Bridge Out Ahead – Surviving the Committee
It’s that sinking feeling… when your executive sponsor says to you:
“Sure Bob, we think getting Task Management Software [or you can replace this with whatever your initiative is] is a great idea! In fact, maybe we could use that all over our company! There may be people out wandering around in the snow in other departments that could use this! So… before we let you solve your burning business problem, let’s just ‘quickly’ get them all involved so that whatever we get for you will meet all of their needs too.”
Even though they don’t know that you have a need and don’t agree (or don’t know yet) that they need it too. Yup. Bridge out ahead!
That sinking feeling that this is never going to get done starts to set in. I hate to say it, but unless you know how to manage this, you are probably right. It’s not that other department heads want to keep you from getting a solution. No, it’s just human nature! If they don’t have a burning platform they may not feel as urgently as you do about getting off of it and into the cool water below. Or, they may be on the burning platform with you but not see it. Sometimes your peers will be excited by the idea of getting a solution they didn’t even know they needed, but not usually. And, their idea of an ideal solution will likely be very different than yours.
Let’s quickly look at a non-business situation, a group skiing trip, from three different points of view. The first person has just broken their leg while skiing the slopes, the second is also skiing and sees this happen and wants to avoid the same risk, and the third is in the parking lot considering buying a lift ticket. They are going to look at this skiing accident very differently. The problem here can be broken into three points. The first is urgency, the second is perspective, and the third is alignment.
If you can avoid the awkwardness of having to try and herd a group like this together, then do that. Bypass the effort. But in many cases you simply can’t do that, and that’s okay too. Decision by Committee is not always a bad thing. When used wisely it can prevent a lot of hurried decisions and catastrophic errors, but you have to manage the process if you have a desired outcome, otherwise the default outcome will likely be “bridge out”.
The problem of Urgency: If you need a rapid solution to a task management problem because of common conditions like tasks falling through the cracks and upsetting customers, stakeholders, or upper managers, or invisible and endless run on tasks that never seem to get done, you need that solution now. You can’t ignore the opportunity to stop the bleeding while you think through a perfect solution to broken legs at ski resorts. You are like the person with the broken leg. As the group tries to plan how your trip to the hospital could be made more convenient to the other people on the company trip, you would be likely to lose your cool and yell out – “My leg is broken! Let’s get my problem solved please!”. But in Committee, we can’t behave that way. We need to move at the speed of the group. And if you are the only one (team, department, group company, etc.) in pain you need to realize that this is the wrong time for this conversation. Somehow you have to convey your urgency and the need to postpone strategy and focus on the tactical.
“A good solution applied with vigor now is better than a perfect solution applied ten minutes later.” – George S. Patton
As quoted in “The Unknown Patton” (1983) by Charles M. Province, p. 165
The problem of Perspective: You need to face the brutal facts. Not everyone is playing on the same level. When you get to the point that you are aware that you have a problem (this can be applied universally) you have already surpassed most of your peers in most organizations. First of all, congratulations! Self awareness is a rare and powerful thing. Second, let me alert you to the potential loneliness of getting from where you are to the peak of solution. But take heart. Assuming you will get there your progress will be obvious to all. So you have now identified your need and gone out looking for a solution. Here is where the problem comes in. Does it really make sense to share this task of finding a solution with others who are not even convinced your problem exists?
“Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.” – Arthur Schopenhauer
The problem of Alignment: Let’s go back to our first group of people. Because their urgency and perspective are different, so will be their desired outcomes. The one with the broken leg will want a splint, tourniquet (if the injury is bad), and transportation to the hospital – right now! The person who observed the accident and is also skiing may now want to mitigate risks and take the safest path. The person about to buy lift tickets is unaware of the risk or the accident and will be unaware or unimpressed by the powerful and relevant first-hand experience of the skier who has just had the accident. In their mind they can say “he messed that up quite badly” and might discount the need for agile skis now profoundly understood by the aching skier. Each has a fair point of view, but their goals at the moment are not at all aligned. When we know we have a problem, wherever possible we need to be the one driving what happens next.
“What is the use of running if we are not on the right road?” – German Proverb
First, you need to clearly establish urgency. If you have a burning platform – make your case! Prepare and present your data showing there is a measurable problem, or at least a cost of inaction. Get Executive Sponsorship and SET A DEADLINE for a decision and action! Yes you risk getting a “no” sooner with a deadline, but you have to accept that risk. Delay is the number one source of death for self-improvement efforts like this. Don’t let it happen to you. Get moving and fast. You either need to get around this obstacle or build enough momentum to jump right over it.
Second, you have to facilitate perspective. Never assume that people can see or understand your problem – as bad as it hurts, take the time to explain your pain and others will be more inclined to help you. You need to try to sell each member of your committee separately in advance of your meeting. You should know what their objections are and either address them to their satisfaction in advance or at least be able to address them when you get together. Ideally you should have all of your committee members already agreeing to your suggested course of action in advance so that your larger meetings become a formality and a chance to use the meeting as a chance to refine your plan. This is what committees are strongest at. Committees are not effective sources of creativity, but they are excellent refiners.
Third, you must have alignment. If you cannot get certain people on board with the basic need to improve your situation, do everything you can to keep them out of your process. Even if you have to risk offending them. If they don’t understand what you know and you cannot educate them, go back to the first point – go above them and ask for them to be removed from your process because you don’t have the time. In this life, the fast lead. So yes, the bridge may be out, but get creative. Momentum solves a lot of problems.
The good news is this. You are smart enough to work on getting a solution. So this is just one more challenge on the way to your next peak. Enjoy the climb, and if you don’t make it to the top – ski down carefully and try again!