Invite a Penguin to Your Next Meeting

Years ago, Matt May was consulting to a Detroit car company. After interviewing people in the organization, he discovered theirs was a culture that stifled ideas in a command-and-control hierarchical fashion. The leaders of the company rejected his suggestion, didn’t believe him, and insisted they had an open environment where all ideas were welcome to the table.

So when Matt was asked to conduct a half-day workshop session he created an exercise in which each team, composed of diverse employees from all strata of the organization, had to work in teams to solve a puzzle. The exercise was about selecting the right balance of fuel, food, people, and resources for a successful trip to the moon. In the exercise there is a correct configuration of resources to solve the problem.

Before the exercise started, Matt did this: he took aside the most junior member on each team and gave them the answer. And told them they were free to do anything they chose to make their voice heard and be convincing to make their team successfully win the game except tell the team that Matt gave them the answer key.

Not one team got it right. At the conclusion of the session Matt asked the secret member of each team, who held the answer key, to stand up. The leaders attending the meeting were both appalled and enlightened to discover that contrary to their belief, voices from all levels of the organization really weren’t appreciated and listened to thoughtfully. After all, for each group the answer was sitting right at the table, yet no team delivered the correct solution.

We spoke to Juan, a senior IT leader at a large financial services organization, who had a similar experience, but his voice was heard. Recently, he was puzzled to be invited to a meeting with two of his colleagues from different departments who were trying to solve a business dilemma. As Juan sat through the opening comments of the meeting, he kept wondering silently what in the world was he doing here? Juan was leading the IT group, and clearly what these players needed was a business decision structure that had nothing to do with his team. But despite his puzzlement at why he was invited, Juan stayed and listened intently and shared his best ideas and suggestions during the course of the meeting. Within just a couple days Juan was included in some followup notes and found his colleagues had agreed and implemented the ideas discussed at the meeting.

But he discovered later in water cooler and cafeteria conversations, that it was his presence and divergent opinions and perspectives that bridged the understanding gap between his colleagues who had been too close to the project to see and execute the solution needed.

Maybe next time invite someone from left field to the table. Something interesting and successful might happen.