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LNJ Part VI: Leadership in Action – How seeking out diverse perspectives gets you more PB&J (or solves complex problems)

July 2015 Seminar
This blog is part of a ten-part series capturing my experiences as part of the 2015 Lead NJ Class, which follows the monthly two-day seminars our class participates in over the course of one year.  For the next several weeks I’ll be posting a blog every Monday up through my graduation in early December 2015.


It can sometimes be frustrating when people who don’t understand what you do try to give you advice on a problem. It can be similarly frustrating when people with an equal or better understanding of your problem try to give you advice.

However, a combination of experts and non-experts can be the best recipe for generating creative ideas, providing you can tap that brain trust in a way that produces critical feedback and a variety of perspectives. Our Lead NJ class was led through just such a methodology during our July seminar, which focused on our individual Leadership in Action projects.

The Leadership in Action projects were devised to help each LNJ class member to tackle an issue that she or he cares about. This project could be related to an individual’s daily work or not. The problem must be a “real work or community issue,” with no obvious or definitive solution readily available, and is something the class member has been wrestling with for some time.

colorful-question-mark1Once we’ve chosen our problem, each of us formulates a problem statement which we present to a small and randomized group of our peers for feedback.

Here’s where that special methodology comes in: We were joined during our seminar by several PSEG employees who have been trained as facilitators in an Action Learning process which includes an exercise called Q-Storming – think brainstorming in question form. PSEG uses this methodology to strengthen ideas and uncover solutions to issues within their own company. There are a few other important steps to the PSEG process that I won’t go into here, but below are some of the key points.

The purpose of the Q-Storming exercise is to listen to your peers, without justifying or jumping in to clarify, and to learn from the questions and assumptions that arise from the questions they ask. Those who are posing questions are coached to ask questions that are open-ended and not solutions disguised as questions. Once the Q-Storming is complete, your peers take a stab at rewriting your original problem statement based on what they learned from the Q-Storming, which can often result in subtle but significant nuances that focus your problem statement in different areas. Here’s a silly example to illustrate how this process might work:

Problem statement: Adults do not eat enough peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Q-Storming:

  • Why should adults eat more PB&J? Is it healthy to do so?
  • Is there data that supports or challenges adults eating more PB&J?
  • Would more adults eat PB&J if they were educated as to why they should eat more PB&J?
  • Is there a stigma that prevents adults from eating PB&J? If so, what would it take to reduce that stigma?
  • Some cultures don’t eat PB&J: Who is your target constituency?
  • Who are the cultural/pop icons who love PB&J that could support your endeavor?
  • Are there already other organizations who are fighting for wider consumption of PB&J for adults, and if so can they be allies?

As a questioner, you wouldn’t want to ask a question like, “Have you tried contacting the USDA about including PB&J as a recommended food in their nutrition guidelines?” because that’s providing a solution, one that is specific and has a narrow focus. Instead you’d want to ask, “Where might you find governmental support for your problem?” The more open-ended question could lead to a whole number of possible outreach efforts – you could contact the USDA, or you could reach out to governmental departments at the local, county and state level, not just the federal level.

The diversity of perspectives in your peer group can provide new ways of approaching your problem: Say someone in your group has a bad peanut allergy. Their question might be: Why peanut butter? Why not almond butter or cashew butter?

If you’re a peanut butter-lover, or someone who has never tried nut butter alternatives like almond and cashew, the notion of alternative nut butters might be a surprising perspective. It might cause you to broaden your problem statement – could you reach more people and build support for your problem if you advocated not just for peanut butter, but advocated instead for ALL nut butter and jelly sandwiches to be a staple part of an adult’s diet?

You get the idea.

optical illusionIf we’re intentional about working with a diverse group of people who have varying levels of expertise or familiarity with our problems we can benefit greatly from their approaches and perspectives, opening up our own understanding of a problem the same way optical illusions can suddenly transform before our eyes.

There’s one other key ingredient to the process that I believe is absolutely essential: you and your peers come together for the purpose of strengthening each others’ ideas and to develop the strongest solutions. The point is to challenge each other in a way that is supportive and selfless, that reserves judgment and nurtures ideas. It’s about giving without an expectation of “getting,” which researchers, like Adam Grant in his best-seller Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, have shown to provide a ripple effect of benefits for individuals and organizations.

Our class has been continuing to develop our problem statements since July, taking into consideration the thoughts and questions of our colleagues and the PSEG facilitators. We’ll be announcing our problem statements at our graduation in December and I’ll be sure to include some highlights in my final blog. As far as I’m aware, increased consumption of peanut butter and jelly is not currently in the mix.

 


Kacy O’Brien is the Program Manager at Creative New Jersey, a statewide initiative dedicated to fostering creativity, innovation, and sustainability by empowering cross-sector partnerships in commerce, education, philanthropy, government, and culture, in order to ensure dynamic communities and a thriving economy.

This blog is part of a ten-part series capturing Kacy’s experiences as part of the 2015 Lead NJ Class, which follows the monthly two-day seminars her class participates in over the course of one year. Topics range from policy to the economy, to education, arts and culture, energy, criminal justice and healthcare, with a focus on New Jersey’s current state and its future. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Lead NJ, The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Creative New Jersey, their staffs, and/or any/all contributors to this site.  For corrections or questions, please email Kacy at: kobrien@creativenj.org.

Kacy gratefully acknowledges Lead NJ and The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation for their support of her participation in the 2015 Lead NJ program.

lead nj logo          Dodge JPG

 

 

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“I was really amazed by the cross-section of people in this whole building today. I really didn’t know what to expect and I wasn’t anticipating facilitating a session. I absolutely loved the energy that came out of the room and I was pretty amazed at the breath of ideas. “The fact that we come back on day two to create an action plan and walk out of here with very specific tasks is an amazing thing. It’s a way to help Asbury Park to move forward with an actionable plan.”

– Jen Souder – Consultant, Greener by Design, Founder Asbury Park African American Heritage Project & Museum (Asbury Park)

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