Jan 182012

a train side trackHave you ever had a meeting that didn’t work out quite as a planned? Where everyone agreed to a specific course of action and two weeks later you discover that what they’ve been working on doesn’t come close to your vision of what should happen?

When these situations arise, we usually blame poor communication. We didn’t communicate clearly. People weren’t really listening. We thought we had consensus when we really didn’t.

Faulty communications can certainly play a role, but there’s a lot more at work underneath the surface. This situation clearly illustrates how the way our brain works can undermine even our best intentions.

When we gain consensus on a decision or course of action, everyone agrees on the surface. But as soon as people leave the meeting and start making in-the-moment decisions, their underlying attitudes and assumptions get in the way. They typically don’t have the same attitudes and beliefs as you, so they make decisions that differ from the ones you would make.

As each new decision is made, this process builds until everyone ends up miles apart on the project. So you gather for the follow-up meeting and everyone wonders, “What happened?”

Fortunately, succession visioning comes riding to the rescue (cue “Lone Ranger” music).

Success visioning is based on the brain’s inability (on many levels) to distinguish between what is real and what it is told. Used by premier athletes around the globe, it relies on the brain’s ability to drive the body to action when it sees a clear endpoint or goal. There are many ways to use success visioning. In business, I recommend the following:

Start by using future, active, past tense questions to define winning or excellence. For example, “When we have achieved success in working well together, how often did we touch base? What decisions did you want us to make together versus having me inform you about? Who else is working with us and how did we keep everyone informed? What are the most important things we will have focused on first, and how will we make sure we all stayed on track?”

Note that these questions use a past tense voice, as if they have already occurred. Here’s why.

When we begin with the present tense, our brain typically fills in with all the reasons we can’t make something happen. But when we convince our brain we have already achieved success, it doesn’t know we have not. So it fills in the blanks between today and the target date with innovative solutions for achieving success. It focuses on winning rather than what is in the way.

Future, active, past tense questioning helps to paint the picture of success between the individuals involved, often uncovering expectations that would otherwise not see the light of day. Once a conversation uncovers what success looks like for a given timeframe, it becomes much easier to meet each other’s expectations and work together as a team.

Success visioning can also help to determine more effective ways of working during meetings. For example, start your meetings by asking:

  • When we have had a successful meeting, what decisions will we have made?
  • How will we have most effectively made those decisions?
  • How will we have gotten all the input we needed?
  • Whose input will have been most critical/important?
  • How will we have exposed any assumptions underlying what we decided?

For ongoing conversations, particularly around sensitive issues or areas where people have a lot of passion, make your thinking process visible. Explain your assumptions and the data that led to them. Give examples of what you propose, and explain who will be affected, how, and why. Encourage others to explore and question your assumptions and data. Reveal where you are least clear in your thinking, and stay open to different points of view.

To ensure alignment, ask others to make their thinking process visible. Explain your reasons for inquiring and ask questions like, “What leads you to conclude that? Help me understand how you got to that point. Tell me more about why you’re thinking that way.”

This process starts to uncover the underlying beliefs, assumptions and meanings others have about the topic under discussion. Only when we understand the why of someone’s belief or behavior can we make decisions that both parties understand and can adhere to.

At the strategic level, success visioning can be used in a process called ‘destination modeling’ to help organizations get clear on what winning looks like. Most companies have clearly defined financial objectives. Destination modeling involves going beyond the financial metrics and painting very clear pictures of what it will look like when you win in other areas of the business.

For example, when we have achieved our marketing goals:

  • What new products will we have brought to the market?
  • What new markets will we be serving?
  • How will we be known in those markets?
  • What new competitors will we be competing against?
  • What new team members will we have brought on board?
  • What new systems, processes and technologies will we be using to serve those markets?

Again, use future-active, past tense questions that position the goal as if you have already achieved it. Your brain, in many ways, can’t distinguish the difference between mental imagery and reality. So when you paint a picture of winning, it actively seeks out ways to make that picture happen.

Of course companies need to track financial metrics such as revenues, cash flow and margins. But these only don’t typically motivate, inspire or engage employees. Use destination modeling to paint detailed pictures of what it looks like to win in other areas of your business and you will be amazed at the alignment that occurs.

Use the power of the brain to get clear on excellence. Expose your thinking to each other. And use destination modeling to define winning in every area of your business. You’ll find that everyone in the organization is running the same race, and you’ll never again have to start a follow-up meeting by wondering, “What happened?”

About the Author:
Holly Green has a BA in behavioral sciences and Master of Science degree in organizational development from American University in Washington, D.C. She is currently on staff at Webster University where she teaches courses in the graduate program. Holly also teaches for the University of California San Diego, Rady School of Management in the executive education program.Ms. Green is the CEO of THE HUMAN FACTOR, Inc. ( www.thehumanfactor.biz ) She has over 20 years of executive level and operations experience in FORTUNE 100, entrepreneurial, and management consulting organizations. She conducts more than 50 workshops annually for Vistage, the world’s largest CEO membership organization. She is also a frequent keynote speaker for numerous corporate and professional associations. Her book, More Than A Minute: How To Be An Effective Leader & Manager In Today’s Changing World ( www.MoreThanaMinute.com ) lends voice to her corporate experience and goes beyond the theory of leading and managing by providing practical action oriented information.

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  2 Responses to “How to Stop the Dreaded “Decision Drift””

  1. I taught university-level ESL for a few years before going into marketing. Until this blog post, I never made the connection between the use of the past tense to trick the mind into thinking goals into actualization. Thank you for this insight. Not only is it applicable to the business world and gaining vision and inspiration at the corporate level, but also to the lives of the individuals involved. I will definitely be passing this one along!

  2. It’s so important for people to remap their minds. Not just for the company but for their own personal goals. Getting into a mindset geared for innovation and using creative tools to do so can be a win-win for all involved.

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