The level-setting toolkit: How to establish facts before making decisions

The objective, or facts, level of thinking will help you ensure you’re on the same page as your group, leading to better outcomes and time saved.

By Robin Parsons, IAF Certified Professional Facilitator

Years ago, I worked for someone who used to say to me, “Facts are friendly, facts are friendly.” It wasn’t until I jumped more deeply into the study of group facilitation methods that I truly understood what he meant.

The objective level of data (a.k.a. facts) are not just friendly, but the essential starting point for thinking clearly. And in many group settings or situations, clear thinking is exactly what’s needed.

It sounds like a magic recipe for project or group success. And yet it’s so simple it’s often overlooked. We have a bias towards a deeper more analytical mindset, often ignoring the observable data.

Why start by agreeing on the facts?

Have you ever been in a meeting where everyone around the table is shaking their head at an outcome, wondering “How did we miss that?”

This can happen when we make decisions before we’ve considered all sources of data.

Factual data needs to be the starting point to every conversation. It ultimately saves time, produces better outcomes and promotes aligned understanding of even the most complex problem.

Without objective data, we’re doomed to fail

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Without a solid grounding in the objective level of data, we tend to flounder. We find ourselves going around in circles and struggling to ground ourselves in the present reality. Each person approaches the conversation with a different understanding of the situation which often leads to confusion and the absence of clarity.

What is the objective level?

I want to lay out some scenarios that prove my point and explore the reasons why we’re apt to gloss over it. Often, we’re eager to get to the good stuff (that deeper level of problem-solving) or maybe we feel too pressed for time.

Questions to start with

  • What words did someone actually use?
  • What did phrases did you read in the document?
  • What do you remember seeing? Hearing? Doing?
  • What happened first? Second? Third?
  • Where did the incident occur?
  • When did it happen?
  • Who was there?
  • What do the meeting minutes say our resolution was?
  • What did we capture as an action item?
  • What are the numbers: Dates, times, figures, prices, specs?
  • Even: What colours do you see?

These are a series of questions that I frequently ask participants and students of facilitation alike. It is surprising how difficult it is to get a response to these questions.

The questions are easy and the answers obvious, and yet, people hesitate to offer a response.

They are perplexed. They think it might be a trick question. They can’t figure out why I would ask such simple questions. They think I’m looking for something much deeper or more profound.

But, at the objective level, the answer could be as simple as ‘red’.

Facts, data, sensory information

In facilitator speak, we call these simple questions “objective level questions.” These are the facts. Basic information and sensory inputs. And we use them to begin a conversation aimed at thinking through a topic.

Objective data grounds a conversation

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It is surprising how often people push back on starting a discussion by confirming the objective level of data. I hear things like:  “Everyone knows that”, “These people are too busy for this”, “We don’t have enough time” or “We all know the process”.

In our time-pressed environments, the time spent ensuring we are uniformly grounded in the facts has become either luxury or superfluous.

Yet, when I walk into a room to do business process work, we start with the current state. It is virtually a guarantee that when the current state goes up on the wall, people will say, “I didn’t know that”, “I had no idea”, or “Seeing it from end to end really helps me understand the situation”.

But, if we interpret too quickly, we may miss important facts

In my experience, groups have a bias towards interpretive thinking, because it’s such an important part of the thinking process. The challenge that emerges with our bias towards interpretive thinking is that we are quickly led towards interpretations without having fully considered all our data points.

In these cases, decisions are made with incomplete data sets.

Objective data brings clarity

There is tremendous power in spending time on the objective information that sometimes seems too simple for words.  It accomplishes a number of things:

1) It ensures that everyone in the room shares a common understanding of the topic

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It is much easier to move a conversation forward when people in the room are not grappling for facts. Many times, I have seen a meeting chase its tail because participants did not start with the same set of facts. How many times have you seen a discussion start with the correctness of a number?

Until the facts are clear and known by all, the meeting will be circular.

2) It ensures that, if there are different perspectives on a fact, these will surface

This doesn’t mean we’re trying to get at alternate facts, but it does remind us that I can see a 20% gross margin as excellent and someone else can see it is an opportunity for improvement.

Maybe you see the process of using a sticky note to pass information along as efficient and someone else sees it as vintage.

I can see a colour as orange and someone else as tangerine.

3) It reduces anxiety and frustration

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Frustration, anxiety, pointed questions, bad decisions and blame often stem from a fuzzy understanding of the objective level of data.

When decisions are made with incomplete data, where one person held a piece of information that another did not, blame and frustration are often the outcome.

Time spent sharing the basic facts contributes to the clarity which allows anxiety and frustration to dissipate.

A group I worked with found itself in a circular situation where there was resistance to exploring current state processes (because everyone knows the process) and frustration because no one knew what the processes were and what came next. There was an overwhelming sense that the problems were too hard to solve.

4) It helps us to challenge our assumptions

One of the most important aspects of spending time on the objective level of data is that it helps us challenge our assumptions and prevent us from relying on past strategies and outcomes that may bias our thinking in a situation.

A former NASA flight director talked how they stave off panic in a crisis situation. The answer? Start with a series of objective questions:

  • What was everything they knew and did not know about the situation at hand?
  • What did the data actually say about the situation at hand?
  • What was the worst thing that could happen as a result of the situation?
  • Did the team have enough information to know for sure and how could they get more information?

Here’s how to bring objective thinking into your next meeting:

  1. Give people in a meeting time to review a document. Ask them to high light or underline key words or phrases.
  2. Once a presentation has been given, ask: What jumped out at you?
  3. Ask someone to read passages from a document or presentation out loud.
  4. Circulate pre-reads with a couple of questions such as: What caught your attention? What ideas did you highlight?
  5. Open a meeting by asking someone to recap the outcomes of a previous meeting.
  6. In a follow up meeting, ask the group what they remember from the previous discussion, what happened first, second and then…

What are some helpful objective level questions you might ask at your next meeting? Share your answers below.

 

About Robin Parsons: I’m a certified professional facilitator and certified ToP® facilitator with 10 years of experience facilitating groups. I can help your group, team or stakeholders solve problems, develop plans, answer questions and clearly understand situations. If you’re looking for strategic planning facilitation, professional group facilitation or process facilitation services, reach out to learn more.