What’s on your mind? What occupies your thoughts? What challenges you or stresses you out at the moment? Or do you have any good experiences you would like to share with others to help them improve?
WHAT?! – Do I have to tell others that I am challenged by something, have a problem or have been good at something? The answer is YES! And YES – these things are difficult to share! “I wonder what the others will think of me?” Will they think I am incompetent or silly or that I want to show off?
This article describes an engaging process for projects, teams or departments to handle challenges. The process supports team development and creates a space for knowledge sharing and skill development.
In this article, “topic” refers to the assignment, task or things we collaborate on.
No one wants to be seen as incompetent, not to have understood the assignment/task, to ask silly questions or make changes to a comfortable status quo. It is a lot safer to stay quiet. Then no one perceives you that way – yet!
Nonetheless, challenges, questions or lack of understanding exist when we work together on projects, assignments or departments on shared goals or purposes. It is a part of the definition of projects and their work form that there are things we don’t know yet – a smaller or larger part of the project is novel territory – and no one knows the answers ahead of time.
So if you are challenged by something, this challenge can become the project’s and thereby everybody’s challenge. Instead of doing the easiest – that being nothing – it is in everyone’s best interest to handle the challenge as quickly as possible.
We need to talk about difficult things and ask for support. Hence, things improve because we collaborate – not just on the assignment/task itself – but also on the relationship and on being able to share a concern/challenge.
This process, What’s on your mind, is a simple, quick, relationship-building, engaging and efficient way to share knowledge regarding either challenges or good experiences. Furthermore, the process supports the building of psychological security.
”Together Everyone Achieves More” abbreviated TEAM focuses on just that – developing together as a team, from a group at assignment emerging into a well-functioning team. From Forming/Storming to Norming/Performing as described in Tuckman’s team development model.
Many people might think, “What’s in it for me (WIIFM)?” or why must I be a part of this team? This might be important to figure out – but for the team to develop, everyone has to contribute something to the team – helping each other, so it also becomes” What’s in it for us (WIIFU).” The attitude becomes: No single person is better than everyone together! Everybody can do something, but nobody can do everything!
It might help to start the discussions with “I wonder why…” or “can someone help me with…” Suppose no one on the team can help with the challenge! That fact is also an important finding that might lead to the “assignment owner” (leader, project manager, product owner) supporting the team with the needed explanation or knowledge – which could be another good reason to start the process.
Hopefully, someone on the team can help and here is the process description:
Timeboxes (total of 1 hour – for up to 20 participants)
- 10 min: Greeting everyone and setting up cards with discussion topics (challenges)
- 10 min: Selecting topics and forming groups
- 20 min: Developing action plans in the groups
- 10 min: Concluding on action plans for each selected topic
- 10 min: The topic owners make a recap, meeting facilitator takes photos of the meeting tropic cards and updates the tropic status and backlog
All participants write down one sentence that they would like to share on a card (A5). It is a good idea to write with black markers on cards of light colors, making it easier to read from a distance. The sentence describes a challenge the participant would like to get help to deal with. There are no filters – it’s permitted to write anything.
Some of my team members are frequently leaving to support the production and my schedule suffers – we are behind schedule
The project owner is busy with many other tasks, and it is difficult to make decisions, so we are falling behind schedule.
The name of the process, What’s on your mind refers to what you are thinking about right now, so often, the topics chosen become very actual and relevant. This exercise requires minimal preparation – a significant advantage in a very often too busy work life.
Which challenges do we have?
Attach all the cards to the wall and let the participants read the sentences on all the cards. The writers must refrain from explaining the meaning or context of the statements to avoid influencing anyone’s understanding and unwittingly constraining the next part of the process.
Too much explanation hinders creativity and innovation! It also takes too much time to explain all the cards – and experience shows that, in most cases, it isn’t necessary either because the participants already have a joint goal and purpose or professional interest.
In addition, challenges might be added from the last meeting where the process was carried out. They should be included in the prioritization (from the tropic backlog) if they are still relevant – this is decided by the topic owner (card owner).
Prioritizing topics and forming groups
After this, each participant completes a “dot vote” to decide which topic (card) they would like to continue working on in a small group. It is recommended to limit the number of participants, allowing 3-4 participants in each group. Each participant has only one vote (a dot made with a marker – or a piece of a post-IT).
After the “dot-vote, ” some topics (cards) might only have 1-2 votes (too few to build a small group to handle the tropic), meaning that there is not enough interest to discuss them. Redoing a dot-vote for just these topics is an option in these cases.
There might be several cards with no dots at all – these must be placed in topic backlog for the next meeting. The topic owner/card owner, of course, becomes a part of that group that has chosen their topic. It might require a little mingling around if the topic owner has chosen a different topic than their own.
The groups work on the selected topic
The groups sit together and the topic owner explains the topic on the card. The group participants can ask questions if they do not understand the issue (within the dedicated time frame). Still, they are not allowed to discuss whether or not the topic is relevant or to suggest solutions spontaneously. They must practice “active listening” and focus on understanding the tropic and issue, being curious and asking open questions.
After this, the group participants devise an action plan for handling the challenge. This action plan must consist of concrete activities described on separate cards (one activity on each). It is recommended to use a different card color than that of the topic cards.
The topic owner does not interfere with how the group makes the action plan. Instead, they listen intently and can optionally make notes about the dialogue between the participants.
Once the participants finish, the group explains the action plan to the topic owner, who can ask questions to ensure a complete understanding. The topic owner is not permitted to argue or discuss. Once more – It is all about “active listening.”
Concluding on the group work
Once the action plans have been explained, the topic owner says THANK YOU and gives appreciative feedback, either on the action plan itself or aspects of the dialogue between the participants.
The topic owner may choose not to use the action plan as presented. There might be suggestions from the groups’ dialogue that are included instead. It might also be the case that the action plan and discussion inspire a quite different course of action. The topic owner makes their decision and must update the cards.
A short knowledge-sharing session with everyone
After this, the action plans (cards) are placed on the wall underneath the topic cards. The topic owner writes their name and the name of the other participants on the given topic card so that everyone can remember who participated. Once all the participants meet up at the next meeting, the topic owners provide feedback on how the course of action went to update everyone at the meeting and as a thank you for everyone’s efforts.
It is not enough to reach out and expect others to help. We also need to feel acknowledged and appreciated. This requires us to give trust and experience the trust of others – that our skills and abilities are recognized and valued.
Documentation and follow-up
Finally, the facilitator takes photos of all the topic cards, their corresponding action plans, and those that were not chosen. The photos are included in the minutes of the meeting. The participants can take turns being the facilitator.
After this, an overview of processed topics is written like a backlog. It can be a spreadsheet that everyone gets access to. It should include the following elements: tropic/challenge, topic owner, reference to the meeting date, and possibly the group participants (can be seen in the photo of the topic card in the meeting minutes). The participants can take turns updating the overview.
If anyone else experiences the same challenge later, they will know where the knowledge pool is – this, in turn, creates knowledge sharing, closer relationships, trust and network. All this promotes the build-up of psychological safety.
Which good stories do we have?
Good experiences often take up too little space in busy everyday life. We usually don’t know what we know – together! We don’t spend time on this, or we don’t want to promote ourselves and show we are very good at something.
We don’t tell each other about experiences, good lessons, or positive examples. We don’t take the time to share knowledge and get a good start on an assignment/task – but later, we always have the time to redo it – forced to by issues, problems and challenges! But here is the chance:
Once the topic owner has executed the action plan (possibly a modified action plan), the experiences are shared with the participants from the group as a recognition of their efforts.
They also share their experiences at the following meeting so that all the participants know the results. The headline for the tropic is “the good story.” These are set up as topics on the wall, just like the challenges.
These cards can be selected in the same way as the process for the challenges. The teams work on them slightly differently, though. Once the topic owner shares their “good story,” the participants must find the lessons learned and apply them to their assignment/task.
Through this procedure, they potentially gain input for the next meeting enabling the lessons learned to spread like rings in the water.
This process strengthens the application of good experiences from one assignment to another, creating a knowledge pool among the participants.
Together, we take steps up the competency ladder!
- It is often optimal with groups of 3-4 participants, including the topic owner. The three participants (not counting the topic owner) are enough to create a good debate about action plans – 4 participants produce more discussion and require a little more time given – and it sometimes risks one of the participants becoming slightly inactive.
- Avoid competition around placing “dots” quickly. You can, for example, decide not to initiate the vote until everyone has chosen. If there are too many participants in a group, some of them have to be moved to another topic. Alternatively, the process could be that everyone writes the topic on their “dot,” after which a vote can be taken – then there is no dominance
- It’s important to put a deadline or expiration date on a topic in the backlog. If they aren’t discussed within, eg. 3 meetings they should be removed from the backlog.
If a topic is urgent but not chosen at a meeting, the owner can arrange to get help after the meeting and the topic can be discussed later.
- The process works best at physical meetings. It can be modeled to fit an online meeting with the help of MIRO or other online tools, but that requires everyone to be online. It does not work with hybrid meetings – or it’s very complicated.
- If a good experience or story is shared, the participants must devise action plans to apply the lessons learned to their assignment/task. In this scenario, they must still get back to the topic owner, say how that went, and update the overview.
- If there are few participants at the meeting, the topic owner may have time to elaborate on a challenge or story before the dot vote. However, the focus should still stay on the challenge, not shift to how to handle it.
- This is a great process to use in retrospectives in for example Scrum.
About the author
René Jon Figgé is a Creative Facilitator at Visuel Project Leadership and associated
partner Mannaz. He is active in Dansk Projektledelse and a member of the editorial office for the membership
magazine. He is a certified Scrum Master PSM II, Product Owner and IPMA B certified Senior Project Leader.