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The many steps in between

The third time I flew with my daughter she was a toddler. We were going to visit her uncle and she had zero recollection of her first few flights.


She was under the impression that we would just get on the plane and be at his house in Tucson - like walking down the jetway was some magical portal.

To help her understand the process I tried to break the steps down into noticeable chunks. First the people have to get onto the plane. Then the plane has to take off and become airborne. Then the pilot has to fly us in the air through the clouds. Then the plane starts to descend and get closer to the ground. Then the plane lands on the runway. Then we have to drive to our gate. Then we have to wait for them to open the door...and so on and so forth.

As we made progress, she excitedly ticked the tasks off until finally, her uncle picked us up at the airport.

It is easy to overlook the many steps in between. Visionary leaders sometimes fall into the trap of "justing" what it'll take for an idea to become reality.

"We'll just start a new program..."

"Let's just add that to the Product Manager's docket..."

"We'll just migrate everything into the new system now..."

When we "just" things, we're forgetting the many steps in between. We're discounting the real cost in time, money and effort improvements and innovations take. As a result, unrealistic and unshared expectations take hold, which is a recipe for poor execution along with disappointment. In the end, more work is required as there's also a mess to clean up.

When I facilitate retreats, I'm conscientious to make sure everyone gets beyond "just" thinking things are so easy or simple. Part of how I do that is by asking direct questions of the resources required to execute different ideas. Whenever possible, I invite the people who have first-hand knowledge to contribute their insights. When that's not possible, I encourage everyone to identify the steps that will be taken to acquire that information.

It's amazing how often people won't give voice to their very reasonable and logical concerns. This occurs because of something called the halo effect. When the person with the most influence in the room shares their opinion first, it changes the contributions of others.

So, when the boss says, "Let's just get that out this Friday." People are generally quick to appease and agree.

There's a perfectly rational explanation for the Halo Effect rooted in neuroscience research. Humans are hardwired for connection and belonging. The Limbic section of the brain, which I affectionately call the wolfpack brain, is continually evaluating if we fit-in and are safe. Anytime we feel we don't belong, the limbic section tends to raise alarm bells. According to the Wolfpack brain, not fitting in is a powerful signal we are not safe. The alarm bells engage the primitive brain to preserve and protect our self-interest. Without intentional self-regulation in these moments, the executive brain goes out to lunch.

That's when people go into appease mode. Appeasing is one of four threat responses, fight, flight, freeze and appease, the primitive brain engages through the autonomic nervous system. Since it's autonomic, we do it without conscious thought. In such instances, agreeing with the boss is a counter-productive way of maintaining a sense of belonging because there's not genuine buy-in, which tends to mean there's not going to be follow-through either.

A little while later, the executive brain comes back from lunch and is shocked, "Oh no, what did you just do?" It wonders as a completely irrational promise was made to fulfill something that's not even feasible. Hence forth, additional stressors are felt. Corners might get cut or the project is completely ignored because the sense of overwhelm is just too great. All of which could have been avoided had there been an open and honest conversation about what effective and successful execution really required from the get go.

This is one area where working with a skilled facilitator provides ROI (Return on Investment). A facilitator has tools and skills for leveling the playing field. Creating space for diverse perspectives to be heard, especially those with valuable first-hand knowledge who might easily get overlooked or inadvertently shutdown. As a result, people are actually saying what they mean and meaning what they say.

A more clear picture of what it'll take to turn an idea into reality is painted. Concerns get raised and addressed in a timely fashion. And people leave with a shared understanding of what they are doing and why, as well as genuine buy-in to follow through. In other words, the intended actions are taken.

In the long run, a facilitator saves organizations time, money and emotional bandwidth. This is due to there being less misunderstandings, fewer instances of lost productivity, and a de-escalation of conflict. Or another way to say it, people are doing the work you expected in the first place because there was space for them to talk about the many steps in between without getting mired in the weeds.

We are now booking retreats for the spring and summer of 2023. Start planning your retreat, contact us today!

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