How to Provide Input Constructively

September 30, 2015 liane

In three sessions with three different teams recently, the key theme has been the lack of shared ownership: A phenomenon one participant described as “everyone swimming their own race.“

This affects the value added by the team in two ways. First, when you’re focused on your own responsibilities, you’re unlikely to provide input on other people’s work. I heard candid confessions like “I’m sitting at this table, but what I’m really focused on is the stuff that I’m accountable for. When you’re talking about your stuff, it’s interesting, but I’m not really invested.”

The second way it can show up is how you respond to work you’re asked to review. If you haven’t provided input during the planning stages, you have little sense of ownership of the work but a strong sense of accountability as a member of the team. When you’re not invested in the work but you are invested in the outcome, you can become overly aggressive.

It’s not even worth having a team if you’re not going to provide input on one another’s work, so let’s start with the assumption that providing input is good. But not all input is valuable. Some is even harmful. Let’s start there.

Pooping in the Pool

Although your teammates might be actively seeking your input, if your attempts at crossing into their lane are clumsy, they will quickly wish you had stayed away. Here are a few things I would include in the definition of clumsy cross-functional behavior:

  • Using definitive statements about whether something is good or bad; right or wrong. “This is not what we need.”
  • Over-stepping your technical expertise. “I might not be in advertising, but I know this ad is not going to create the right feeling among customers.”
  • Representing your perspective as that of many people. “We aren’t comfortable with the approach you have taken.”
  • Using opinion or judgment rather than evidence. “This is a really risky way of doing this.”

Those are aversive statements for the person who is presenting their work. Nor are they particularly helpful to making the product any better. You crossed over into someone’s swim lane and did damage without adding any value. I colloquially refer to this as “pooping in the pool.” And once somebody poops in the pool, it takes a long time for anybody to want to go back in.

Proper etiquette for public swim

When the swim lanes are removed and you have the chance to hear about and contribute to the work going on in other parts of your team, it’s important to follow some simple rules that will make it good for everyone.

  1. Start with the right mindset. It is critical that you think of yourself as an ally who has an obligation to help make the work as good as possible. As an ally, you want to provide input in a way that opens up the discussion rather than creates defensiveness and closes it down.
  2. Start with a positive assumption. For those of you who have read my book You First, you’ll know that rule #1 is to start with a positive assumption. Once you assume your teammate is capable; assume he did his homework; assume she is doing her best for the team, the conversation will be much more constructive. (Even if the conversation reveals that the assumption was untrue!)
  3. Be curious and use questions. Replace all those definitive statements you might have made with questions that will promote understanding. “I’m not understanding how this will meet our objectives. Walk me through your thinking process.”
  4. Use hypotheses. Another useful technique when you want to offer a perspective is to share it as a hypothesis. Hypotheses feel less abrasive to the person soliciting input. “I’m wondering if this is going to rub millennials the wrong way?”
  5. Use hypotheticals. You can also introduce a different perspective by making it a thought experiment. Then you’re inviting people to think of the situation differently. “What if we were to wait until October to launch this? How would it play out differently?”

Being deliberate with your language will open the conversation up and give you a chance to add your full value. Small adjustments will make a big difference.

Note to the Lifeguard

If you’re the team leader, your facilitation of cross-team conversations will set the tone for what is, and is not, acceptable behavior. The moment you attack someone’s work, it will be fair game for everyone to do the same. That’s why it’s extra important that you know, promote, and live by the rules.

Now, everybody back in the pool!

 
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