In The Advantage, author Patrick Lencioni mentions the importance of leadership teams having limited size and adequate time to move conversations from advocacy to inquiry. His point was that when a leadership team is too large, there is generally not the opportunity to push back and ask questions to better understand differing views, isolate key needs, and develop alternatives that better satisfy the most important requirements. This level of inquiry and discovery also is frequently lacking when a leadership team doesn’t spend enough time together.

Recently, I discovered a third reason conversations don’t move from advocacy to inquiry: when team members don’t understand, or haven’t agreed on, the importance of inquiry as a way to get to better solutions.

The Process

As a result of working with the leadership team inside my company, I discovered a process that we have begun using more and more. Let me describe it using our leadership team as the example.

  1. ADVOCACY. It is typically the case that the opinionated people that make up our leadership team will come to the table with a specific recommendation for how something should be done. As a result, the person starts in advocacy mode by giving the case for why the action proposed should be taken.
  • Sometimes, the remaining leadership team members agree with the person, and we quickly assign responsibility and a timeline and move on.
  • Okay, it’s not really sometimes. It’s more like every once in a while that this happens.
  • Okay, maybe more like rarely.
  • Okay, in truth, I can’t remember the last time it happened this way!

What typically happens instead is that one or more of the other members of our six-person leadership team has a different idea and goes into advocacy mode as well, and we end up with multiple people advocating for different solutions. Sound familiar?

  1. INQUIRY. When we are at our best as a leadership team, at least one of the members will move from advocacy into inquiry. He or she will begin asking questions so that the whole team gets an understanding of the reasons behind each of the supported solutions.
  2. ALTERNATIVES. Again, when we are at our best, we then isolate the most important reasons behind each proposed solution and then create alternatives that do an even better job of addressing the key reasons than would have been the case with any of the original solutions discussed.
  3. RESOLUTION. Once we are clear on alternatives, we use a process we call “informed majority” (described in a previous article) to get to a final decision.

The Experience

How did I “discover” the AIAR approach? We recently hired a new VP who has been quite effective as a department leader. As a new member of the leadership team, however, I found that, at times, he would get so focused on his “right answer,” it made it difficult for him to hear and consider the views of others.

It was in a recent one-on-one session with this VP that I discovered the AIAR process.

In the conversation, I noticed that the VP started in advocacy mode and, true to form, my first response was to advocate for a different solution.

After a few minutes, however, I began asking questions to better understand his proposed solution. This allowed him to explain his solution and why he felt it was better.

I then said, “We’ve talked about your solution. Let me now share with you why I think my solution is better.” But, rather than go into inquiry mode and ask me questions about my proposal, he stayed in advocacy mode, and with every statement I made, he would jump in and explain why his solution was better.

I then said, “It seems like what is most important to you is… And, what is most important to me is… So, let’s see if there are other alternatives that we can create that get at both of these things.” As you can imagine, he once more went back into advocacy mode, trying to explain why his solution was the best.

I was able to come up with an alternative that seemed to cover both of our key needs. And, it was only then that he stopped advocating for his original solution and began looking at ways to improve the alternative proposal.

The Learning

Later upon reflection, I dissected the conversation and identified the components of the AIAR process that I was attempting to walk through with him. And, it was only then did I realize that perhaps it was because I hadn’t described and gotten his buy-in to using an AIAR discussion process that he kept returning to advocacy and wasn’t moving with me. Of course, I hadn’t figure out the AIAR discussion process yet and wasn’t conscious of what I was doing. I was just feeling that he wasn’t really listening and couldn’t figure out why.

I shared with him the AIAR process in a later one-on-one meeting. On reflection, he could readily see that we all could benefit from being more conscious of moving out of advocacy into inquiry to improve understanding and create potentially better solutions. Big learning all the way around.

For those familiar with the consensus building models taught in our course, The Effective Facilitator, you may readily see that Advocacy-Inquiry-Alternatives-Resolution is somewhat analogous to the Delineation-Strengths/Weaknesses-Merge processes taught in that course. For me, the differentiation between being in advocacy versus inquiry is a valuable addition that can help people work through communication difficulties.

As you reflect on discussions you have had professionally and, perhaps, personally, might the AIAR process be helpful to you and others with whom you communicate?