Teaching Quality People to Listen

Been thinking a lot on what a training program around teaching people to listen and not to talk might look like and how it fits into a development program for quality professionals.

People in quality think a lot on how to make a reasoned argument, a good decision, to provide guidance, get their point across in meetings, persuade or coerce people to follow standards. This is understandable, but it has a cost. There is a fair amount of research out there that indicates that all too often when others are talking, we are getting ready to speak instead of listening.

I think we fail to listen because we are anxious about our own performance, concerned about being viewed as an expert, convinced that our ideas are better than others, comfortable in our expertise, or probably all of the above. As a result we get into conflicts that could be avoided, miss opportunities to advance the conversation, alienate people and diminish our teams’ effectiveness.

When we really listen we create the spaces to make quality decisions. Listening can be improved by these practices:

Ask expansive questions. Stay curious, build on other’s ideas are mantras I think most of us are familiar with. Suppress the urge to interrupt or dominate a conversation and concentrate on the implications of other people’s words. It is very easy for a quality professional to instantly leap to solving the problem, and we need to be able to give space. Focus on open-ended “what” and “how” questions, which encourage people to provide more information, reflect on the situation and feel more heard. Avoid yes-and-no questions which can kill dialogue.

Engage in “self-checks”. Be aware of one’s own tendencies and prepare with ways to identify they are happening and head them off. Doing this will surprisingly allow you to focus on the listener and not yourself moving beyond the words that are being said and being able to take in the speaker’s tone, body language, emotions and perspective, and the energy in the conversation.

Become comfortable with silence. This means communicating attentiveness and respect while you are silent.

Listening needs to be part of our core competencies, and unless we work on it, we don’t get better.

Decision Quality helps overcome bad outcomes

We gather for a meeting, usually around a table, place our collective attention on the problem, and let, most likely let our automatic processes take over. But, all too often, this turns out to be a mistake. From this stems poor meetings, bad decisions, and a general feeling of malaise that we are wasting time.

Problem-solving has stages, it is a process, and in order for groups to collaborate effectively and avoid talking past one another, members must simultaneously occupy the same problem-solving stage. Clear communication is critical here and it is important for the team to understand what. Our meetings need to be methodical.

In a methodical meeting, for each issue that needs to be discussed, members deliberately and explicitly choose just one problem-solving stage to complete.

To convert an intuitive meeting into a methodical one take your meeting agenda, and to the right of each agenda item, write down a problem-solving stage that will help move you closer to a solution, as well as the corresponding measurable outcome for that stage. Then, during that part of the meeting, focus only on achieving that outcome. Once you do, move on.

A Template for Conducting a Methodical Meeting

Pair each agenda item with a problem solving stage and a measurable outcome.

Agenda ItemProblem Solving StageMeasurable Outcome
Select a venue for the offsiteDevelop alternativesList of potential venues
Discuss ERP usage problemsFrameProblem statement
Implement new batch record strategyPlan for ImplementationList of actions / owners / due dates
Review proposed projectsEvaluate AlternativesList of strengths and weaknesses
Choose a vendorMake DecisionWritten decision

If you don’t know which problem-solving stage to choose, consider the following:

Do you genuinely understand the problem you’re trying to solve? If you can’t clearly articulate the problem to someone else, chances are you don’t understand it as well as you might think. If that’s the case, before you start generating solutions, consider dedicating this part of the meeting to framing and ending it with a succinctly written problem statement.

Do you have an ample list of potential solutions? If the group understands the problem, but hasn’t yet produced a set of potential solutions, that’s the next order of business. Concentrate on generating as many quality options as possible (set the alternatives).

Do you know the strengths and weaknesses of the various alternatives? Suppose you have already generated potential solutions. If so, this time will be best spent letting the group evaluate them. Free attendees from the obligation of reaching a final decision—for which they may not yet be ready—and let them focus exclusively on developing a list of pros and cons for the various alternatives.

Has the group already spent time debating various alternatives? If the answer is yes, use this part of the meeting to do the often difficult work of choosing. Make sure, of course, that the final choice is in writing.

Has a decision been made? Then focus on developing an implementation plan. If you’re able to leave the conversation with a comprehensive list of actions, assigned owners, and due dates, you can celebrate a remarkably profitable outcome.

Decision Quality

The decisions we make are often complex and uncertain. Making the decision-making process better is critical to success, and yet too often we do not think of the how we make decisions, and how to confirm we are making good decisions. In order to bring quality to our decisions, we need to understand what quality looks like and how to obtain it

There is no universal best process or set of steps to follow in making good decisions. However, any good decision process needs to embed the idea of decision-quality as the measurable destination.

Decisions do not come ready to be made. You must shape them and declare what is the decision you should be making; that must be made. All decisions have one thing in common – the best choice creates the best possibility of what you truly want. To find that best choice, you need decision-quality and you must recognize it as the destination when you get there. You cannot reach a good decision, achieve decision-quality, if you are unable to visualize or describe it. Nor can you say you have accomplished it, if you cannot recognize it when it is achieved.

What makes a Good Decision?

The six requirements for a good decision are: (1) an appropriate frame, (2) creative alternatives, (3) relevant and reliable information, (4) clear values and trade-offs, (5) sound reasoning, and (6) commitment to action. To judge the quality of any decision before you act, each requirement must be met and addressed with quality. I like representing it as a chain, because a decision is no better than the weakest link.

The frame specifies the problem or opportunity you are tackling, asking what is to be decided. It has three parts:  purpose in making the decision; scope of what will be included and left out; and your perspective including your point of view, how you want to approach the decision, what conversations will be needed, and with whom. Agreement on framing is essential, especially when more than one party is involved in decision making. What is important is to find the frame that is most appropriate for the situation. If you get the frame wrong, you will be solving the wrong problem or not dealing with the opportunity in the correct way.

The next three links are: alternatives – defining what you can do; information – capturing what you know and believe (but cannot control), and values – representing what you want and hope to achieve. These are the basis of the decision and are combined using sound reasoning, which guides you to the best choice (the alternative that gets you the most of what you want and in light of what you know). With sound reasoning, you reach clarity of intention and are ready for the final element – commitment to action.

Asking: “What is the decision I should be making?” is not a simple question. Furthermore, asking the question “On what decision should I be focusing?” is particularly challenging. It is a question, however, that is important to be asked, because you must know what decision you are making. It defines the range within which you have creative and compelling alternatives. It defines constraints. It defines what is possible. Many organizations fail to create a rich set of alternatives and simply debate whether to accept or reject a proposal. The problem with this approach is that people frequently latch on to ideas that are easily accessible, familiar or aligned directly with their experiences.

Exploring alternatives is a combination of analysis, rigor, technology and judgement. This is about the past and present – requiring additional judgement to anticipate future consequences. What we know about the future is uncertain and therefore needs to be described with possibilities and probabilities. Questions like: “What might happen?” and “How likely is it to happen?” are difficult and often compound. To produce reliable judgements about future outcomes and probabilities you must gather facts, study trends and interview experts while avoiding distortions from biases and decision traps. When one alternative provides everything desired, the choice among alternatives is not difficult. Trade-offs must be made when alternatives do not provide everything desired. You must then decide how much of one value you are willing to give up to receive more of another.  

Commitment to action is reached by involving the right people in the decision efforts. The right people must include individuals who have the authority and resources to commit to the decision and to make it stick (the decision makers) and those who will be asked to execute the decided-upon actions (the implementers). Decision makers are frequently not the implementers and much of a decision’s value can be lost in the handoff to implementers. It is important to always consider the resource requirements and challenges for implementation.

These six requirements of decision-quality can be used to judge the quality of the decision at the time it is made. There is no need to wait six months or six years to assess its outcome before declaring the decision’s quality. By meeting the six requirements you know at the time of the decision you made a high-quality choice. You cannot simply say: “I did all the right steps.” You have got to be able to judge the decision itself, not just how you got to that decision. When you ask, “How good is this decision if we make it now?” the answer must be a very big part of your process. The piece missing in the process just may be in the material and the research and that is a piece that must go right.

Decision-quality is all about reducing comfort zone bias – when people do what they know how to do, rather than what is needed to make a strong, high-quality decision. You overcome the comfort zone bias by figuring out where there are gaps. Let us say the gap is with alternatives. Your process then becomes primarily a creative process to generate alternatives instead of gathering a great deal more data. Maybe we are awash in a sea of information, but we just have not done the reasoning and modelling and understanding of the consequences. This becomes more of an analytical effort. The specific gaps define where you should put your attention to improve the quality of the decision.

Leadership needs to have clearly defined decision rights and understand that the role of leadership is assembling the right people to make quality decisions. Once you know how to recognize digital quality, you need an effective and efficient process to get there and that process involves many things including structured interactions between decision maker and decision staff, remembering that productive discussions result when multiple parties are involved in the decision process and difference in judgement are present.

Beware Advocacy

The most common decision process tends to be an advocacy decision process – you are asking somebody to sell you an answer. Once you are in advocacy mode, you are no longer in a decision-quality mode and you cannot get the best choice out of an advocacy decision process. Advocacy suppresses alternatives. Advocacy forces confirming evidence bias and means selective attention to what supports your position. Once in advocacy mode, you are really in a sales mode and it becomes a people competition.

When you want quality in a decision, you want the alternatives to compete, not the people. From the decision board’s perspective, when you are making a decision, you want to have multiple alternatives in front of you and you want to figure out which of these alternatives beats the others in terms of understanding the full consequences in risk, uncertainty and return. For each of the alternatives one will show up better. If you can make this happen, then it is not the advocate selling it, it is you trying to help look at which of these things gives us the most value for our investment in some way.

The role outcomes play in the measuring of decision quality

Always think of decisions and outcomes as separate because when you make decisions in an uncertain world, you cannot fully control the outcomes. When looking back from an outcome to a decision, the only thing you can really tell is if you had a good outcome or a bad outcome. Hindsight bias is strong, and once triggered, it is hard to put yourself back into understanding what decisions should have been made with what you knew, or could have known, at the time.

In understanding how we use outcomes in terms of evaluating decisions, you need to understand the importance of documenting the decision and the decision quality at the time of the decision. Ask yourself, if you were going to look back two years from now, what about this decision file answers the questions: “Did we make a decision that was good?” and “What can we learn about the things about which we had some questions?” This kind of documentation is different from what people usually do. What is usually documented is the approval and the working process. There is usually no documentation answering the question: “If we are going to look back in the future, what would we need to know to be able to learn about making better decisions?”

The reason you want to look back is because that is the way you learn and improve the whole decision process. It is not for blaming; in the end, what you are trying to show in documentation is: “We made the best decision we could then. Here is what we thought about the uncertainties. Here is what we thought were the driving factors.” Its about having a learning culture.

When decision makers and individuals understand the importance of reaching quality in each of the six requirements, they feel meeting those requirements is a decision-making right and should be demanded as part of the decision process. To be in a position where they can make a good decision, they know they deserve a good frame and significantly different alternatives or they cannot be in a position to reach a powerful, correct conclusion and make a decision. From a decision-maker’s perspective, these are indeed needs and rights to be thought about. From a decision support perspective, these needs and rights are required to be able to position the decision maker to make a good choice.

Building decision-quality enables measurable value creation and its framework can be learned, implemented and measured. Decision-quality helps you navigate the complexity of uncertainty of significant and strategic choices, avoid mega biases and big decision traps.

Team and Workplace Excellence Forum Leadership Announcement

It is now officially announced. I have volunteered to be the chair of the Team and Excellence Forum for the ASQ.

The Team and Excellence Forum is well placed to develop and provide best practices in the input and process factors, and to develop competencies that the other technical divisions and forums can leverage. Areas such as facilitation, team organization, collaboration and the list goes on. In the last few months I have found myself narrowing in to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Division for my professional/technical competencies and the Team and Workplace Excellence will be the focus on my interests in social and self competencies.

As the announcement indicates I am currently pulling together a leadership team -we will need to fill at minimum a secretary and chair elect (the chair position for the forum runs through 2021 so I’m not going anywhere) – and folks to build and drive content.

My immediate goals are:

  1. Conduct a voice-of-the-customer survey – need to figure out what topics the membership is most interested in and what content formats (case studies, podcasts, webinars, videos, articles, etc) work best
  2. Build content on the my.ASQ community so it can go public
  3. Create a 2020 business plan aligned to the ASQ strategic priorities (due in September)

An exciting year is ahead. If you are a member of the ASQ and looking for volunteer opportunities, and your interests align with Team Excellence, then drop me an email.

ASQ Technical Forums and Divisions as Knowledge Communities

I have been spending a lot of time lately thinking about how to best build and grow knowledge communities within quality. One of my objectives at WCQI this year was to get more involved in the divisions and technical forums and I, frankly, might have been overly successful in volunteering for the Team and Workplace Excellence Forum (TWEF) – more on that later when announcements have been made.

Stan Garfield provides 10 principles for successful Knowledge Management Communities. If you are interested in the topic of knowledge management, Stan is a great thinker and resource.

PrincipleThoughts for ASQ Divisions/Technical Forums
Communities should be independent of organizational structure; they are built around areas upon which members wish to interact. The divisions and technical forums are one part of the organizational structure of the ASQ, but they tend to be more on the knowledge generating side of things. The other major membership unit, sections, are geographical.

Divisions and forums are basically broken in two categories: industry type(s) and activity band.

The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic or Biomedical are great examples of industry focused (these are by nature of my work the only two I’ve paid attention to), and they seem to be very focused on product integrity questions.

The activity bands are all over the place. For example in the People and Service technical committee there is a Quality Management, Human Development and Leadership and a Team Excellence Forum. Those three have serious overlap.

It is of interest to me that the other divisions in the People and Service technical committee are Education, Healthcare, Government, Customer Supplier and Service Quality, which are much more industry focused.

And then there is the Social Responsibility division. I have super respect for those people, because they are basically trying to reinvent the definition of quality in a way that can be seen as anathema to the traditional product integrity focused viewpoint.

There is still so much to figure out about the TCCs.
Communities are different from teams; they are based on topics, not on assignments. Easy enough in the ASQ as this is a volunteer organization.
Communities are not sites, team spaces, blogs or wikis; they are groups of people who choose to interact. As the ASQ tries to develop my.ASQ to something folks are actually using, this is a critical principle. The site pages will grow and be used because people are interacting, not drive interaction.

Ravelry seems like a great example on how to do this right. Anyone know of any white papers on Ravelry?
Community leadership and membership should be voluntary; you can suggest that people join, but should not force them to. Divisions are voluntary to join, and people get involved if they chose to.

Please volunteer…..
Communities should span boundaries; they should cross functions, organizations, and geographic locations. The ASQ has this mostly right.

The industry focused communities are made up of members across companies, with a wide spread of locations.
Minimize redundancy in communities; before creating a new one, check if an existing community already addresses the topic. The ASQ hasn’t done a great job of this. One of my major thoughts is that the Quality Management Division has traditionally claimed ownership of the CMQ/OE body of knowledge, but frankly a good chunk of it should be between the Team Excellence and Human Development divisions, which between them seem to have a fair bit of overlap.

Take change management, or project management, or program management. Which one of the three divisions should be focusing on that? All three? Seems a waste of effort. It’s even worse that I know the Lean Division spends a fair amount talking about this.
Communities need critical mass; take steps to build membership.The major dilemma for professional associations. Love to see your suggestions in the comments.
Communities should start with as broad a scope as is reasonable; separate communities can be spun off if warranted. I’m going to say a radical and unpopular thought. If the ASQ was serious about transformation it would have dissolved half of the divisions and then rebuilt them from scratch. Too many are relics of the past and are not relevant in their current construction. Do you truly need a Lean and a Six Sigma forum? A Team Excellence and a Human development (and a quality management).Should biomedical (medical devices) be part of the FDC?
Communities need to be actively nurtured; community leaders need to create, build, and sustain communities. To do this community leaders need training, coaching and mentoring. I’m happy with the connections I’ve started building in headquarters and with a certain board member.

Perhaps one of the focuses of the Team and Workplace Excellence Forum should be to help push the praxis on this.
Communities can be created, led, and supported using TARGETs:
Types (TRAIL — Topic, Role, Audience, Industry, Location)
Activities (SPACE — Subscribe, Post, Attend, Contribute, Engage)
Requirements (SMILE — Subject, Members, Interaction, Leaders, Enthusiasm)
Goals (PATCH — Participation, Anecdotes, Tools, Coverage, Health)
Expectations (SHAPE — Schedule, Host, Answer, Post, Expand)
Tools (SCENT — Site, Calendar, Events, News, Threads).
Okay. So much here. But this helps me build an agenda for a forthcoming meeting.

I may be jumping the gun, but if you are a member of the ASQ and interested in contributing to the Team and Excellence Forum, contact me.