Have you ever been in a meeting where people think they’re talking about the same thing, but they really aren’t? Confusion gets worse and worse, frustration builds, until someone finally calls it out: “No, that’s not what I mean!”
Worse still, have you ever been in a meeting where there’s a dif cult challenge to solve, and you’re proposing constructive solutions. But there’s always that one guy, let’s call him Practical Pete. For every idea you propose, Pete tells you why it won’t work. He’s the master of pouring cold water all over your ideas. No idea is right for Pete because it isn’t practical enough.
What about this scenario: have you ever left a meeting without a single clear action in mind? You talk and talk but it doesn’t seem to converge on a path forward. And then, time is up, the meeting room is booked by someone else. So there’s a vague promise of follow up but weeks pass before any further action is taken.
These scenarios happen all the time. They’re time- wasting, energy-depleting and generally unpleasant.
THREE SIMPLE WORDS
I recently discovered three simple words that changed my life. Words so helpful they’ve become my favourite words to use on a daily basis. Why? Because they clarify conversations and eliminate confusion. These three words have made my life easier, more effective, and more enjoyable.
No, the words aren’t “I love you”, although that does help sometimes too.
The three words are: Open, Explore, Close.
Last year we were in New York City learning from the great guys at Design Gym and they taught us the power of these words.
The Open gives a single point of focus for everyone to work on. There can only be one point of focus, and everyone in the room needs to have perfect clarity of what that is otherwise confusion will take hold of the conversation. For example:
“OK, the Open for today is: how are we going to solve our retention issue? As you know, our employee turnover rate is higher than the industry average. We’re losing 35% of our people every year. This is our focus. This is the problem we need to solve together because it’s hurting our business.”
It’s amazing how often this step is skipped. Millions of meetings start with an assumption that everyone knows the topic of conversation. Broadly, this may be true, but the specific problem isn’t always clear. A clear Open at the beginning of every conversation reduces complexity and distills the issue down to one single thing to focus on.
A common derailer of meetings is that no one checks the Open. “Is this the right Open, or would you reframe it slightly Brian?”. This simple question gives everyone in the room time to get clear on the Open, and with that check, the conversation is off to a great start. It’s time to Explore.
What I love about Explore is it silences Practical Pete. During Explore, people are free to ask questions, come up with ideas, sit silently, scribble notes, draw, or do anything else. It’s an uninhibited mental space where everything is okay. For example:
“Let’s Explore why people are leaving us. Do we have any data? What have you been hearing on the ground? What are people thinking/feeling/saying?”
The Explore conversation isn’t always linear. It zigs and zags; it goes forward, backward, left and right. But what tends to happen is that some ideas emerge as being important, while others fall away.
“OK, so we think the recent re-org has created confusion and frustration for our employees. Let’s Explore some ideas to turn things around. No judgment yet, just throw some ideas out.”
When you Explore you pursue paths that might not be the right one, but who cares because it’s an adventure. When everyone in the room is exploring it’s fun, freeing, and OK to fail. Most importantly, when Practical Pete is exploring he’s more tolerant of your ideas. He doesn’t pour cold water on everything because it’s just exploring. You and Pete are in the same mindset. Hooray!
Towards the end of the Explore phase, typically a fragile consensus starts to emerge. This is where the Close comes in.
The Close is like pouring cement on an idea. It solidi es it. It makes it concrete. It becomes a path forward. For example:
“Let’s move into the Close. We’ve got 15 minutes left. It seems like we’re saying our best idea to curb employee turnover is to give out big bonuses. Is that fair to say?”
At this point, the room starts to align around the idea. People nod their heads. They begin to mentally transition into execution phase. Practical thinking starts. Pete smiles. Together, people move from an ideation mindset to an execution mindset. Actions get discussed and assigned, timelines are decided. People walk away feeling clear on what happens next. Forward momentum has been created.
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
There’s been a dramatic improvement in the quality of the meetings I attend since implementing this simple structure. All of a sudden, people are on the same page, tension and frustration are reduced, and greater clarity about which action to take and why is achieved.
It seems so simple and so intuitive, and it is. The key is consistency. Particularly when other people are chairing a meeting and they aren’t following the Open, Explore, Close methodology. This is where my biggest improvement has been. I’m now a lot more proactive about jumping into the conversation, clarifying the Open, leading the Explore, and cementing the Close. When confusion is lifted it adds value, and everyone in the meeting appreciates the clarity.
In your next meeting use these words: Open, Explore, Close. Feel the difference. You won’t be disappointed.
Big thanks to the guys at Design Gym for sharing this simple but powerful way of thinking with us.