Here is a powerful, three-step method to help you, help others, resolve business arguments. We will give you the three steps, and then discuss them further.

  1. Active listening
  2. Alignment
  3. Escalation

1. Active listening

So much material, here at this blog site and elsewhere, focuses on the skill and benefits of active listening, that we not delve into too much detail. As session leader (aka facilitator) you may find your participants at times, in violent agreement with each other. Occasionally you have subject matter experts (aka participants or SME) who do not listen to themselves and may be uncertain as to what they said. Frequently, since people can only concentrate six to eight minutes at a time, someone “wakes up” without hearing fully what was said.

With all the examples above, plus the more obvious disagreements, active listening is critical because the participants need a neutral and thorough reflection of what was said. With active listening, you make contact, absorb, provide reflection, and then confirm if your reflection is accurate.  Many issues get resolved when the arguments are properly shaped in the hands of a neutral party, the facilitator.  But what do you do when active listing fails?

2. Alignment

A Business or Organizational Holarchy

Alignment is a wonderful consulting term. It includes three syllables and remains abstract enough that it is never clear exactly how to do it. Frankly, it is easy, once you understand the holarchy.

We invest much more time elsewhere discussing the intricacies of the table illustrated below, so for now let us focus simply on alignment. Specifically, we seek to ask the participants to align each of the arguments with the objectives, and ask in sequence:

  • Which argument best supports the project objectives, and why?
  • Which argument best supports the program objectives, and why?
  • Which argument best supports the business unit (ie, organizational) objectives, and why?
  • Which argument best supports the enterprise objectives, and why?

As you can tell, we are working upwards in the objectives column. With each question, some portion of arguments will be resolved, and yet others will remain unresolved. Ultimately, the most important question is the last one, asking which argument best supports the enterprise objectives, and why. Yet some people and issues are very stubborn, and active listening and alignment will not necessarily resolve all arguments. Then what?

3. Escalation

We need to document the rationales from the questions above.  Ensure that each why is captured, understood, and illustrated with examples form the business. Take this document, in printed form (not hanging out in the aether as a verbal argument) back to the executive sponsor, or decision executive, or steering team, or decision review boards, or whomever you call it and ask them for their help.

Most sponsors will ask the project managers, analysts, and other team members at some time or another “Do you need my help for anything?” What they are asking you is NOT if you want them to do your job for you. They are asking, have you reached an impasse that you are unable to reconcile.  Now is the time for escalation.  This is the type of help they are asking about.

Guest what they do to arrive at an answer?  They use the holarchial questions mentioned above, typically with greater insight and understanding about the connectivity of various projects, than we might have in our own little box.  They look at the arguments and ask to what extent does each support the project objectives (ie, reason for the meeting), the program objectives (ie, reason for the project), the business unit objectives (ie, reason for the program or initiative), and the enterprise objectives (ie, reason for the business units).  The holarchy is indispensable for resolving arguments, and to help facilitators prevent scope creep during their meetings.

Let us know what you think by commenting below. For additional methodology and team-based meeting support for your change initiative, refer to “Change or Die, a Business Process Improvement Manual” for much of the support you might need.

Become Part of the Solution, Improve Your Facilitation Skills

The FAST curriculum on Professional Facilitation Skills details the responsibilities and dynamics mentioned above. Remember, nobody is smarter than everybody, so consult your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership-training workshop offered around the world (see MG Rush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn 40 PDUs from PMI, CDUs from IIBA, or CEUs).

Do not forget to order Change or Die if you’re working on a business process improvement project. It provides detailed workshop agendas and detailed tools to make your role easier and your team’s performance a lot more effective—daring you to embrace the will, wisdom, and activities that amplify a facilitative leader.

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Facilitation Expert

Terrence Metz is CEO of MG RUSH Facilitation Training and Coaching, the acknowledged leader in structured facilitation training. His FAST Weekly Facilitation blog features over 300 articles on facilitation skills and techniques aimed at helping others lead faster, more productive meetings and workshops that yield higher quality decisions. His clients include program and project managers, senior officers, and the business analyst community among numerous private and public companies and global corporations. As an undergraduate of Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) and MBA graduate from NWU’s Kellogg School of Management, his professional experience has focused on process improvement and product innovation. His aspiration is to make it easier for others to succeed.

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