Does your team have commitment issues?

The meetings have been endless – yet you’re going round in circles, and things you’d thought had been agreed keep being re-opened. Or maybe you thought you’d got your team to agree and sign their names in blood – but a few weeks later, there’s little sign of progress.

You might be suffering from commitment issues! Here are six steps to overcome them:

1. Build Trust

We have discussed trust in previous blog posts. At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, everything flows from trust.

Am I going to commit to a decision if I think you have a covert agenda?

Am I going to commit to a decision if I can’t rely on you to follow through?

No. So you have to start with trust.

2. Embrace Conflict

Reaching agreement on contentious, high-stakes issues isn’t about a wishy-washy consensus, but as Patrick Lencioni writes, “Most reasonable people don’t have to get their way in a discussion. They just need to be heard, and to know that their input was considered and responded to.”

Embrace conflict. Well-structured, well-managed, well-behaved passionate unfiltered debate is the key. Read more on conflict-killers and their remedies.

3. Start with “Why?” – and separate facts from opinions

All decisions have a context. The more you can secure agreement on the facts first, the easier it will be to move to contentious, subjective decisions later. In “Good Strategy, Bad Strategy“, Richard Rumelt calls this the Diagnosis. This insight should comprise statements of fact, upon which the whole group can agree. This is surprisingly difficult to do at first!

There are many ways to generate this insight. A light-weight approach might be just to ask individuals to share their perspectives and data with the group – then to use the group to identify the most important elements. A more complex situation can be assisted by SWOT analyses and investing more time understanding what’s going on externally to the organisation – the actions, motives and intentions of customers, competitors, partners, suppliers and others in your ecosystem.

This will also helps to flush out the assumptions behind different proposals – which otherwise might remain unspoken.

4. Take Different Perspectives

Decisions are usually complex – one of the challenges of leadership is to simplify this complexity. But in order to do this, it’s usually worthwhile examining a situation from different angles. “What are the implications of this decision for our customers? Our employees? Our competitors? Our markets?”

It can be extraordinarily powerful to forbid the sponsor of a particular proposal from participating in parts of this discussion – or at least to limit their engagement to simply answering questions from the rest of the group. This may take the emotion out of a discussion and bring more objectivity to the table.

5. Take the decisions

If you follow this approach, it should lead to a situation where there are really only a handful of issues in contention. Once everyone’s had their say and a rigorous discussion has ensued, the time for decisions has come. Your particular circumstances will dictate the most appropriate way to take these decisions. Voting can be useful; it’s also valid for the leader to take the decision so long as he or she has engaged with the discussion in a fair, even-handed, open-minded way – be very wary of a situation where the leader’s opinion always prevails.

The higher the stakes, the more likely it is that someone won’t get their way. This is the point where emotional intelligence is incredibly powerful. If you’re the “loser”, you are going to have to disagree and commit – but you can’t really order someone to commit – if you want things to stick, you have to earn their commitment. Seth Godin writes about this, wonderfully.

6. Build the Contract

It is important to be precise about what’s being agreed. Sometimes it’s a matter of policy – “In future, we’re going to do things this way to save us having to re-open this discussion every time.” – but more often it’s a matter of action – who is going to what by when. The best way to express this is via SMART objectives:

  • Specific – exactly what are we hoping to achieve?
  • Measurable – how are we going to know when we’ve achieved it?
  • Assigned – who is accountable for achieving it?
  • Realistic – is it feasible?
  • Time-bound – by when must it be achieved?

Don’t under-estimate the importance of realistic. If you don’t have people responsible for delivery in the room when you take the decision (if not, why not?) – you may find you have to be iterative. Take a proposed objective to the people who’ll be executing it and test that they can access the resources, skills, relationships and engagement needed to deliver. If they can’t, you will need to tweak your approach and try again until there’s been a figurative “hand-shake” – where all parties agree that the objectives are the correct ones, and can be delivered.

You should end up with a contract, defined by SMART objectives, between the organisation and the delivery team. This, together with your diagnosis, can form the basis for your communications plan to your employees, customers, suppliers, investors and other stakeholders. You will also find that the decisions are easier to roll out because you now have a group of people who all understand the issues and are bought in to the objectives. This is much more scaleable than a completely top-down hierarchical approach.

For more on commitment, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni is a great read. And if you’d like some help building trust, managing healthy conflict and achieving commitment in your organisation, please get in touch.