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Learning (Part 2): Navigating the Perils of "What Happened?"

My last post began a discussion of how to use past incidents to support future improvements. You can do this by focusing on asking 5 questions.  In this and succeeding posts, I’ll go through these questions in some detail, so that you’ll be able to use them effectively.

The 5 questions are:

  • What happened?

  • What should have happened?

  • What should I have done differently?

  • What should you have done differently?

  • What will be different next time?

Asking these questions doesn’t mean that you don’t have preconceived ideas of what the answers are—or should be.  Rather, they indicate your willingness to take in information, your recognition that the situation may appear differently to you than to others, and your desire to collaborate in moving forward.  As the manager, you have the right to make the ultimate decisions—to determine the “correct” answers.  But by engaging in this process you demonstrate that you are determined to exercise that right as conscientiously as possible.

1.         What happened?

This is the obvious question.  It’s the question we’re preprogrammed to ask.  There are facts to be uncovered, and once we know the facts then we will be able to develop an appropriate response grounded in that reality, one that everyone will be able to appreciate.

If only it were so! This question is a trap.  A deep understanding of the nuances of this historic event actually does very little to support future improvement.  Rather, our quest for this elusive knowledge distracts us, sucking up our time and energy.  The inquiry keeps us focused on the past, forces us to act as investigators while our staff are encouraged to assign blame elsewhere, and ultimately pushes us towards assigning blame.  

Worse, it can force us to pit those with different perspectives against each other, as they try to convince us to embrace their perspectives.  We have to take sides, decide who’s right and worse, who’s telling the truth.  Our ultimate choices implicitly label some as culpable or untrustworthy.  To the extent the precipitating incident is tied to staff not working well with each other, going down this road is likely to make things force. 

Nevertheless, “What Happened?” must be the starting point.  And as long as you remain aware of the pitfalls, asking this question will have tremendous value.  The trick is to recognize that the facts of what did happen are not nearly as important as a shared understanding of what should have happened (the next question) and what is going to be different next time (the last question).  The main purpose of this question is to clear the underbrush and pave the way to having productive discussion of the more critical questions.

That’s right, this is just the warm-up question!  You’re opportunity to read the room, get a sense of where folks are, and set the mood before you delve into the substance of problem solving.  As nice as it might be to have a definitive answer to what happened, you really don’t need one.  More important is a) to ask the question and b) to listen to how people respond. 

You need to ask What Happened?because people need to tell you. They have a story about what happened, a story that they’ve been waiting for you to hear.  If you eventually want people to embrace your approach to a problem, they have to believe that you actually understand the problem—which means appreciating how theysee the problem.  You demonstrate your willingness to understand by listening.  

As people tell you their stories, you have an opportunity to learn quite a bit:

  • How your staff describe what went wrong is likely to show that you are not entirely on the same page—in terms of process, expectations, decision-making, etc. You need to be aware of this lack of alignmnet if you are going to effectively address these.

  • How big of a deal is the situation to your staff members? Is this something they’re losing sleep over or are they even aware that it’s a problem from your perspective?

  • How much responsibility are they offering to take?

  • How difficult is addressing this likely to be? Is this a good use of your—and your team’s—time and energy?

As you're learning, your staff will see you modeling seriousness, calm, lack of anger and interest in a positive resolution.  They will see that you are curious, want to hear what they say, and are not interested in litigating the past.  If you do this well, they will let their guard down a bit and be able to engage.

The not litigating part is important.  Remember this is not about determining a single definitive version of past events that everyone must be convinced of beyond a reasonable doubt.  First, that almost never happens, and trying to make it so rarely ends well (whether at work or with those we share our lives).  Second, as the discussion of the other questions will show—it’s not necessary.  In fact, insisting that everyone concur on a single version of the past will actually undermine the process of future improvement that you’ve initiated.  

So ask, “What Happened?” Listen carefully to the answers, set a tone, do what you can to make sure your staff is feeling engaged and at ease. Don’t get bogged down—less than a quarter of your allotted time should be spent on this.  Now you’re ready to move on to the more substantive questions.

Gary Gold-MoritzComment