You’ve been working tirelessly on a proposal for an exciting new initiative in your organization, but you sense confusion and a lack of commitment to the idea from your team. It can feel like herding cats to get your team to come together and make decisions. Meanwhile, it’s risky to move forward without a unified action plan. There is a solution. After presenting an idea to the group, use the 5Cs of Alignment to get any group of any size to deliberate ideas and reach a sound agreement.
The 5Cs of Alignment are 1. Clarifications, 2. Compliments, 3. Concerns, 4. Changes, and 5. Commitment.
Clarifications are needed for two reasons when you’re making proposed changes to your team: either you have used unfamiliar jargon or your terms are too general. Clarifying questions clear up points of confusion so that participants can provide useful feedback.
As you approach your team with your ideas, start by asking open-ended questions such as: “What do we need to clarify to make sure you understand where I’m going here?” If you get no reaction, you may ask what clarifications an external audience might need.
Also, avoid posing a yes or no question, such as “Do you need any clarifications?” That generally results in short yes or no answers, and silence from any audience members who are insecure about responding.
I will warn you now; people won’t want to start with clarifications. Instead, they will want to jump to concerns or changes right out of the gate. When they do, HOLD THE LINE. Patiently and proactively redirect them to clarifications first so you start with everyone in the room knowing exactly what is being proposed.
Asking the group to compliment the merits of proposals is the secret ingredient in the 5 Cs feedback recipe. While you may have been taught that it is improper to fish for compliments, I couldn’t disagree more! No matter who makes a proposal, including yourself, take the time to ask what people like about it.
This simple act injects goodwill into the room and moves the process forward in preparation for the risky next step: expressing concerns. It also gets you one step closer to alignment. If half the proposal is good, you are halfway to agreement. Pointing this out can keep the presenter and group from getting discouraged if it seems like the proposal needs a lot of work.
Far too many groups are stingy about talking about what they like. If being complimentary isn’t the norm in your group, complimenting someone might feel disingenuous. But you will be surprised at how quickly groups get good at this and how much they come to enjoy it.
If you practice making sure every proposal receives complimentary feedback, innovation will steadily increase because your teammates will know the group appreciates their initiative.
Only after discussing clarifications and concerns is it time to bring up concerns. To be clear, concerns are not criticisms or complaints. When naming the Cs, I chose the word “concerns” because it comes from a caring frame of mind, whereas criticism comes from a judgmental or fault-finding frame of mind. That makes all the difference.
Expressing concerns allows for doubts and reservations that might lead to a proposal’s rejection. That’s okay. The possibility of “no” should always be a part of your group’s process of reaching a final decision. By giving people a chance to express dissent, it allows everyone to clarify how a proposal might impact their area of interest or work.
Sometimes leaders don’t want to invite concerns because they fear doing so might undermine their credibility or expose vulnerabilities in their proposal. But a good leader wants to be proactive and address any issues in advance. It also demonstrates that they value their team members.
If a person appears rattled when they bring up a concern, take a little extra time to explore their energy and ask open ended questions. If the concerns expressed are so serious that they kill the proposal, remember that it is still a big win! Killing a misguided proposal prevents you from wasting time on something doomed to fail.
If there are no concerns, and audience members say, “No, it’s awesome,” don’t fall for that. Instead, say, “Well, let’s just double-check. If there were any concerns here, what might they be?” This will send the signal it is safe to express concerns and the proposed project can move forward.
This is where the magic happens. Some changes are minor tweaks; others, huge leaps forward. At this point, it can be helpful to either provide a break or put people in small groups to generate ideas for changes that will resolve the concerns just discussed. Allow a “bulge” in your timeline in case this step activates the creative energy of the group. That way, you have time to explore emergent ideas.
In some situations; however, you may need to limit the exploration of changes due to time constraints. If too many ideas emerge, or if suggested changes are diametrically opposed, poll the group to find the preferred option and steer things in that direction. If two options are tied, ask their advocates to make a case, then poll again. The goal is not to please everyone but to land on the option most likely to be adopted by all involved.
Once you have explored the first four of the 5 Cs—clarifications, compliments, concerns, and changes—you are almost ready to weigh the commitment of your team before moving forward with your proposal. But first you should reflect back all the feedback you’ve gathered.
By executing the first four Cs of the 5Cs of Alignment, you are now able to incorporate this feedback and modify the original proposal into an improved re-proposal. Once your re-proposal is on the table, you are ready to test for the fifth C—Commitment. When you incorporate all five Cs into your gameplan, you’ll have all needed to achieve agreement, and finally get your team on the same page rowing together.
For more advice on using organizational feedback to advance your goals, you can find The Art of Alignment on Amazon.
Patty Beach is the CEO of LeadershipSmarts, a firm that combines leadership best practices and coaching to help managers and executives build a better world in a better way. Her approach to leadership evolved over twenty years of coaching leaders in companies, non-profits, universities and government agencies. Before earning a master's degree in organizational development from Pepperdine University, and becoming an ICF Master Certified Coach, Patty was a geologist and manager leading initiatives in new technology and emerging markets in the energy industry. Patty and her husband, Roger Toennis, are also managing partners of Founder Advisors, a consulting firm that helps Startups quickly scale and grow.
Adapted from The Art of Alignment A Practical Guide to Inclusive Leadership by Patty Beach.