Preparing to lead a big change? Start with asking “Who’s not here?”

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Birds of a feather flock together.  That’s good, I suppose, if you’re a wildlife enthusiast.  Maybe it’s a cautionary tale about silo thinking if you are leading an important change effort.

Consider this recent situation as an example of silo thinking and how it can keep us from achieving deep impact.

A group of mid to senior public safety leaders gathered to assess their community’s Cardiac Arrest Chain of Survival.  The Chain is a metaphor for the various services provided within the first few minutes when a person’s heart suddenly stops beating – a condition where seconds can mean the difference between life and death.

There are multiple organizations and individuals typically organized within the Chain of Survival.  This includes 911 dispatchers, lay citizens, police, firefighters and EMS personnel.  The overall Chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

The Chain is usually supported by administrative personnel specializing in data collection, analysis, planning and operations.

During the meeting, the group discovers a serious problem.  Only 58% of cardiac arrest victims in their community receive CPR before 10 minutes.  That means 42% of patients will have almost no chance of survival.

Immediately, the group debates the 58% statistic.  The discussion turns defensive.  Each of the participants defends their link in the Chain.  Curious and open minds transition from inquiry to denial.  Literally in seconds.

The meeting is at risk.  What if the groups concludes the numbers are inaccurate and dismisses the problem as over-stated?

The Assistant Chief then asks “Who’s not here that can help us?”

The group looks around.  Silence.  Some shrug their shoulders

The EMS dispatch representative speaks up.  “Well, no one is here from the police dispatch center.”  In most communities, a 911 call first goes to its law enforcement agency.  Calls are transferred to a secondary dispatch center when the call is determined to be medical in nature.  That can add seconds, and even minutes, to the time a caller waits to report the cardiac emergency.

Had the law enforcement agency been invited to the meeting, the group would have learned about the extra link in the Chain.  A link that can add seconds, and even minutes, to the overall response to a life-threatening medical emergency.

Since gaining the new information, the group was able to reframe their thinking.  Suddenly, they realized a new, and urgent, need to address a performance gap.

Asking “who’s not here” is a powerful phase.  It opens new thinking and welcomes collaboration.

Here are a few additional examples of behaviors that promote an inclusive workplace:

  1. Cross functional teams sitting together – create office space to break down silos.
  2. Invite line workers to the discussion – ask people closest to the work to share their invaluable context and examples.
  3. Ask people to tell stories – tell us a story about when we dropped the ball or really nailed solving a complex problem.
  4. Put leaders on the line occasionally – senior leaders are reminded about the complexity of jobs when they swap their strategic hat for a tactical hat.

There you have it.  Now it’s time to fill those empty seats with birds of a different feather.

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