There are a number of useful behaviors or practices that can help a team to work effectively together. An obvious one is ensuring there is a clear and shared understanding about the context and purpose of their work. Without this shared understanding you don’t have a team, it’s just a group of people. 

Another very useful thing is to build the ability of team members to anticipate potential critical issues before they arise, and then to have a plan or contingency to deal with such issues.

‘Critical issues’ here means those issues which, unless identified and dealt with, are likely to derail progress significantly and make the achievement of your purpose unlikely. Teams that don’t identify critical issues are likely to become trapped in a reactive mode of responding to a series of unanticipated problems.  Frustration rises and relationships may be tested.  Energy and resources get wasted and progress toward output is at least compromised if not halted.  

Senge advises: “The earlier and more clearly you anticipate these challenges, the easier it becomes to deal with them. You don’t have to wait until the challenges become visible; the best time to prepare for them is before they have appeared. ...
They require investments of time and energy that may not be possible once you are facing the problems directly.... Generally they don’t become visible until they are provoked, but by the time you provoke them it may be too late to deal with them.  
Therefore your highest leverage comes from anticipating them rather than reacting to them.”                                                                         (Senge, p30 & p60)

A useful way to proactively identify critical issues is to ask questions. 
Karen Smart reminds us that we can use questions to:

  • Probe beneath the surface of a problem and stop ourselves or others leaping to instant solutions for the symptoms, which usually end up creating bigger problems.
  • Challenge our assumptions and prejudices so that we really do come to new experiences and people with an open mind.

Asking questions is a very simple but powerful way of stopping the brain going down a pre-programmed route, and rather getting it into the kind of ‘original thinking’ mode that we need to be effective managers.

Here are two helpful questions to help the team identify critical issues:

1.    What if ?  

Encouraging people to ask critical “what if” questions will help to reveal some of the complexities of the task ahead and the need for contingency plans.  

The “what if” questions must of course be limited to the critical “what ifs” and must not be allowed to degenerate into a long list of often unlikely obstructions and reasons why something cannot be done.  
It is important that critical assumptions are identified and tested because ‘The moment an assumption is held consciously as only a possibility, it is no longer an assumption’.    (Peter Raymond)

It may be helpful to ask the question “What is there that we really would like to know but that at this stage we do not know?”  This will help retain the focus on forward-thinking and the unknowns. 

2.    How to?

Problems that must be identified and solved if there is to be any chance of success are clearly critical issues. Processes and steps required to achieve the overall objective can also be discussed as critical issues. There may be some key steps that are critical and unless we know “how to” do those, our purpose won’t be achieved. 

In identifying and overcoming these critical “how to’s” one is making contributions toward the overall pathway and plan.

This process of stirring up and identifying the issues enables the leader to guide the group through a process of resolving these and finding ways of overcoming the predicted challenges, as well as arranging for some contingencies to be in place. This a time where the insights, views, and capabilities of the team members need to be shared, heard and understood. 

A plan that does not address the critical issues is not likely to be a plan that can work.  


Author:  Rod Barnett, Senior Trainer/Consultant, MDF Asia Vietnam office.

To learn more on how to help your team to be prepared, join a series of training courses that will be delivered by Rod Barnett in Asia on Leadership & People Management, Change Management and Human Resource Management .






Dr Ian Macdonald and the work of MAC associates and clients.
Peter Raymond unpublished work “Be My Mirror” 1998
Peter Senge “The Fifth Discipline” 1990.
Karen Smart “Real Problem Solving” 2003