Managing Left Field Commentary

Managing Left Field Commentary


Good stakeholder management involves understanding the perspectives of every stakeholder involved in the project.  In person I often tell people about one of the ways I personally do this.  It’s not elegant, but it’s just writing the people I meet as characters in my own cognitive process.  Once I’ve made them a part of the story of my life I assign them motivations and a pseudo-history.  As I get to know the person further I refine the character to more closely match the person in front of me.  It’s not a perfect technique, but for me it works well.  Until it doesn’t.What happens though when you get a perspective that seems to come out of left field?I know you’ve been there before.  You’re in a meeting the group is making good progress towards the meeting’s goal and then someone throws a verbal hand grenade on the process with a perspective that seems to come out of left field.  If it’s a meeting your just attending it could lead to some fun-to-watch drama, but if you’re even remotely invested in moving things forward, or you’re the person hosting the meeting, this sort of event can be terribly disruptive.Here’s a few steps to overcome the disruption if you’re the facilitator:

  1.  Treat the input as legitimate.  Most people are good and think they’re being good even when their actions are disruptive.  Directly challenging someone’s world view generally encourages their defense mechanism not productive discussion.
  2. Keep the other person talking.  Don’t let them shut down right away.  Their withdrawal shifts the effort back to the group and if the comment was meant as a power play enabling the person to shut down represents submissiveness.  One quick response is to have them restate their input.  “Can you say that again?  I want to make sure I understand.”
  3. Describe the circumstances.  This next step requires some group investment–but remember the group was already disrupted, so they’re already invested–it’s OK to spend time on this.
    • Lower your ego
    • Ask for input
    • transitioning from step 2 to step 3 can be done with the phrase “I’m trying, but I don’t see it.  Can you help me understand how and why you came to this conclusion?”
  4. Stay in control of the process.  As the facilitator it’s your job to continue directing the conversation.  From this point forward your follow-up questions will be key and the goal is to help everyone in the room understand the reality where the person’s input isn’t just valid, but the best choice.  That reality is a possibility and considering multiple possibilities (even those that are unlikely) can add a lot of value.

According to Eric Ries deviants can add significant value to an organization by encouraging different perspectives that often lead to seeing value in other areas.  By following the steps identified here, you’re able to move from an environment of conflict to one of collaboration where the group learns to see things from a different perspective.What’s the most left field situation you’ve ever come across?  What’s your technique for group perspective shifting. 

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