When we were at school we were given tests to do. The primary purpose of these tests was to measure whether we had understood what we had been taught, but the approach to testing left us feeling that we were being tested, personally. Some people are utterly brilliant and pass every exam, but the experience of most people is that we fail tests and that’s not a great experience. I find that most people bring this same mindset into work related reviews; their expectation is that it’s not going to be a great experience because they, personally, are being tested. In a test there are right answers and there are wrong answers.
It’s interesting that we have many words for these testing meetings, most of them with negative connotations: review, test, evaluation, assessment, enquiry, examination and many more. We have very few words for a positive meeting where we help each other. The best noun I could come up with was consultation, but even that has potentially negative implication in the medical realm.
In order to streamline these meetings, partly to cut the pain that we all feel, we ask people to self assess using checklists. The problem with any checklist is that it contributes to the perception that the process is a test. While completing the checklist people will answer from their own perspective utilising huge amounts of confirmation bias because they aren’t going to mark their own work as poor when the measure is right and wrong. This all leads to the checklist narrowing the conversation, it narrows the frame because the aim is to get the correct score, to pass the test.
It’s very difficult to be creative in the context of a test mindset and checklists. The reality is that for many situations there isn’t a right or wrong answer, there are a set of right answers for which some are better than others. There are also combinations of answers that produce excellent results.
I’ve recently been listening to an audio version of the Heath brother’s book Decisive. In it they tell of the work of Dion Hughes and Mark Johnson who aimed to broaden the conversation by moving from checklists to playlists. In the book they describe the concept of playlist; rather than checking up on people the playlist uses a set of questions that aim to open up the possibilities. The difference in the two is the framing of the questions. The Hughes-Johnson playlist is aimed at marketing but the questions asked give clear examples of open framing:
- Is there a key colour for the brand?
- What is the enemy of this product?
- What would the brand be like if it was the market share leader?
- What if it was an upstart?
- Can you personify the product?
Having reviewed the set of questions that we ask in our reviews there’s a definite bias towards narrowing questions (checklists) which we need to change towards opening questions (playlist). Lots of people are looking for innovation, and you don’t get innovation by applying narrow thinking.