The survey results…you really don’t know what they mean

11 Apr

When you’re presented with survey results, do you know how to “read” them? Do you show a great “bias for action” and jump to action planning? Maybe you’re a great communicator and you promptly pull everyone together to explain how they responded and how the organization is reacting. Perhaps you’re skilled in data analysis, use SPSS, remind others that correlation doesn’t mean causation, etc. You likely know what the data is, but most of us can only speculate what it means.

A lesson I learned from Dr. Kathie Sorensen of The Coffman Organization is when you’re collecting information from a group of people to try to understand something of importance, it’s not smart to review data and then tell the organization what their responses mean. When working with Kathie, before leaders received survey results in a report, they were instructed to “Raise your right hand and repeat after me: I will not tell my team what their survey results mean.”

When measuring social factors – why people do what they do, make the choices they make, feel how they feel, believe what they believe – I’ve found it effective to follow a process to share what the results are and use questions to seek to understand in more detail what they mean from the people who provided the responses. I’ve never seen this process fail to drive improvement just through the process itself, independent of any action that comes from it. I’ve also, never seen a leader do this and not be surprised by how much they learn. It’s an exercise of empathy.

When Dr. Sorensen first delivered the “Raise your right hand…” message to our leaders, many of them struggled. They scoffed at the idea that they couldn’t interpret and plan actions against such simple surveys. The very idea of presenting a set of data – some of which wasn’t that positive about their leadership and the environment they were responsible for – and then asking for help with what it meant was threatening. Results come from action, not talking and deliberation, right? We were stuck until I presented an analogy to tip the group back to support by showing similarities to a concept they were more familiar with – a key investment the organization made in manufacturing – the condition monitoring systems.

Me: We’ve made some significant capital investments in condition monitoring systems for the plants right?

Leaders in group meeting: Yeah. Those systems keep our plants delivering the product we sell to make money. What does that have to do with these surveys.

Me: I think they’re similar.

Leaders (laughing): You do? How?

Me: How do the condition monitoring systems work? They don’t actually tell you what to do to the machinery, right?

Leaders: No, the condition monitoring systems measure things like temperature, vibration, and volume. When the machines are going to fault, there are changes in these factors that you can see leaving their normal levels well in advance of the machine failing. This allows us to plan maintenance or repair at a time that works best for us and not shut down production while product is scheduled to run and labor is on the clock.

Me: Exactly what we’re trying to do too. The survey results don’t tell you what the problem is. They tell that something is vibrating or hot and you should work to figure out what it is before it causes a system failure that will be expensive and uncomfortable.

Another analogy that may work better for you if you’re not in manufacturing is measuring your vitals (blood pressure, blood oxygen levels, pulse, weight, blood sugar, etc.) to monitor health.

Related posts:

What is Engagement, Really?

There’s no such thing as a great organization

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