Never Say 'If Only' again: Four Tips to Avoid Business Disasters

It is important to get everyone in the habit of earnest, authentic inquiry.

working together

Often behind every "surprise" disaster, a cautionary voice was ignored.

History is riddled with examples of preventable loss, from issues like product recalls to disasters like the Challenger explosion, the Boston molasses flood and the more recent Surfside condo collapse — to name just a few. In each of these situations, there was a voice of warning that was ignored for a variety of tenuous reasons.

In many professional organizations, a natural tension exists between technology, engineering, sales, operations and finance. (Below, I will simply refer to these groups as "science" and "business.") Ideally, this tension creates the best innovations and stellar quality. But the theoretical benefits of adversarial perspectives are lost if some voices aren't heard at all.

Friction between science and business departments is often resolved by "might makes right" — meaning those with the most clout or charisma become the leaders. Decisions are often based on emotion or the need to meet an ambitious goal rather than a robust exploration of all science and business data. Frequently, it is a quiet person who sees problems but whose voice isn't heard. I've also witnessed design teams get set back months by a disapproving comment a leader made on a whim, without any real thought about the implications. This can have the following consequences:

• Withdrawal or departure of people who feel devalued.

• Eruption of big problems with expenses to rework, recall and litigate.

• Sacrifice of both quality and innovation.

Each of these can result in huge losses of dollars and motivation — and in the worst instances, even life.

My first career was in design engineering. I learned very quickly that simply delivering data isn't the same as communication. How you communicate that data means everything. I made it my mission to learn to communicate technical data in a compelling way that motivated and clarified the information for non-technical people so my voice could be heard.

The last two-plus decades, I've shifted my career from engineering to team and leadership development. Now I make a living teaching organizations how to bridge the gap between science and business.

I am confident that differences in opinion can elevate team engagement from ho-hum dysfunction to "healthy awesome" — and that those differences can drive innovation and improve quality, products, people and services. Yet most often, people don't contribute fully and honestly because they want to avoid conflict. They can't hear others because they want to be right, or they withdraw because of intimidation or feeling dismissed. In this setting, the advantage of having a diversity of perspectives is lost.

To nip potential disasters in the bud and optimize both innovation and business success, pay attention to the following:

1. Structure

How is success measured? If your sales department overrides future development for short-term profits, the organization faces an impending loss of discouraged designers. If, instead, people are rewarded for organizational wins rather than departmental wins, it motivates them to work together. What does that look like for your organization?

2. Process

How do you ensure all processes flow seamlessly together? When do you get all your stakeholders together for in-depth, open exploration? Creating a safe space for expression of needs and fears around the topic is a great way to hear all the voices of concern. I use a mapping method where different stakeholders put themselves in the shoes of another stakeholder. They then imagine what the needs and fears are of the other. Later we debrief as a large group and three wonderful things happen:

1. There is a gracious acknowledgment of each stakeholder's needs and fears.

2. The opportunity arises to add and consider other perspectives.

3. A safe place is created to voice and document those fears to a larger group.

3. Culture

What does your culture value? Many organizations post their values on a wall, but are those values deliberately actualized — and how? In many organizations, there is a gaping chasm between what they say they value and what actually happens.

4. Individuals/People

How does your organization develop communication and collaboration skills in your people? Training and development may seem like a luxury for fledgling organizations in particular, but it pales in comparison to the expense of surprise losses or disasters.

At a bare minimum, it is important to get everyone in the habit of earnest, authentic inquiry. Encouraging deliberate, inquisitive language like "Tell me more..." or "What if?" can bring forth great ideas from even the quietest person in the room.

Be an organization that attracts the best people and make sure to set everyone up to listen to all the voices. That's your best bet for avoiding everything from recalls and reworks to large-scale disasters.

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