Wisdom in the Room: A Quick Trick to Get Your Team to Decide What Really Matters

Wisdom in the Room

Note: This post pulls from Done Right, an upcoming leadership book from Workfront CEO Alex Shootman.

Expecting the boss to have all the right answers is an old, bad habit from the command-and-control days of leadership.

From the earliest tribes, through to medieval kings and queens, to the 20th century corporations, questions have gone up a chain and decisions have been passed down.

But, as Eddie Obeng, Professor of Entrepreneurship at Henley Business School in the UK, has observed, that was fine for the days when information travelled at the speed of a horse and carriage, steam train or telegraph wire. It still worked in the era of the telephone when one conversation happened at a time. But in the 21st century, too much information travels too fast for top-down decision-making to work effectively.

According to Professor Obeng, today information travels at speeds in excess of 10 megabits per second. Every moment, multiple conversations, requests, suggestions, and data are being shared across multiple channels.

“You can never supply enough information to your top team for them to be informed and make a sensible decision and pass it down,” he says. “The hierarchy is broken. It doesn't work. We need a networked system.”

The first step for a leader to create a networked system is to look around: How much collective experience and range of expertise are you surrounded by? In other words, there’s wisdom in the room. You just need to tap it. The job of today’s leaders isn’t to tell everyone what to do. It’s to get that collective wisdom focused on answering the right questions.

Let me give you a practical example of how to do that.

A quick exercise in tapping the wisdom in the room

Everyone in a business needs a sense of who they are serving by what they are doing, right? You want your team focused on customers, for sure. But you also want them to consider the effects of what they’re doing on colleagues and the financial stakeholders in the business. So, how do you get everyone thinking about what that trio of constituents — customers, colleagues and stakeholders — really need? How do you get your team thinking what actions will align those constituents’ interests?

There’s a six-step exercise I’ve taken teams through countless times. Here’s how it goes:

  1. Ask each person in the team to write on a sticky note what customers say about the company today and add each note to the wall. Repeat this “what do they think about us today” step for the two other constituent groups: employees and financial stakeholders. You’ll see a wall filled with insight about where the business is right now in the eyes of the trio of constituents.
  2. Now ask each team member to write down what they want customers, employees, and shareholders to say about the business in three to five years’ time. Stick those notes on the wall too. Now you’ve got a wall with thoughts about the future as well as today.
  3. The next step is to ask folks to write down every potential action the company could take to reach the future state they’ve just described. The outcome will be an expansive list of possible actions.
  4. Break the team into small groups — maybe four or five people strong — and ask them to take sticky notes from the wall and group them into a small number of themes. Ask them to think about how the issues, questions, aspirations and actions described on the notes might relate to each other.
  5. Now ask the team to identify the two or three themed groups of notes that are most important to the common interests of customers, stakeholders and colleagues.
  6. Finally, focus on the actions described on the sticky notes that best serve each of the themes you’ve prioritized. You’ve now got a rapidly created action plan of how to reach a future state that your customers, colleagues and financial stakeholder will all want to see.

In the space of a morning with the team, you’ve tapped the wisdom in the room to help set the future actions of the business. You’ve not told people what to think. You’ve just created a critical thinking framework for them to share what they know.

You can apply this style of exercise to a range of different issues within your organization. For example, if you have a project with clear goals, you can use the steps above to help define the key initiatives that will take you there.

Essentially, you’re trying to extract as much information and insight as possible in the early steps, then ask the team to filter and prioritize what they’ve come up with. And, always remember to challenge the team to break down tasks to a best next action: “What’s the one thing we’re going to do within the next two weeks to move this forward?”

You might start with a broad perspective — represented by a seemingly random array of notes on a meeting room wall — but you’ll end up with a plan of action.

Don’t tear up the org chart just yet …

Now you might think this sounds like a recipe for groupthink or creativity by committee. You might think I’m arguing the case for a flat management hierarchy (or lack of hierarchy). Not at all. This type of exercise is about how leadership plays out in practice — not what organizational form it takes. It’s about collaborative leadership that aims to tease out every ounce of insight in the business.

So, don’t tear up the org chart just yet. Instead, brief the leaders in the organization to try this kind of more networked approach to defining solutions. In my experience, tapping the wisdom in the room will help you to define what really matters to getting the job done, and getting it done right.

Note: This post pulls from Done Right, an upcoming leadership book from Workfront CEO Alex Shootman.