In many of the business meetings I attended over fifteen years in financial services, either as a participant, or as a coach, both and I and many of the others in the room (real or virtual) were operating like a cross between Haley Joel Osment and David Attenborough on the African plains. Perhaps you've been in a meeting today, or have one coming up, where you'll be the same. Instead of seeing dead people, each of is staring right at the Elephant.
Deckchairs are being rearranged. Topics of limited impact and significance are being given an elevated sense of importance. Everyone falls in line and focuses on getting the meeting completed in as orderly and efficient a way as possible, as thought the attendance at or completion of meetings is a worthy achievements - which in corporate environments it's often seen as. But behind all of the chat and the formality, we're all thinking the same thing; 'when are we gonna talk about the one big thing we're all thinking about?!'
It can be hard to get the elephant in the room on the agenda, in any meaningful way, especially when it's a contentious topic. Every project, every idea, every initiative is someone's baby, and when we're measured on our outputs, it can very often be the case that people cling to their baby as tightly as if it were a living, breathing person, knowing that their year end rating, their bonus, their status, their progression in the organisation might well be tied to it. So when their baby is ugly (and many babies are ugly - but the parents are too close to it to notice, or don't want to admit it because of how that ugliness might reflect on them), how can you table it for examination, without creating defensiveness, or causing a scene? To do it effectively, the culture needs to be right, and the meeting needs to facilitate it.
Firstly, it's not something that you can wade into unprepared, lest it look like an attack. I have often said that in these types of environments there are two ways to get ahead, relative to your peers; make yourself look better or make your peers look worse! And to be clear, I'm not offering that as advice! Far from it. If you're not getting where you need or want to get to, it's time to stop looking out the window and start looking in the mirror. But I've seen it happen time and time again. And because of that, whenever someone challenges a project or initiative which is owned by someone else, it generates distrust, because people start to question the motives. 'Do they actually think this project is problematic or are they trying to undermine the person leading it, to further themself?'
Equally, big organisations can be terrible for plowing ahead despite being faced with mounting evidence suggesting that's not the best idea. It's the sunken cost fallacy in action; we've gone this far so we might as well see it through. And people are often mistakenly measured for their inputs, rather than their results and behaviours. 'I delivered a change initiative with a budget of £3m and a team of 150, on time'. No mention of the fact that what was actually delivered was rubbish and the project manager was a tyrant who left a sea of burnt-out people in their wake - just that they delivered it. People identify a problem (real or imagined), then they get a project set up to 'solve' the problem. At this point, all of the focus goes onto the project and none stays on the problem. Rewards and recognition focus on the completion of the project, and not the solving of the problem! Of course that's not always the case, but when statistics suggest that 2/3 of all change initiatives in business are unsuccessful, it suggests that this is far from a rare occurrence.
With all of that said, you'll have gathered that this is a problem which requires solving in a few steps, none of which will be easy. The first thing that needs to happen is to prepare the soil. That means, creating an environment in the team and in their meetings, where honesty is the norm and vulnerability is encouraged, and this is best done through role modelling from the top. Start to build items into your meeting agendas where people are encouraged to raise challenges they're facing and outline the help they need from around the team. Some will do it naturally, others will be reticent, and it'll be a bit like when you're asked in an interview to give your biggest weakness, and respond with 'I work too hard!' or 'I care too much!' rather than an ACTUAL weakness! Be relentless with this. Don't let people off the hook with non-answers. What are the things about this project that currently worry you? What help do you require from others? What challenges can those around the table foresee and what support can they offer to mitigate this? Make it a collaborative effort. Display your own challenges. What's worrying you? What problems are keeping you awake at night? Show the team that you don't have all of the answers and you don't expect them to either.
Next, you can start to have agenda items where the owner of the project isn't the voice of that project. Instead of having them talk through the project and then getting a few questions or comments from the team, before moving on, encourage the whole team to talk about their experience of each significant project from their perspective. What are they seeing or hearing? What are their worries? What opportunities do they see? This encourages ownership and buy-in from everyone and prevents a situation where attendees will talk only about their own projects and sit silently (or worse, on their phones, ipads and laptops) while people talk about things that they think don't concern them.
For those who have never played it, Jenga is a family game where you stack up small wooden blocks in a particular way and then each take it in turns to remove a block from somewhere near the bottom of the stack and place it on the top, without toppling the whole structure. In the games I've played, it also involves a lot of swearing and kicking the table leg when it's someone else's turn, although I don't believe that these techniques appear in the official guidelines. As the game progresses, there is typically a single block which becomes critical in the integrity of the structure, such that it isn't possible to remove it without the whole stack coming crashing down.
As the psychological safety of your team improves, you have the chance to bring this concept in. What you're asking them, is this : What is the biggest challenge that we currently face, such that by solving it, a lot of the other problems we face will go away? Which problem facing you right now is the key brick in the Jenga tower?
It's not an easy ride to build psychological safety, but it's been determined by Google's Project Aristotle as the single most important factor in high performing teams. And once it exists, you have the right environment to allow you to spend your time as a team solving the big challenges, the ones that really matter. Getting those Elephants in the room named, getting them on the table and getting to work on them. And who wouldn't rather be a part of meetings where you get to do that?