We all have issues! Some are mundane personal annoyances like “why can’t I ever find my car keys?” or “why won’t my daughter take out the garbage without being reminded seven times?” But many others represent potential stumbling blocks to our professional and/or business success. As therapeutic as it might be to tackle the first category, as a professional business facilitator I’m going to focus on the latter.
For my purposes, an “issue” is anything that presents a challenge or causes you, as a business leader, consternation. Examples include:
- “We consistently miss our sales targets.”
- “Our operating margins are slipping.”
- “Our customer satisfaction scores are trending downward.”
- “We’re experiencing an increase in employee turnover.”
- “My team and I can’t seem to stay on the same page.”
- “Our competitors seem to be one step ahead of us.”
Any of those sound familiar? Issues present themselves every day at every level within the organization – departmental, divisional, SBU and corporate. The challenge is to develop ways to consistently address such issues in a rational and timely manner that leads to prioritized actions.
One of the best ways I’ve found to address an organization’s pressing issues is through structured Issue Processing Meetings. These meetings have a singular focus – to surface, prioritize and address stumbling blocks to improved organizational performance. Sounds simple enough, right? Sometimes yes, but more often than not these meetings can be challenging to execute well.
Here’s an approach to facilitating Issue Processing Meetings that I find works well in many, many circumstances. It has three simple-sounding steps:
- Identify candidate issues,
- Prioritize those issues, and
- Develop action plans to resolve high-priority issues (and ignore the rest).
For illustration purposes, let’s assume we want to address corporate-level issues – issues that are central to overall organizational success. In this case, invitees to our Issue Processing Meeting will probably include members of the executive staff plus, maybe, selected others with specialized insight and knowledge (e.g., additional sales and marketing leaders if our primary issues seem to be customer-related, or plant managers or other supply chain folks if our issues are more operational). The key is to get in the same room at the same time those individuals who can articulate, debate and develop next steps for your most important current issues.
After everyone is assembled and preliminary meeting start-up activities have been completed (these are topics for another day), we can get down to the actual issue processing mechanics. The first step is for the meeting leader (either the ranking attendee or a third party facilitator) to reiterate the purpose of this session. In this example, such a framing statement might be “We are here to identify and address the most consequential challenges facing us today.” That’s a pretty broad statement, but opening the initial conversation to as many potential issues as possible helps ensure that something important isn’t inadvertently overlooked because of premature focus.
Step 1 – IDENTIFY
“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” ― Stephen R. Covey
Small Group Lists
With this framing statement clearly in mind, the next task is to do what I call “sweeping the floor.” The idea is to collect – to “sweep up” – as many issues as you can in a short amount of time. Ask each meeting attendee to take a few minutes to privately think about the framing question and to list, for themselves, the top 3-5 issues they believe fall under the framing question’s umbrella. It’s important that everyone has a few minutes to think through this before any discussion or comparing of notes (why that’s important is also a topic for a future time; but trust me, this step is key).
Attendees are then clustered into small groups to share with one another their individual issue lists. Instruct these small groups to first exchange personal lists to see if there are any duplicates. If there are, that immediately suggested the duplicate ideas may be important to address.
Seek First to Understand
The next step is for the small groups to discuss each candidate issue, but to withhold judgement (for now) regarding the relative merits of each idea. As Stephen Covey admonished in “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” we must first try to understand what is being presented to us before we go all alpha-dog (I’m paraphrasing here) to denigrate the idea or, equally damaging at this point in the process, offer premature solutions. Ask each other questions like “Why do you feel this issue is important?” or “Are you aware of any efforts currently underway to address this issue and, if so, what are they?”
Once small group members understand the various issues being discussed, they are challenged to narrow the group’s lists to the top 3-5 issues that the whole group feels warrant further exploration by the larger group. This is the meeting’s first opportunity to encourage attendees to practice consensus building.
The Final List
A spokesperson for each small group presents their consensus list of suggested key issues to the larger group. At this point, the same ground rules used in the small group discussions apply (i.e., ask clarifying questions but don’t dismiss or attempt to address issues at his point).
Once all candidate issues are presented, duplicates eliminated, ideas consolidated where appropriate and the larger group fully understands the issues being proffered… congratulations! You have a final list of key issues that, if successfully addressed, will significantly impact your business’ success. But wait, you say. You have more candidate issues than you have resources or bandwidth to address.
If past experience is any indicator of future results, I can almost guarantee that this final list will be overwhelming. So the question becomes, how to prioritize a worthy list of candidate issues? Which ones warrant follow-up actions?
There are a host of ways to prioritize such as list, including simply having the group leader decide. But if you would like to actually develop a consensus regarding next steps, I suggest you consider the following.
Step 2 – PRIORITIZE
“When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.” ― Karen Martin
The Impact-Effort Matrix is a very simple, yet effective, visual tool for quickly identifying which issues – when resolved – will have the most significant impact on future results. The idea is to rank, relative to one another, each of the issues surfaced during your session. At this point, absolute values (e.g., potential costs, potential revenue impacts, potential cultural impacts, etc.) are not required. The key is to simply sort the candidate issues based on the group’s best judgments and insights. If the right people were invited to your issue processing meeting in the first place, this is not as hard as it may sound.
Using flip charts, whiteboards or pre-printed posters, reproduce two versions of the Impact-Effort Matrix. Create four stacks of post-it notes, each containing all of the candidate issues on your Final List above (one issue per note). Split the group into two teams, each of which gets two stacks of candidate issue post-it notes.
I suggest starting with the vertical axis – Impact. Each group, working separately, is challenged to sort all of the candidate issues from low to high based solely on the group’s assessment of how impactful resolution of each issue might be to the business. This is not a mathematical exercise. It is an insight, judgment, force-ranking exercise. Place issue post-it notes, in rank order, along the vertical axis.
Next, do the same thing with the second set of post-it notes on the horizontal axis – Effort. Based on the group’s assessment of the relative effort (e.g., time, resources, money, etc.) required to address each candidate issue, place issue post-it notes along the horizontal axis.
For each candidate issue, you now have “relative values” for each axis – Impact and Effort. Simply shift the post-it notes along the horizontal axis up the chart to correspond to their respective Impact “value” on the vertical axis. Now take a step back. Each small group has sorted the Final List of candidate issues into one of four quadrants. Each quadrant corresponds to the relative importance of working to address each individual issue.
Depending on the degree of alignment between the charts developed by the two groups, you may need to facilitate a discussion with the larger group. But without too much trouble, the entire group should be able to align around which issues fall into which quadrants.
Step 3 – TAKE ACTION
“Remember, a real decision is measured by the fact that you’ve taken new action. If there’s no action, you haven’t truly decided.” ― Anthony Robbins
The last step is to create action plans that identify what needs to be done by whom and by when to address the issues in the Launch Now quadrant and, to the extent your organization has the appetite and resources to address more, some of the issues in the Consider Launching quadrants.
It should go without saying that issues that fall into the Don’t Launch quadrant should be tabled for possible future consideration but not addressed at this time.
Focus, Focus, Focus
If done well, the first two steps in this issue processing approach will yield a handful of issues that meeting participants agree are most important to be addressed at this time. This focus on just a few things, just a few issues, represents alignment – that sometimes elusive “holy grail” of team leadership that is the precursor to achieving breakthrough results.
For each priority issue, the group now needs to identify:
- What more do we need to know to be equipped to address the issue,
- How do we obtain that knowledge/insight expeditiously, and
- Who will lead the charge for each priority issue?
On occasion, the group might actually be able to tee up one or more hypotheses – strawmen – regarding what specific action(s) should be taken to address a particular issue. In these cases, the group needs to articulate how the hypothetical response(s) can be vetted, by whom and by when.
The work product from this last step should be a list of Action Items which detail what is going to be done by whom and by when to start addressing each priority issue. This Action Items list should feature prominently in subsequent meetings and conversations to help ensure that the business stays on track by continuing to focus on those issues that this process highlighted as being most important.
I’ve used this approach with businesses of all sizes and in all sorts of industry sectors. It works. Here is an actual Impact-Effort Matrix recently developed by an SMB client. The issue descriptors have been removed to protect the client’s confidentiality.
In this case, the company’s senior management identified one issue – #2 – that was important to address ASAP. As resources allowed, they also addressed issues 5, 6, 7, 1 and 3 (in that order). Action plans were developed during our Issue Processing meeting and are being implemented. Early results are highly encouraging.
Give it a try. Your company’s issues await!