Sharpen the Questions: Groups
Get to Alignment with Your Group Faster by Asking Hard Questions
We had a rule in our team called #saythething: Whenever you walked into a meeting, you weren’t allowed to leave anything unsaid. That meant no side conversations, no 1:1 lobbying, and no regrets at having not spoken your mind. We started this rule because we were finding that trust was low. It was difficult to get on the same page when people were forming factions outside the meeting or not stating what they truly thought. As a result, everyone was left wondering if they had missed out on some crucial piece of information, or there was some hidden agenda.
It takes time to build trust on any team, but that process becomes even slower when there is a lack of true transparency. The rule #saythething was meant to short circuit that uncertainty and ensure the conversation was out in the open. By prioritizing openness, we were able to reach alignment more quickly and build trust among our team members.
Sometimes a group of people needs to warm up to one another before they feel comfortable sharing their point of view. Other times, they prefer to contemplate what they want to say before they say it, rather than responding to a question or idea on the fly. Regardless, it’s common in any group for many things to go unsaid. That’s why it’s so important to set up questions that elicit the answers without creating conflict. In today’s post, I will discuss how you can sharpen your questions to promote more honest and productive group discussions. (Look out for a future post on how to do this in individual conversations, as well!)
If you are in a group that needs to reach alignment faster, examine the questions you’re asking and the way that you’re asking them. Often, a few simple adjustments to the discussion can help you get unstuck.
Submit and Rank: Identify Opportunities
One exercise I like to use revolves around ranking. We recently did an unblocking and unlocking exercise, where each executive was asked to submit three things they thought we could be doing better. There was no limitation on what these things were, and they were meant to cut across teams and functions. Participants submitted all their suggestions to one person, who then organized them based on eight common themes. The group then voted to rank each theme from 1 to 8 in order of priority, based on what they felt were the most pressing issues.
Here’s a step-by-step breakdown:
Each person submits three areas of improvement for the company.
One person collates all of the information into a single document, divided into broad categories based on common themes. (We ended up with eight, but there’s no set number.)
The broader themes and individual comments are collated are shared back with a group offline.
Before the meeting, each person in the group ranks the categories in order of priority.
The results are tallied, and then each of the items is discussed in person.
Why this works:
We do this as an asynchronous exercise, because often in a brainstorm, those who are most engaged or outgoing tend to dominate the conversation. This way, everyone has a chance to reflect and think carefully about what they really care about. Because everyone responds independently, they are not influenced by other people in the room. The same goes for the voting process: We use a table where everyone inputs their ranking and then turns the font white, so that it's not visible to the naked eye. This prevents anyone from allowing others’ rankings to influence their own.
$100 Bids: Allocating Resources
Another exercise that is great for teams who are facing difficult decisions is the $100 exercise. Each person in the group is given a hypothetical $100 to allocate to different priorities. Some may put all $100 toward one thing, while others may choose to spread it out. This task accomplishes two things: the relative ranking of team members’ priorities (much like the last exercise) and the intensity of their feelings toward different issues. It looks like this:
Each person gets a sum of money to allocate.
Participants choose a dollar value to place on each item of discussion.
The totals are then shared.
Each person may opt to talk about why they made a specific choice.
The exercise can be done in various ways, whether with monopoly money or virtually through a spreadsheet. We used this with the kids when we were assigning chores. They each got 100 points to put toward the chores they hated most. The goal was to minimize the “family cost” of chores by assigning them based on who disliked doing what. This backfired when Jonathan put all 100 points on dishwashing, something he hated. Bethany put 50 on it, and thus Danielle, who was fine doing the dishes, ended up doing 150 points’ worth of chores. This meant that Jonathan and Bethany ended up doing everything else on the list in exchange for avoiding a chore they both really disliked.
Why this works: This exercise helps teams think in terms of priority and preference at the same time. It illuminates the strength of feelings, not just a relative ranking based on preferences or other outside factors.
Rating and Reviews: Evaluate and Improve
Each time we hold a board meeting, we do a post-mortem to talk about the process, how it went, and what could have gone better. We gather everyone in a room and we discuss our performance as a team.
I have had similar discussions in the past, but they have often been vague and difficult to parse. To avoid this, one thing we do is go around and ask, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate this meeting?” Everyone responds. A good follow up question is, “If you rated it a 7, what could have made it an 8?” This allows input that helps us drive continuous improvement in our process and performance. The steps are:
Inform everyone that there will be a rating and review exercise during the meeting.
After the discussion, ask each person to say their number and explain why they chose it.
(Optional: Ask each person what could have made their ranking one point higher.
Why this works: This exercise gives everyone in the room an equal opportunity to discuss a topic. It also gives them a chance to share insights about why they gave the rating they did. This allows the team to gauge different assessments and points of view together.
The Word: Getting to Know You
This is a great team ice breaker for a group that is starting to go deeper. This process is more about getting to know each other and building rapport, and it requires a bit of pre-work. For this exercise, each participant chooses a word that is meaningful to them. Some might pick aspirational words representing who they hope to become, while others select reminders of a truth they want to honor. Others’ words are inside jokes that they want to keep close to their hearts. Once everyone has chosen a word, the list of words is shared with the group and the others try to figure out who chose which one. The process looks like this:
A few weeks before the meeting, everyone submits a word to the designated coordinator via email.
The coordinator orders bracelets with each person’s word printed on them.
The coordinator lists all the words, leaving a blank space next to each one.
The team tries to guess who chose each word.
At the end of the activity, each participant receives the bracelet with the word they chose imprinted on it to carry with them.
During the session, everyone receives the list of words and are given 20 minutes to guess whose word is whose. The coordinator then reads each word aloud, and participants discuss who they each think picked it. The person then reveals themselves, sharing why they chose their word and why it is meaningful to them.
We then hand out bracelets imprinted words which we can carry with us as a reminder of our commitment to each other as a team.
Why this works: This lighthearted exercise is a great way for team members to learn from one another and deepen relationships. Often it is a huge morale booster, because it allows participants to voice and internalize the positive qualities they see in one another.
Each of these exercises is designed to help your team deepen its work and grow closer. By sharpening your questions to promote honest discussions, you will reach alignment faster and bring out the best in each of your group members.
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