Alternate Perspectives: Why and How to Embrace Them!

I bet you know this story; you’ve probably lived through it. We had pulled together a team from across several departments build a strategic plan for a critical aspect of our whole organization. It was the kind unavoidable committee work that we’ve all had to participate in when the stakes are high and multiple departments are essential to a successful outcome.

Adding tension to the discussion is that most of these departments had been allowed to continue their own efforts in this area without any strong strategic guidance (illustrating the need for a strategic plan). The modeling & simulation guys built models based on their own perception of the systems and environment. The purchasers developed their own set of requirements and objectives and the operators had expectations of system performance that didn’t match. As the long-range planner, I was trying to develop a way to determine how effective our current capabilities were and determine if we needed new components to fill any performance gaps.

Compounding this was that most of the representatives on this team had been given marching orders from their department heads about what their position would be. None of the departments wanted to back off of their own efforts and expected the other departments to adjust around them. After the first morning session resulted in a series of conversational dead ends repeated in a circular fashion, it was clear we needed a new approach.

Considering Alternate Perspectives Can Break the Gridlock

Ultimately the key to our success was to take time to get the team members to listen to and appreciate the perspectives of the other departments. Initially, our individual team members looked at the whole problem solely through the perspective of their own department’s desired outcome. By giving each department a chance to present their perspective of the problem we provided the other departments insight into all of the conflicting desired outcomes. Now educated on multiple perspectives, we were able to look out for each other and start to advocate for solutions that achieved as many desired outcomes for as many stakeholders as possible. Once the other perspectives were understood and embraced we were actually able to come up with a plan that far exceeded any of our expectations when we started.

How to Embrace Alternate Perspectives

Ideally, everyone would come to the table prepared to understand alternate perspectives, but it’s a skill that takes work and is one that easily slips away if we don’t put effort into it. The best way to prepare ourselves to view alternate perspectives when we need to is to continually expose ourselves to them when we don’t need to. Here are some things we can all do to build that muscle:

  • Expand your reading list – Read all kinds of books, not just books in your field. A lot of people feel like they’re not really working or advancing if they’re not reading about something in their field. Read something from a professional field other than your own. Occasionally, take time to read fiction, force yourself to engage your imagination; visualize the action and emotions written on the page. One of my goals for 2015 is re-visiting some of the classics like Shakespeare, Dickens, and Hemingway.
  • Mix it up with your news sources – If you like the NY Times, check out Fox News now and then. If you like the Economist, check out Rolling Stone. You may not agree with their positions, but at least you’ve taken the time to hear them.
  • Engage with people in a different department or outside of your normal social circle – Talking, and especially listening, to others can do wonders for expanding your perspective on issues. Taking the time to discuss with people their wants and needs, as well as what they’re doing to achieve success can open your eyes to different approaches to achieving better outcomes for everyone.

Next time you find yourself on a team that is gridlocked and can’t achieve any outcomes, try facilitating discussion among the members to see if an alternate perspective might frame the issue in a different way. Once they see the issue though another’s eyes, it may be easier for them to relax their position if it means a win-win situation for the group!

Let us know how it works out for you! What do you do to foster alternate perspectives on your team?

Photo Credit: Giuseppe Arcimboldo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons