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Heuristics to Ensure Your Team is on The Same Page

July 13th, 2021

Have you ever been in a meeting with other people, thought you reached a shared conclusion and some clear next steps, only to find later that all of you left with a completely different understanding of what transpired?

Akira Kurosawa, one of the most renowned filmmakers of all time, turned this subtle human bias into a storytelling technique in the film "Rashomon".

For those unfamiliar with the movie, a murder is described in four contradictory ways by four witnesses. From that point on, the term "Rashomon effect" has been used to describe any situation in which an event is given contradictory interpretations by the individuals involved regardless of the evidence.

In the movie, Kurosawa captured a very important, yet often disguised human principle: our mind is wired to interpret the events that are happing around us in a single way. In other words, just because we're observing, reading, or even listening to the same thing, it doesn't mean we're drawing the same conclusions.

If you're running a small team or a company, you need to acknowledge the fact that people's perspectives can diverge at any single time. A fundamental part of your job is to prevent this dynamic from happening or course-correct before it snowballs.

How to Prevent the Rashomon Effect

In this post, I'll walk you through some practical and effective countermeasures that you can embrace to consolidate people's perspectives, and prevent misalignments.

Ask follow-Up Questions

To fix something you first need to be aware of it yourself. In this regard, nothing is quite more powerful than asking the right set of questions.

Asking precise questions allows you to learn a lot about other people's perspectives, measure the extent to which they diverge from reality, and easily course-correct.

So here some practical examples:

  1. Meeting Outputs

Meetings are probably the clearest example where people just assume different things. Video calls, now that the entire world has been dragged into remote work, make things even harder.

After a meeting ends never assume that the conclusion is clear to everyone in the room.

Ask the end of the meeting if the output is clear to everyone? And if so, ask them what is it? Just listen carefully to their responses. Crapes and knowledge gaps will be easier to spot immediately and fix without even leaving the call.

  1. Company-Wide Internal Memos

It's a common practice for founders/CEOs or managers to share company-wide or team-wide internal memos.

These communications are often about the company or team strategies, tactics, or just endeavors that the team will be taking.

Don't just share them. Measure to what extent your company is aware of them and if people have doubts.

Use tools that give you the ability to see who’s seen or hasn’t seen messages. This is especially helpful when working asynchronously.

Always close the feedback loop by asking questions.

See Things Through Someone else's eyes

Disconnection and misalignments are perspective problems.

Sometimes it's easy to detect them: people feel more comfortable in bringing their doubts to meetings, or the disconnect is just obvious to see. Other times divergences are much more subtle to spot.

Learn how to run an occurred event (like an assigned task, an important decision, a meeting, or a specific performance review, etc) as you were the other person. Forcing yourself to experience stuff through someone else's eyes, or to use an engineering metaphor, run other's people thought processes in your virtual machine will help you spot subtle gaps and misunderstandings before it's too late.

Handle situations as you were playing in a third-person mode.

So, when someone tells you an idea, you should instantly make connections:

  • Why are they telling you this?
  • Why now? Why you?
  • What context do they have on this?
  • Do they have all the data to make the right decisions?
  • Etc.

Go through this exercise multiple times a day. There are no obvious shortcuts. The more you know your team and the work environment, the better your instinct becomes.

It's a learned skill that comes from empathy, recognition memory, and EQ.

Design Context

Most people think conflict arises when A thinks X and B thinks Y. In reality, conflict is more likely to arise when people don’t share the same amount of context or data, not when they don’t share the same ideas. Asymmetry of information inevitably leads to different evaluations of circumstances and different judgments calls.

Seamlessly, if you want to prevent people from having divergent perspectives on things, you should provide the same amount of data to everyone.

You build this shared context layer by:

  1. Overcommunicating

    • Improving breadth of shared knowledge across your company
    • Insisting of repetition for key messages
  2. Embracing transparency
  3. Limiting private chat conversations
  4. Communicating thoroughly at all speeds: storage, async and real-time
  5. Avoiding information silos and lack of visibility

If you're running a hybrid or fully distributed team, these aren't just tips, but quite mandatory operating principles. Your competition is likely operating this way, and you probably need to as well.

If you're building a colocated company this might still be more relevant than you think. Embracing some principles from remote work is likely to give the option to go hybrid and hire more international talent in the forthcoming future.

Repeat, repeat, repeat

Our mind is only wired to see things through a single point of view. This is one of the reasons, we feel awkward when we repeat things more than once. In reality, when you say something for the 5th time, there's someone in your company who's only hearing it for the first time.

Great leaders intuitively know how important is to repeat the same message, the same story, the same narrative, over and over again. They simply never get tired of repeating the same things over and over again. Not because they're dumb, but because they're aware of this effect.

Write Things Down

Leverage async memorialized communication.

Writing things doesn't just help your organization to create a shared context/information layer by making things easier to access, search and read.

It also helps you shape and consolidates what your team thinks at any time.

Make sure you take notes during the meeting and make sure people who attended the meeting read them. Meeting notes are a way for you to reinforce the conclusion of the meeting and, again, consolidate everyone's perspective toward a single direction.

Whoever sets the meeting controls the agenda, but it's whoever takes the meeting notes who controls the outcome.

Don't just limit to meetings, create the habit of leveraging async memorialized communications for just about anything that's relevant in your company or team. This will help you consolidate regularly the perspectives of all the people you interact with and make use that everyone has a shared understanding of what's going on.

Conclusions

The risk of the Rashomon Effect can happen at any time and at all company levels, from +1000 to single digits employees.

Ask questions, practice empathy, create a culture of written communication, and double down on internal transparency.

Never mistakenly assume that people know and work is getting done, take the time to ask questions about where the disconnect is, re-align efforts, and ensure everyone is again on the same page.

If all goes well, six months later, you and the team will be celebrating a needle-moving win rather than trying to figure out what went wrong.