Today, Don’t Make Any Assumptions

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We gather useful lessons along our career paths. Some of these lessons are acquired through trial and error, others through serendipity. These moments augment our “formal” education — teaching us to question the steps we take along the way. I experienced such a lesson early in my career, while exploring dissatisfaction with a newly minted team-based product development process. Fresh out of school, I confidently predicted that the experienced problems were associated with the basic mechanics of the team process itself. (Of course, there was a twist that I did not foresee.)

It was early in the teaming journey for this organization — just as the Japanese were beginning to impact US manufacturing. Bringing together various functions to form product development teams, was an entirely new way of conducting their work. The change was a bit of a shock. Integrating teaming into the dominant workplace culture was turning out to be a bit of a bumpy process. As might be expected, the differing functional areas didn’t always see eye-to-eye on product priorities. Executing compromises concerning product details often proved to be quite a dramatic process. The arguments that ensued were the stuff of legends.

We were quite aware that teaming would become a permanent fixture in the product development process. Core leadership was quite committed to make improvements and forge on (exactly why I was contacted). We did our very best to gather possible “pain points” — being sure to cover the team basics (size of the team, time spent in teams, role clarity, team leaders, etc). However, at the last moment I realized that my perspective may have been off. The reason? An interesting experience that a core leader shared with us just as we were making final survey edits.

Apparently as he left the facility the day before, he struck up a conversation with an employee with car trouble while making his way to his car. At some point, it became quite evident that his employee had no idea who he was or what role he played at the facility.

This rang an alarm for him, as you can imagine.

We promptly drafted some candidly worded questions to capture this potential concern, realizing that some of the “growing pains” team members had been experiencing might have had nothing to do with the team mechanics. The problems may have been related to leadership visibility, and perceived support, something that had not been considered at that time. With the radical shift to teaming, there was a possibility that employees needed to be more convinced that core leadership was behind them.

As it turned out, there was a perceived lack of core leadership presence in the teaming process. Just as the stranded employee in the parking lot — team members were actually unclear as to who was actually “running the show” and what they stood for. All in all, the teams not only needed to know their core leaders better, they also desired some form of physical leadership presence within the teams themselves. The optimal level of involvement needed to be determined, but the broader issue was now visible.

If the core leader hadn’t mentioned his experience, I would have missed this key component entirely. That onus was mine.

What I learned from this experience:

  • Obsess over competing explanations. When issues occur, never assume the reasons behind the dynamic are obvious. Try not to approach the situation as an “open and shut” case, as there are often layers that interact to form the root cause. Whatever you are examining — refrain from drawing early conclusions — as this could put you in a “bias bubble” and cloud your judgement.
  • Listen, and then listen some more. Pay close attention to the dynamics of the group you are trying to understand. Do your very best to gather the “back story” and pay keen attention to “tangents” that emerge. Keep posing questions until you are satisfied that your detailed history captures the scenario. Record all of your hunches and explore these areas fully.
  • Prepare for the unexpected. I’ve never been involved in an attitude assessment (customer or employee focused) that didn’t reveal something surprising. Prepare for this possibility. Attitudes are often complex — so be poised to act on the findings.

This experience changed how I approached future projects. I know longer make assumptions about what is influencing a workplace issue. If a client inquires about a prediction concerning attitudes, I try not to offer a forecast. However, I do attempt to calm their nerves and offer the following, “We’ll get to the bottom of this. But, we want to get it right. Let’s just see what emerges.”

Have you ever made a prediction about employee or customer attitudes that was inaccurate? What have you learned from the experience?

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