What do you think?

Four seemingly innocent words that so often unleash such mayhem when expressed: what do you think?

I witnessed this phenomenon in a retreat I recently facilitated. A staff member, eager to get feedback from board members, posed that simple question: "What do you think?"

We've probably all learned the shortcomings of close-ended questions, but I'm not sure as much attention is paid to the possible pitfalls of open-ended questions.

Asking, "what did you think?" is an invitation for completely unfiltered, unstructured, and unfocused input or feedback.  Anything goes ... and just about anything is what you'll get.

If that's what you seek, more power to you.  But if you have a decision to make, you probably need more specific reactions, ones this open-ended invite may not elicit.

In my retreat example, responses ranged from tactical criticism to strategic input, from commenting on one specific element of the proposal to questioning the project's overall intent.

After letting participants offer their wide-ranging thoughts for a few minutes, I gently asked the staff member posing the question: what direction do you need from the board in order to make a decision?

Some basic criteria were put forth, and board members tailored their subsequent input accordingly.  In a relatively short time the staff member had what she needed and we moved on to the next agenda item.

As human beings, we aren't always helpful with a carte blanche invitation to share our thoughts. Fortunately, some simple adjustments in the way we have discussions can more quickly gather the input we need and make the decisions more effectively.
  1. Many organizations find Edward deBono's Six Thinking hats to be a useful and easy-to-implement framework to help a group focus their deliberations on a specific idea or question and get maximum input in minimum time. This is called thinking in parallel.  Some do a compressed version of deBono's six-stage process that is called PNI, asking what's positive, what's negative, and what's interesting for the item under consideration.
  2. Determining decision-making rules or criteria in advance of recurring types of decisions provides continuity in process and can help minimize potential political or personality battles that might erupt around one specific decision and its potential consequences. An example would be a board or management team that determine specific thresholds or results that automatically move an idea into a pilot stage or cause an existing program to be evaluated for whether or not it should continue. Decision-making can be enhanced by simple if-then statements or by established criteria which all participants use to rank or evaluate options
  3. When asking for ideas or input, frame your question more narrowly to help respondents focus their responses to what you need.  Doing so means you first have to ask yourself: what feedback or input would I find most helpful?  Once you have clarity you can invite others to share accordingly. Edgar Schein's book, Helping, is a wonderful resource for this area.
  4. Narrowing the input sought is a common approach innovators use, as constraints are known to help inspire fresh thinking and new solutions. Rather than opening up a general call for ideas, they invite ideas that meet a limited number of specific criteria already identified as critical to the innovation envisioned.
  5. You can also use a limited number of criteria as a constraint to help quickly reduce the number of ideas or options that are then discussed in greater detail.  Think of a hiring process in which only candidates who have a college degree and a minimum of three year's relevant experience move on to the next round of review.
  6. Create evaluating forms for workshops or programs that gather the input you need to inform the subsequent decisions you will make. Evaluation forms often are too generic because the future use of the feedback they solicit has not been fully considered.
  7. Distinguish between making an adequate decision versus an optimal decision. Sometimes the
    input we need is to determine if something is "good enough" to be shared or released, but all of the deliberation is about making the product perfect … even though that is not the goal.
  8. Finally, don't forget to be inclusive in how you invite the input you seek. Asking for verbal feedback on-demand biases extroverted feedback and may minimize the amount of ideas you gather from more introverted individuals. Giving time to consider the question and allowing people to share input in written form as well as verbal are simple adjustments you can make to honor their participation.
Asking for feedback or input is helpful, but what you receive in return won't be of much help if you don't tailor your request or frame the discussion more thoughtfully.

So, what do you think?

P.S.  If you're looking for a guide to evidence-based decision making for associations, this PDF resource from Mariner Management & marketing and Spark Consulting is a good read.