“Will you share your concern at the next EXCO meeting?”, I ask my client. He looks horrified, “No. This is a taboo subject around here and being the one to raise it again will leave me at risk and unpopular”. But how will you learn from it, I ask?
My client is experiencing what many people experience in many organizations— a significant barrier to team learning; the existence of topics that are “undiscussables”. In exploring a process to assist my client and his team to ‘come clean’ with one another, I turned to The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (Senge, Ross, Smith, Roberts and Kleiner). If you or your team are in a similar situation, this exercise can help (and I highly recommend an external facilitator);
Agree upon some ground rules before beginning. This might include:
- Respect the fear that accompanies this exercise
- Reflect and take notice of your initial response to each undiscussable as it is read aloud.
- Listen for what is said and not said.
- Challenge ideas and assumptions, not people.
- Beware of untested attributions, especially of people’s motives.
STEP 1: GATHERING DATA
Each person on the team is given three postcards and equivalent writing tools, so that everyone has the same colour ink or pencil. Without discussion or collaboration, each person writes one “undiscussable” statement on a card—describing it in enough detail for any reader in the room to understand. If someone’s behaviour is part of the undiscussable, then refer to that person by job title and not by name, because the undiscussable is intended as a statement of a problem, not as an attack on another person. (Examples attached).
STEP 2: DEALING THE CARDS
There are a number of options for doing this. This one is called the blackjack option: someone collects the cards and shuffles and deals them, or puts them in a stack and allows people to draw them. Team members, as they draw or receive a card, place it face up on the table in front of them.
STEP 3: UNCOVERING COMMON THEMES
Each person in turn, reads aloud the three cards from step 2, and then posts them on the wall. When all the cards have been read, team members group them to reflect common themes. The team must decide how many themes will be tackled in this meeting and how to deal with the rest (Leftover undiscussables should be discussed soon, before they go underground again even deeper.)
Starting with an “easy” undiscussable builds the team’s ability to talk about the more difficult topics. Some cards may provoke discussions that can last for hours; thus, every thirty minutes, pause to decide how much more time the team needs to spend on this topic before moving on to the next card. Time checks keep the dialogue on track and help the group determine its progress.
These questions may help guide the dialogue;
1. What is the threat behind the undiscussable?
2. What mental model has allowed this hidden structure to persist?
3. What has kept this issue from being discussed seriously?
4. What are the unintended consequences of the undicussable, in the past, present and future?
5. How does this undiscussable support or block our ability to learn as a team?
6. How does this undiscussable fit with our espoused vision and values?
7. What do we want to do?