Off the coast of Hawaii on February 9, 2001, the Japanese ship Ehime Maru was cruising peacefully. Ehime Maru had 35 on board including 13 students from a Fisheries High School.
In the seas below them, the submarine USS Greeneville was setting up for a emergency blow to the surface. The crew was in the final steps of determining if it was safe for the rapid ascent to the surface.
As a final check, the submarine conducted a visual search using the periscope. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation, while an officer was in the midst of his search routine, the captain bumped him off the periscope and quickly completed the search, precluding independent verification that it was safe.
At this point, the Ehime Maru was 1.1 miles distant, inside the danger area. The large white hull of the 191 foot long ship should have been easily visible through the periscope, and why the captain didn’t report seeing the ship is unknown.
An hour earlier, the submarine’s listening system had picked up the motors of the Ehime Maru and had determined that the Ehime Maru was now about a mile and a half away, within the danger area. This turned out to be close to the actual distance of 1.1 miles. Tragically, when the captain did not report seeing any contacts, the crewmember monitoring the Ehime Maru said nothing.
The submarine went deep and blew to the surface, crashing into the Ehime Maru and cutting her in half. She sank within minutes. The decision was a bad one, which cost nine lives.
On the one hand, we wish the crewmember had spoken up. But reticence to speak up is just the symptom of a bigger problem: meetings conducted and organizations run in a way that do not invite dissenting opinions and diverse voices.
It’s not that the courage to speak up is too low, it’s that the barriers to speaking up are too high. This is squarely a problem caused by leadership and the responsibility of leadership to fix.
Here’s what went wrong:
First, the captain “pushed” the crew to perform the exercise, adding a sense of rush and stress. This raises the barrier to objections and questions.
Second, the captain confirmed it was safe by personally looking through the periscope. This sequence makes it much harder for others to speak up because they would have to contradict the captain. Again, raises the bar for dissent.
Thirdly, no one was invited to vote on whether is was safe or not. The captain was driving the operations and did not ask for the independent input of others. Again, this makes it harder to voice dissenting opinions.
Finally, the Greeneville was run in a very top-down manner. The NTSB report has references to the captain “directing” or “ordering” specific actions 10 times in the 30 minutes immediately prior to the collision. One crewmember reported the captain had reduced an officer to “a mouthpiece.”
Do this instead:
1. Vote first, vote often. Voting first results in maximum diversity of opinion. It’s difficult to disagree with the group, and maybe more difficult to disagree with the leader. The purpose of voting first is to uncover those who feel strongly one way or the other about something. If you want to poll again after discussion you can.
2. Vote probabilistically. Phrase the question like “how strongly do you feel about …?” and have people vote with their hands showing fist to five or with probability cards. [see video at end about the probability cards]. Do this first, and before any discussion, because this will expose the outliers, those people thinking most differently than the group. Also, asking people to vote probabilistically will make it easier to detect situations drifting out of control. It’s easier for someone to change a safety vote from 5/5 to 4/5 than it is to change from “safe” to “unsafe.” Other examples of questions are:
• “How ready are we to …”
• “How safe is it to …”
• “What’s the probability this assumption is true…”
3. Embrace the outliers. After people vote, invite those with the strongest opinions in either direction to share what they see and think that must be different than the group. During these discussions avoid asking “why do you think that?” as why will put them on the defensive. Even if their notion sounds crazy, try the neutral and inviting “tell me more…” This is important because groups weigh information more heavily based upon how many members of the group share that information. This weighting is independent of the importance or relevance of the information. The result is that a key piece of information, held by only one or a small number of the group tends to be overlooked or, if exposed, discounted by the group. This is why the leader’s first job is to help uncover what each person knows.
4. Speak last. As a leader, you want to withhold your opinion till the end because once the group knows what you want to do, it will be harder to oppose it. It’s all about keeping the barrier to speaking up as low as possible.
Finally, if your team practices in a top-down way on a day-to-day basis, these patterns will become the trained muscle memory for the group and the muscles for speaking up, dissenting, and taking initiative will atrophy. While these 4 meeting practices will help, they will be of limited effectiveness. Practice asking people what they see, think, and what decisions they would make everyday so that when key decisions are made, these organizational muscles are already in shape.
Here’s a video explaining probability cards.
More Info: www.forbes.com