Is the answer in the room?

1 December 2018
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One of the precepts of the EOS program is, “The answer is in the room.”  It’s a phrase that’s used to emphasize the importance of discussion in addressing important issues, and I am a full supporter of that idea.

The problem is, the phrase itself is not quite right.

WELL…SOME KIND OF ANSWER IS IN THE ROOM

A more accurate phrase would be, “An answer is in the room.”

And it’s the job of the CEO to know whether it’s the answer or an answer that is in the room – whether your team has the right stuff to understand and evaluate the issue and the options for solving it…or not.  Because if they don’t, but they think they do, then you are wading into dangerous territory.

It’s not that dangerous if the issue is minor.  But if it’s a major strategic decision…having the wrong answer is a big problem.

EVALUATING THE QUALITY OF YOUR TEAM’S ANSWER

So, how do you gauge whether you are getting an answer (a poor or bad decision) or the answer (a good decision)?  Here are some questions you can ask:

  • Have we seen this situation before?  Or something similar?  Or has someone on our team?
  • Can we come up with a list of risks that would make our banker (or some other knowledgeable skeptic) proud for how pessimistic the list makes us appear?
  • Can we come up with 3 strong options for handling the situation?
  • Is there more than one person who is worried that the answer may not be in the room?

A CAUTIONARY TALE

Let me talk more about that last one.  The biggest business mistake that I have witnessed was when a client decided that the answer was not in the room for them.  They hired me to write a plan for a new initiative, discussed and agreed to the plan as a team…and then 2 weeks later the CEO came up with an alternative “short cut” approach.

That short cut ended up costing the company between $2MM and $10MM, depending on how much you count the indirect impact that decision had.  At the time the leadership team was discussing the short cut, there were 3 members of the team who said, “We just paid for a plan, and we all said we liked the plan – why are we not following the plan?  Why do we think we have a better answer than the plan now?”  (Which is another way of saying, “The answer is not in the room.”)

HOW THEY GOT IT WRONG

Why did most of the team change their minds?  Because the CEO had a long history of running and building the business, and the majority of the leadership team said, “If you think this is the right thing to do, we trust you.”  What they missed was that the CEO had not pursued a strategy like this before – it was a new area for him, and it was more complicated than anything he’d worked on before.

The team needed to listen to the skeptics more – and there’s a lesson there for you, dear CEO, if you find yourself in a similar situation.

YOU BE THE JUDGE

If you’re a CEO listening to your team debate a topic, you have another role you need to play – you need to raise yourself above the discussion, and look down on it, and critique whether the sophistication of the discussion matches the complexity of the issue and the quantity of the resources you’re going to commit to the answer.