What are some key words? What phrases did you highlight? What number was quoted? What did you hear? What graphs did you notice? 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. Why you would ask such simple questions of a capable group of people? Is it a trick question? There must be some deeper significance sought. The answer couldn’t be as simple as ‘red’.
…students have said to me, “I didn’t know where you were going with the question, so I didn’t know how to answer the question” … when I asked the question, “what colour did you see?”.
Facts, data, sensory information
In facilitator parlance, we call these simple questions objective level questions: the facts, basic information and sensory inputs. And we use them to begin a conversation aimed at thinking through a topic. These basic pieces of information are drawn in through what we’ve read, heard, seen, experienced, touched or tasted and they help us to form a common understanding of the topic at hand. These pieces of data inform a concrete starting point that is necessary for a group to successfully think through a topic.
Western thought values thinking that connects dots, sees patterns and looks for meaning or what we call the interpretive level of thinking. Analysis, deductive reasoning, extrapolation, interpretation are all forms of interpretive thinking and are tremendously well trained in professions such as business, engineering and accounting. A connect-the-dots response is the kind of response that is often rewarded and the thinking that make us seem smart. When we can take a piece of data and turn it into thoughtful commentary we are ‘bright’, ‘insightful’ and ‘quick thinking’.
“Our nervous system is at the same time a data-gathering system, an emotional processing system, a meaning-creation system and a decision/implementing system.” – Edgar Schein
There is a bias towards interpretive thinking
In my experience, groups have a bias towards interpretive thinking. Without question, interpretive thinking is an essential 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. Decisions are made before all sources of data have been considered and all facts present. The result can be outcomes that later earn a “how did we miss that?” kind of reflection.
In the absence of the objective data, we flounder
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.
…. an 8 year old child comes through the door with a story of a fight erupting from a simple game at the playground. The child launches into her story and you find yourself asking: Where were you playing? Who was there? Whose ball was it? What happened first? Then what happened? Who showed up? When did they show up? Ok, whose dog was it?
You can’t understand the story until you understand the situation. You can’t understand the situation until you’ve compiled your facts – the objective level of data.
…a participant walks in to a meeting room, well prepared, having read the pre-read package. The meeting chair starts the discussion. The well prepared person shares the conclusion they’ve drawn. Someone else, who did not read the package says something like – “Are we talking about project x? What dates are you referring to? What part of the project are you addressing? “Who provided this material?” And around it goes until everyone has a common understanding of the situation.
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 couple of things. First, it ensures that everyone in the room shares a common understanding of the topic to be discussed. 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 ‘rightness’ of a number? Until the facts are clear and known by all – the meeting will be circular.
Second, it ensures that if there are different perspectives on a fact, that it is surfaced. This is not to suggest we are trying to surface ‘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. You can 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.
Objective data grounds a conversation
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”, “we all know the process”. In our time pressed environments, the time spent one ensuring we are uniformly grounded in the facts has become either luxury or superfluous.
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”, “seeing it from end to end really helps me understand the situation”.
Objective data reduces anxiety and frustration
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.
Objective data 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 talks about the approach they use for staving off panic in a crisis situation. They start with a series of questions:
- What was everything they knew and did not know about the situation at hand? (objective question)
- What did the data actually say about the situation at hand? (objective question)
- What was the worst thing that could happen as a result of the situation? (may draw on experience and sometimes an objective question)
- Did the team have enough information to know for sure – and how could they get more information?
Helpful objective level questions
What are some helpful objective level questions for your next meeting? Consider the types of questions a reporter might ask:
- What words did you hear someone say?
- What did they actually say?
- 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?
- Where were you?
- What do the meeting minutes say our resolution was?
- What did we capture as an action item?
Facts are friendly
Years ago, I worked for someone who used to say to me “facts are friendly, facts are friendly”. It wasn’t until I jumped deeply into the study of facilitative methods that I truly understood what he meant. The objective level of data (facts) are not just friendly, but the essential starting point for thinking clearly, when clear thinking is needed.