Influencing Options

Meetings are particularly effective when the people within them take ownership for working out what needs to be done and then commit themselves to do it.
To achieve this, attendees typically need to have invested something of themselves (their ideas, opinions, experience and/or analysis) into the conclusion, and to have their concerns properly appreciated and handled by their colleagues.

For these reasons, the more that the team can work out for themselves, and the less the leader has to participate, the better.
Every time the leader contributes their own ideas, opinions, experience and/or analysis, they miss an opportunity for someone else to develop ownership by doing the same, and they risk cutting across emerging ownership by taking back control of the outcomes.
The result may be a better technical answer, but it is almost always one which is less likely to be implemented. It is better to have something which is 80% right with 80% commitment, than something which is 99% right with 20% commitment.
But how does a leader bring about something that is 80% right without participating? The answer lies in the options that the leader has for influencing the style of the discussion.
You can often influence the outcome, to at least 80% confidence, without providing a single answer. The trick lies in coming up with the right question at the right time, and the process begins well before the meeting has even started.
  1. Questions before the meeting: Interview people about their own hopes and aspirations for the meeting, and the potential they see in it. In doing so, you elevate their perspective of power and potential of the meeting to benefit the things they value and engage them in its success. You do not have to do anything about these things from the outset, merely to understand where people are coming from and to ignite their interest.
  2. Questions designed into the meeting: Reflect on the common elements on the answers you have from your interviews, and the possibilities of harnessing that to reconcile their differences. Work through what will need to happen in the meetings to achieve this, and develop these into a series of questions for the meeting to answer collectively. These questions can form the structure for the agenda, or the basis of various debates and exercises.
  3. Questions of preparation: Is there useful research or self-reflection that people can do in preparing themselves to play an active part in the meeting. Can these be posed as questions to participants before the meeting so that they arrive better prepared for playing a full and constructive part in the meeting process.
  4. Questions to guide the meeting: A well constructed meeting can sometimes arrive at a conclusion which is sufficiently right with virtually no intervention from the leader, However, if it does need a nudge away from the odd wrong conclusion or cul-de-sac, this can usually be achieved better by a question than a statement. For instance ‘We need to set up a Gantt chart’ could be replaced with ‘How should we make sure everything comes together at the right time?’ The result may be the same, but the ownership could be different. Use the inputs that occur to you as statements to identify the most productive question to generate that answer (or perhaps something better).
  5. Questions to deflect questions: It is natural for a group to defer to its leader, and so you will inevitably get questions which expect an input from you. Where providing that input risks a shift of perceived ownership, it may be better to throw the question back out into the group. Perhaps with a response like: ‘Before I answer that I would like to hear other people’s input. What does anybody else think?’. And then add in follow up questions as required to develop the quality of the answer.
  6. Questions to conclude the meeting: There is always a danger that in concluding the meeting, summarising the outcomes subtly shifts the perception of ownership back to the leader. This can be avoided by asking other people to summarise different aspects of the meeting. Perhaps a final question can be: ‘So are we all clear on what needs to happen next?’ Another good question is ‘Would we each be willing o bet £500 of our own money in the success of this project?’ with a supplementary question of ‘So what do we need to change to give us that confidence?’ if the answer is not positive.
For some examples of the type of questions that might be used within a meeting, please take a look at  Questions to influence the flow

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