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  • Joshua Wilson

Try this Experiment: A Conversation about Change

Context: Including your colleagues in conversations about changes that might affect them is hard, but important. Here’s an experiment to help you give it a try. Check out this Ideas post for more background.

Goal: See what happens if you invite people into the conversation about potential changes that might affect them.

Overview: Pick a change you know you need to implement at some point, and that you haven’t yet started to plan, or even that you may have been putting off. Invite your colleagues to collaboratively think through the key issues you’ve identified.

Instructions: Tell your team up front that you’re doing things perhaps a little differently. You want to invite them to help you address a challenge you know the team faces. Tell them the problem or challenge the team faces, or the outcome you’re looking for. Then invite their input one person at a time, working bit by bit to draw out thoughts and reactions. First, invite them to ask you clarifying questions about the change you have in mind—these are questions that ask for data, facts, or information, and that don’t express an option (directly or indirectly). Then, when you’re satisfied (and they’re satisfied) that they understand what the challenge is, ask them to share how they feel about it.

And that’s it! Your goal is just to let people understand what you have in mind (as vague as it might be) and let them react to it. Counterintuitively, you’re not looking for any solutions, tactics, or concrete ways forward. You’re just inviting them to hear your perspective, understand the challenge or need, and have a chance to think about it a bit. At the end of the meeting you should know a lot of things: whether your sense of what’s needed is convincing and understandable; how your colleagues feel about your ideas; who is on board and who isn’t; and, most importantly, what the salient concerns are that you’ll need to overcome if the team is to buy into the project.

You can end the meeting in a lot of ways, depending on how things go. If you learned a lot that you weren’t expecting, you can say that, thank the team, and say you need to think about this further, and you’ll follow up shortly. If people seemed generally on board, you can thank the team for helping you confirm the project is appropriate, and say you’ll invite them to a more detailed planning session soon. If you sensed a lot of pushback, you can thank the team for sharing how they felt, tell them you heard more objections than you expected, and tell them you want to understand their perspectives further before you take any action.

Some important notes:

  • As often is the case in our exercises, the point is to let your team say what they think, not to correct what they think. You need to make sure that when people say what they’re thinking, they don’t get attacked, dismissed, or put down in some way. You’ll need to head off defensiveness or challenges if these come up. **In particular, when people ask questions about your idea, simply answer truthfully; when they share their reactions, acknowledge how they feel. You can also ask for more information, examples, or evidence as a way to help shift them in a productive direction.

  • Watch out for the bandwagon effect. You’re seeking everyone’s frank views on the change at hand. Watch out for the natural tendency to align with with the thoughts expressed by a previous speaker. And if people have built up a lot of thoughts and feelings from weeks and months of not really saying what they think, a lot of that might come pouring out. You or your facilitator will need to be ready to (gently) nudge people out of spiraling into a gripe session or losing focus. “I hear you don’t like this direction — can you say more about why? You say we’re always doing foolish things like this? Can you tell me what that means?”

  • As always, you need to be prepared to act on what you hear. There’s a chance you may learn things that you’ll need to act on—problems, challenges, issues you hadn’t realized were there, or you hadn’t realized were as thorny as they are. This may feel gross, but it’s actually an awesome outcome—without this kind of conversation, how would you have known about them? Note: you don’t need to fix all problems in the moment; when these come up, just say “this sounds like something we need to do something about . . . give me a chance to think about this, and I’ll let you know what I think we should do” Or, better yet, “would anyone here be willing to tackle this with me?”


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