Are you all trying to solve the same problem?

In a recent ACT Government workshop, I asked everyone in the room to define 12 project elements. There were 30 people in the workshop, and we ended up with at least 10 different definitions for each element.

Everyone was working on the same project, but they were all trying to solve a different problem.

How conflict arises

Consider this.

You’re working on a project, trying your hardest to hit the deadline and deliver high quality work. Your colleague keeps disrupting the project with things that just aren’t important. They’re wasting their time, your time, limited resources, and generally making life harder for you by focusing on the wrong things.

“Why are they being so obstructive?” you wail to your friend at after work drinks.

Meanwhile your colleague is having the exact same conversation, about how they’re trying to hit a deadline and deliver high quality work, while they think YOU are derailing them with things that just aren’t important.

So nothing’s getting completed, and conflict starts to build.

We don’t want to look foolish

International speaker and researcher Brene Brown has said when she works in organisations experiencing a lot of conflict, the first thing she’ll ask everyone is, ‘What problem are you trying to solve?’

And very often, everyone is trying to solve a different problem.

But when you’re already halfway through a project, and things just aren’t going to plan, asking the most basic question of all – what are we even trying to do here? – feels like a risky question.

  • It might make you look foolish
  • It might make everyone thing you don’t know what you’re doing
  • It might make your leader lose confidence in you
  • It might… insert your biggest fear about work and how people see you!

So we don’t ask, and we all keep working on our different problems, things don’t work smoothly and we spend our Friday nights complaining about the people we work with.

So, ask the ‘dumb question’

When things aren’t going to plan, and it feels like you’re all pulling in different directions, pause for a moment and check in.

What are we each trying to solve right now?

The answers to that simple question will give you most of the information you need to get things moving in the right direction, and:

  • Identify hidden assumptions,
  • Clarify how knowledge gaps are impacting decision making,
  • Diagnose project blind spots,
  • Enable productive conversations about priorities.

Dumb questions can yield useful responses!

When to bring everyone together

The best time to have this conversation is right at the beginning of the project. The second best time is as soon as you realise there are assumptions or conflict.

The worst time to talk is after you’ve missed the deadline and when everyone is fighting.

Facilitators make all the difference

Facilitated conversations:

  • Provide a safe place to ask those ‘dumb questions’
  • Give everyone the opportunity to speak up and provide input
  • Have an unbiased perspective on inputs, outcomes and who should be doing what
  • Stop issues escalating beyond repair

To chat about your upcoming project or workshop, send me a message here.

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