Delta ≠ bad
Nathaniel and I were building an agenda for his team’s three-day retreat.
Working with Nathaniel was a blast. He was curious, smart and undefended. He seemed willing to hear anything. Well, almost anything. He wasn’t willing to hear about scheduling concrete activities for the mornings of days two and three.
He said, “We need flex time in case anything major comes out of the plus/delta rounds at the ends of the days.”
“No argument from me!” I said, delighted with his approach.
“Plus/delta” is an exercise facilitators and group leaders use to help teams close meetings, improve processes and develop the team. During the plus/delta exercise, each participant in turn names something they think went well during the day (their plus) and a wish for something better in the future (their delta).
My friend and colleague, Christine Grimm, CEO of ARIA Consulting International, had worked with Nathaniel and his team for five years. She’d taught them the plus/delta exercise. Now the team was ready for The Look & Sound of Leadership™ and she’d connected me to him.
“You’re going to love him,” Christine told me. “Nathaniel is one of the most transparent, grown-up leaders I’ve ever met.”
About his use of the plus/delta tool, she said, “The instant I explained it to him, he understood that the delta isn’t about expressing discontent or identifying a ‘problem.’ It’s about picturing an ideal in the future.”
Having used plus/delta myself over the years, I observed, “It’s so hard to get out of the mindset that ‘plus’ is good so ‘delta’ must be bad.”
She agreed and went on. “Nathaniel never takes the deltas personally. He’s really healthy about that. So the team can tell him anything – and they do! He’s made it very safe. There’s high trust on his team. When you talk with him you’ll see why.”
Delta = a forward-focused wish
My initial conversations with Nathaniel confirmed what Christine had said.
I asked if he thought the plus/delta tool had been helpful for the team.
“Absolutely,” he said. “We were just forming when Christine taught it to us. Using the plus/delta over and over gave us a new way to think about problems.”
“New how?” I asked.
“We used to focus on a problem and try to fix it or solve it or cut it out. But it’s hard to focus on a negative. ‘Don’t do this’ or ‘Don’t do that.’ Like, ‘Don’t think of an elephant standing in a lake.’ What do you think of?”
I laughed and he went on.
“Thinking about something as a forward-focused wish is a great visioning tool. And it’s taught us that if we want to achieve the wishes, we have to make plans.”
“The team understands the concept of a forward-focused wish?” I asked.
“See for yourself and tell me,” he said. “Actually, that concept was pretty easy. What was harder was learning to record and review. Christine told us that would be a challenge, and it was.”
“You’re not the only team that struggles with that,” I said.
“Well, it’s not a struggle anymore. Every plus and every delta gets recorded every time. And we review the lists at our quarterly meetings. Discovering the themes is fascinating. It’s like reading an old diary. At first the whole process felt tedious, like a big waste of time. But now we look forward to it. At least I do. You can ask the team when you meet them.”
“I will,” I said.
The team was six men and two women, plus Nathaniel. I first met them around a fire pit the night before the retreat began. They were socializing prior to dinner. I happened to arrive at the same time as a tall guy who’d introduced himself as Bruce.
As he and I approached the ring of chairs, a woman wearing a dark sweater spotted me and called out, “Hey, Nathaniel, is this your new genius?”
At my side, Bruce called back, “Nice greeting, Brie!” Then, to me, “We’re a bit rowdy when we’re together.”
“No problem!” I said with a laugh.
The teasing continued while they introduced themselves to me. As I got settled, they wanted to know what I’d heard about them from Christine.
“Well, for one thing, I hear you’re champs at plus/delta,” I said.
Like a chorus, they called out, “Damn right!” “Without doubt!” “Christine tell you that?” “We are!”
“What makes you so hot?” I answered back.
“We talk short and sweet,” said Irwin, a shaggy redhead.
“Right,” agreed Katsumi, a smiling woman with wire-rim glasses. “No big explanations when you’re doing plus/delta. Just bullet points,”
Sitting next to her, Kiran observed, “That was hard to learn.”
“Only ‘cause you love to talk, Kiran!” retorted Irwin, the redhead.
“Says you, Irwin!” Bruce shot back. Then, to me, “We all gave big explanations when we first started.”
Katsumi explained further. “We didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. So we used a lot of words. Now, when someone starts explaining their plus/deltas, we jump on them.”
I asked, “Because…?”
“More words water down ideas,” she answered succinctly.
Repetition is reinforcement
Kiran chimed in with a new thought. “We used to think we couldn’t repeat each other. On the plus or the delta.”
“Christine got us wise about that,” said Nathaniel, his feet up, sipping a bottle of beer.
Brie said, “Christine taught us that repetition is how themes emerge. It’s really powerful when we hear that we all want to change the same thing. Like doing homework before the meetings.”
“Or follow-up after,” said Bruce.
I said, “It sounds like you’re giving each other feedback. Is that how you think of the deltas? As feedback?” I looked at Nathaniel with my eyebrows raised, as if to say, “Let’s see what they say!” He raised his back as if to answer, “You’ll see!”
Again they chorused, “No!” “A delta is a wish.” “It’s picturing the future.”
Brie carried on, saying, “Everyone used to hate my slides.” The group gave a loud cheer of agreement. She laughed and said, “But no one said to me, ‘Your slides stink.’ What I kept hearing were deltas like, ‘I wish all our slides were readable’ and ‘I wish we had decks with no spread sheets.’”
Irwin raised his wine glass and said, “And I heard people say, ‘I wish the team was punctual.’” The team cheered again.
Bruce said, “And we learned to hear each other’s wishes and not take them personally.”
I looked at Nathaniel and gave a tiny shrug as if to say, “Yes, they know this lesson.”
To the team, Nathaniel called out, “Stop your bragging, you guys. Let him see for himself tomorrow.”
Day One’s agenda went well. About 45 minutes before the end time, Nathaniel shifted the team into closure mode. Action items were identified and responsibilities agreed to. Then, as people closed their laptops and crumpled notes, someone called, “OK! Plus/Delta! Who’s recording?”
“Me,” called another, reopening his computer. “I’ll go first.” For his ‘plus,’ he made an observation about something he’d enjoyed in the morning. His ‘delta’ was, “I wish corporate would do away with that one slide about the process cycle.”
And so it went. Backpacks zipped and dishes clinked as, one after another, people called out their observations. I was struck by their ability to be light and nimble yet thoughtful and articulate. They excelled at labeling without explaining.
Then, suddenly, almost before I knew it, the plus/delta was over. People were on their feet, heading out the door.
In my room before dinner, I reflected on their mastery of the plus/delta tool. Considering the behaviors that made them so proficient, I listed five. I felt they’d become expert because they:
- Used the tool consistently and rigorously over time.
- Spoke their plus/deltas as succinct bullet points.
- Recorded every plus and every delta, then reviewed the lists regularly.
- Phrased deltas as a wish about an ideal future, not about what had gone wrong in the past.
- Refused to react personally to anything said by others.
Within a month, I had the opportunity to introduce the plus/delta tool to a team who’d never used it. During their off-site, they tried it three times. (No fire pit for them; just a high-rise conference room.)
Unlike Nathaniel’s team, these folks were beginners. As with all beginners, their first efforts were slow; each plus/delta round took quite a bit of time.
One trouble they encountered was the ability to identify what they had liked or what they wished for the future.
One person said, “During the morning, I remember noticing something I didn’t like…”
“Something you wish was different in the future?” I corrected gently.
“Yes. Right. Sorry. I noticed something I wish was different, but I can’t remember it now.”
The group decided they would write down pluses and deltas as they happened. That way, come the end of the meeting, they’d already have them.
They also found themselves defaulting – in both the pluses and deltas – to saying, “I agree with what she said.” I suggested that there was power in putting every item into their own words, even if someone else had already said it. “That is how you’ll hear the themes emerge,” I said, echoing Nathaniel’s team. This team found that helpful.
One woman, braver than the others, said she thought they were being awfully polite with their deltas. They discussed that and agreed they’d like to be as honest as possible. They asked if I had any tools for that.
I said, “You’re talking about safety. Safety comes as you learn that you won’t pay a price for speaking up. Over time you’ll find out whether people get wounded and carry grudges. In other words, do they take deltas personally. If they do, it won’t feel very safe. Safety happens when all ideas are equally welcome.”
To which a team member replied, “But all ideas aren’t equally good.”
“True. But plus/deltas are just each person’s opinion. People are just saying what they like and what’re wishing for the future. If all opinions are welcome equally, over time you’ll get past being polite.”
That team’s leader and I were in a robust coaching engagement. I sensed she would be able to model healthy non-defensive behavior for the team that, over time, would most likely create safety. If they kept practicing the plus/delta tool, I felt certain they’d move themselves toward The Look & Sound of Leadership.