My clients represent for profits and non-profits from 38 industries and there is one incredibly costly mistake they all make repeatedly.
I see it in large organizations about to embark on major change with many decisions of consequence. I see it in smaller organizations when the CEO hopes to make a quick decision in a weekly staff meeting.
It occurs at the executive level as well as every other level in the organization.
And yet, it is so simple to fix.
In a nutshell, the problem is a failure to establish a starting point. Common ground. A shared understanding of where things stand and what factors are most important in planning next steps.
This is like giving Google Maps your destination address with location services turned off. The software can’t possibly help you with directions if it doesn’t know where you are to start with. And your staff can’t either.
At the beginning of a major project, the mistake typically manifests itself in immediately trying to head down a particular path without fully agreeing on where things stand, on whether you have a problem or an opportunity, and on what success would look like. If everyone has a different starting position – and they most certainly do – you will struggle to make progress. At best, you will have confusion, each step will be twice as hard as it needs to be, and many steps forward will be followed by two steps back. You will go round and round on decisions. You’ll argue over what is in scope and what is off the table. You won’t be using shared criteria to guide decisions. Some people will be driven by fear. Others will unconsciously lean away or drag their feet for reasons they don’t fully understand. You will struggle to keep discussions focused and productive. Energy will ebb and resentments will grow. And that’s the best case.
At worst, the project proceeds for months and then implodes. Disagreements glossed over early, will rear their ugly heads. I’ve seen this happen with product launches, engagement programs, and major strategic initiatives.
A non-profit client was headed down one of these roads when I got involved recently. At a board meeting laying groundwork for a strategic planning process, a controversial topic was raised. Objections erupted. “We made that decision following considerable research two years ago!” The reality was that half the board considered it an important open issue that we needed to address. This was clearly a disagreement regarding the starting point! And it could have sunk the ship.
While the scale and consequences seemingly shrink when the same mistake is applied to a single decision, the overall impact may be just as costly once you apply a reasonable multiplier representing frequency of occurrence. At a weekly staff meeting, the mistake most commonly occurs when the group dives into a decision without first confirming what has already been decided and agreeing what decision needs to be made next. Seems trivial. But the consequences aren’t.
Let me give you an example of that everyone can relate to. Suppose you tell your friends you are thinking about getting a new car. Now deciding to get a new car is one decision in a series of cascading decisions. But your friends won’t let that slow their advice. Many will leap to their favorite models answering the question, “What kind of car should I buy?” Others will raise one or more of those cascading decisions: buy or lease, new or used, which car are you going to replace, has your partner agreed, what will you use the car for. If this were a staff meeting decision and you wanted to be quick and efficient, you would start by establishing a clear starting point. “We’ve decided to replace my Prius with another commuter car that gets good mileage, but we need something with more space. What kind of car should we be considering?” By making your starting point and the decision at hand clear, you save tremendous time and prevent a host of extraneous conversation.
Complexity and group size increase the importance of having a clear, shared understanding of the starting point. I’ve worked with many large groups often comprised of representatives from different organizations, divisions, and departments. I’ve taken them from distrust, misunderstanding, and wholesale animosity to unanimous conclusions requiring change and compromise by all. In every case, I can say that a good part of my success stemmed from finding that common ground up front. If you want a group to embrace a shared outcome, you will get there faster and more reliably if you begin by creating that starting point. Some good questions to ask include:
• What are we trying to accomplish?
• Why do we want to change?
• What decision are we trying to make and what decisions have been made already?
• What factors should govern our decisions?
• What’s negotiable and what isn’t?
• What scares us and what gives us hope?
• What would success look like?
Progress and commitment for any project or decision accelerate if you agree first on where you are. Clear common ground is one of most important building blocks for progress.
This article originally appeared on Forbes.com on October 19th, 2016.