Building Common Knowledge to Get Results - Pharmaceutical Executive

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Building Common Knowledge to Get Results
When leaders take their eyes off the prize to expand their teams' perspectives, they get the outcomes they're looking for


Pharmaceutical Executive



Spiraling Deeper into the Black Hole
Every cross-functional team, by its very nature, delivers a steady stream of surprises to its members. People don't know what is unique about their own point of view, and if they don't learn anything about their teammates' perspectives, they will continue to be disappointed by others' responses. In fact, in this short conversation, Mike and Pat play through the same cycle four times, with no end in sight. They spiral deeper into the black hole. (See Chart.)

Breaking the Cycle Instead of focusing on the results as she defines them, and defending her version of the problem, a leader can reframe the whole situation.

When Mike first does something that doesn't further Pat's goals, she doesn't have to think, "Mike's got it wrong," and automatically try to manage the situation. She can tell herself instead, "This is a clue to something I don't understand. It might be a clue to something Mike doesn't understand." This reframes the issue entirely. By recognizing that her own perspective may be incomplete, Pat can expand her frame to include more options for action than simply repeating herself. Pat can do the following:

  • Find out what Mike sees.
  • Fill Mike in on what he doesn't see.
  • Look more closely at different interpretations of the issue.
  • Array all the priorities.
  • Identify alternative ways to meet the deadlines.

All of these actions expand the knowledge of the team. When leaders take this approach regularly, team members gain multiple perspectives, expanding the resources they bring to bear on issues. They become less vulnerable to being surprised or to interfering with each other's results.

If reframing is so great, why doesn't everybody do it?

For one thing, the human brain is hard-wired for the classic reaction response. As cognitive scientist James Reason points out in his book, Human Error, the brain is quick to transform a few data points into a fully formed image of a situation. Unfortunately, the brain needs much more time to determine if the interpretation is correct.

For another, this defensive reaction cycle is nearly universal. In their work on organizational learning, Harvard's Chris Argyris, Bob Putnam (co-facilitator of the Tufts CSDD course), and Diana Smith point out that almost all members of organizations follow unspoken rules, including: "Achieve my purpose as I define it," and "Win, don't lose."

Like any new skill, reframing takes practice—trying out new actions and seeing what happens. In the Tufts course, participants share leadership challenges from their professional experience and offer them (anonymously) to the class for resolution. We analyze the issues, re-design new actions for the leader, and have participants test out the new approach in role plays.

A Fresh Approach Here's a real case that course participants tackled recently: The leader of a new clinical project in China believes that on a previous project, the time from last patient visit to the delivery of a clinical report—12 months—was too long. She organizes a meeting with the regulatory affairs manager for Asia (RA), and the data manager (DM), who is also in charge of report writing.

Leader: Thanks to both of you for agreeing to this meeting to find ways to reduce our timelines. Do you have an explanation for the previous project's delay?

DM: We have followed our usual procedure, which applies to all our development studies.

RA: The problem could be that the standard report provided by your department has to be rewritten in Chinese and in another format by the Chinese coordinator, and then translated back into English and validated by us. This may explain the delay.

DM: I was not previously aware of this.


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