Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Challenging Assumptions

Friday, I met with my colleagues, Al and Ken, to solve a perplexing problem. One of our staff had proposed a terrific idea to improve our buildings’ value by modifying a commonly-used component. It was compelling, logical, brilliant. Yet, there was one fundamental problem that prevented us from implementing it. Also compelling, logical. And prohibitive. We had a dilemma. We could not do both.

After a brief review of the situation, I suggested we each list the assumptions we made about this seeming impasse.

One stated assumption triggered another, and then another. Amazingly, in a matter of 20 minutes we had a totally new take on the proposal. The logjam broke. We documented how the new plan would work. The finances worked. The engineering worked. The implementation appeared to be straight forward. We each took on a couple of tasks to validate the proposal. And we split. A total of 35 minutes after we sat down.

Why did this work? I mulled it all weekend and a few ideas came to me.

  1. We faced the dilemma head on. We didn’t dance around it. We called it for what it was.
  2. We focused primarily on the end result, about which we agreed.
  3. We used “and” rather than “but”. We used language which, literally, said, “We must do this AND we must not violate the other concern.”
  4. We avoided a win/lose situation; Compromise was not an option. Rather, both concerns had to be satisfied.
  5. We operated in a culture of respect. Nothing kills a discussion faster than the implied statement “Well, if you weren’t such a jerk, you’d agree with me. Fatso.”
  6. We stated, in specific words, our assumptions. All of the above led us to be open about what was sitting under each of our statements. Some were very valid; some were downright silly. A good laugh helped.
And so, by doing this, we got to a very new solution, very quickly. It was astounding.

I encourage you to identify dilemmas and see if you can’t practice this yourself. I’d appreciate your observations.

I hope this is helpful. Feel free to forward to a friend. Email me

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