Fishing for caveats, making goals

Every year as the calendars roll toward January, we start to talk heavily about the initiatives and goals we want to accomplish in the new year. I've got the big picture things fairly well outlined and there are a couple of areas I have identified that are going to be fairly challenging and are going to need a real re-doubling of effort to make progress. To help get started and create our action plans, I held a brainstorming session with key members of one focus area with the goal of creating a prioritized list of initiatives. We would take the top few and target individuals goals directly to them. My hope was that we would find a nugget or two that, if we executed, would really move us forward, but there was another reason I had suggested we hold this session...

The first hour was filled with good discussions and good ideas, we captured every suggestion and allowed some lively talks about some frustrations the team thinks we should deal with. One of our senior engineers had a scheduling conflict and needed to leave shortly so we gave the floor to him. He had two items he had written down that he wanted to share with us. The first was a good suggestion that quickly went on the list. While this was being noted, I turned to him and asked, "What was your second item?"

"I don't know if I should say this," he began. With that simple, oft-used caveat, I felt we had finally gotten to what I was looking for. He had a suggestion about consolidating some of the tools we use to help troubleshoot account access. In and of itself, it was perfect for our list, but it was the emotion that followed his caveat that I was most interested in. Here was a top engineer concerned that what he was about to discuss might not be politically correct because he was passionate about it. How can we not talk about those topics?

Not everything that gets folks worked up are valid, of course, and we need to be professional in our communications, but there must be times and places where you can roll up your sleeves and just express what you feel is silly, inane, absurd, and calling for a solution. This was my hidden agenda in sitting down with bright people and talking. We still needed to set goals and provide guidance for 2012, but in my experience, getting folks excited about solving challenge problems leads to great results. I'll keep asking questions and probing to find other places where folks begin talking by caveating their statements. I'm convinced that this is the path to find the really important issues to solve.