From time to time, we encounter situations – usually large and complex or emotionally charged – that paralyze us. We feel stuck, at a standstill. We suffer from analysis-paralysis because we have an overwhelming amount of data to consider. Or, there are too many cooks in the kitchen, with everyone wanting a say in how things should play out. Sometimes, the cooks who need to be in the kitchen are nowhere in sight. It’s also possible that the underlying emotional dynamics that silently affect how individuals interact with you or feel about the issue at hand, are complicated and complicating. Whatever the circumstance, you feel the pressure – generated internally or externally – to create a successful outcome.  Yet, pleasing everyone seems nearly impossible.

Whenever you face a complex situation and feel stuck about the best way to move forward, and who to involve, here’s a fun tool that can clear the path and reveal who the most critical stakeholders are that you need to engage to generate buy-in and gain their commitment.

Grab paper and some colored pens or pencils and draw the situation. Don’t worry about the right or wrong way to do this, just map it out in a way that helps you visualize the important bits.  Include all of the players – those who are actively involved, those who should be involved but have been standing on the sidelines, those who have a vested interest in the outcome, those who will be the implementers and users. Use symbols and colors to represent each person. Write their names or initials on their symbol. Make sure you include a symbol for yourself because you are a key piece of this puzzle.

Draw the boundaries and interconnections between all of the players.  Take their social proximity to one another into account.  Show the energy and emotions of their relationships by the way you draw the lines that define or connect them.  For instance, you can use thick jagged or broken lines where there is tension. Try dotted lines for relationships where the commitment is tentative or low.  Don’t use words, just symbols, colors and representative lines.

After you’ve completed your drawing, step back and look at the image. Notice what new perspectives and insights occur to you.  Look for new ideas about what seems to be the next right move.  Externalizing and visualizing the issue or situation will allow you to see it objectively and with fresh eyes. Before you take any action, revisit your drawing a few times. Give yourself a day or so to let what the illustration reveals emerge. You may even find yourself editing your drawing after giving it more thought. Work with it. Play with it.

This simple exercise is designed to help you break any complex situation into its many parts. Keep this in mind: the most influential parts are intangible. Feelings and emotional connections carry more weight than the traditional view of business and workplace relationships would lead us to believe.

It’s foolish to assume that how we feel about others, and how we feel about ourselves in their presence, doesn’t play a role in positive progress or the lack of forward motion. We want to believe that objectivity rules in the workplace, and that everyone make decisions free of emotional entanglement. The opposite is not only true, it is an inevitable part of everything.

This exercise gives that often-ignored piece of the equation the attention and respect it deserves. By doing so, you’ll be better equipped to move forward with a more realistic view of the situation, as well as the politics involved, and advance toward the outcomes that serve everyone best.

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