss the risks and opportunities associated with each alternative. In this way, the group can expose the illusion of certainty that many people associate with staying the course.

The second part of the solution involves maintaining the cooperative context in which the group work must be done. Any time the work devolves into debating the merits of one alternative versus another, someone must be willing to intervene, reestablishing the objective purpose of the activity, perhaps like this:

We're not here to argue one alternative against another. We're here to make sure we clearly identify the risks and opportunities associated with each. Once that work is done, we can establish some criteria for evaluating those risks and opportunities. Then an informed decision can be made.

By the same token, someone must be willing to actively challenge assumptions that are introduced, and to question vague and abstract terms. Team members cannot cooperate if the context of discussion is heavily laden with unchallenged assumptions or vague and abstract language.

Fortunately, ANY member of the team can refocus the group's work, and contribute to maintain a cooperative context. You do not have to be in charge to do so. Realize that there is nothing wrong with Seymour's desire to make informed decisions. Ultimately, Seymour will need to decide future direction. But when those decisions are based upon a team's clear, objective thinking rather than competitively entrenched arguments - or data that can be misleading - the decisions have a far greater likelihood of being intelligent and informed.

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