What Do You Make of This?

Posted 10.12.2011

One of my idiosyncratic sources of fun is inserting random lines from movies into everyday conversation. Kevin Bacon shouting, “All is well. Remain calm!” right before the riot runs over him at the end of Animal House would be an example. Another one is when the Lloyd Bridges character in Airplane is looking at a report on a big piece of paper and turns to Jonny asking “What do you make of this?” Jonny grabs it and says, “Oh, I can make a hat, or a broach or a pterodactyl.”

It’s amazing how much the Lloyd Bridges question, “What do you make of this?” comes up in day to day life. For instance, when an organization is going through a big change, “What do you make of this?” is a pretty germane question. People’s answers will depend on the framework and context they have. That’s where leadership plays a critical role.

Change usually involves the end of something which usually means that at least some people are losing something that matters to them. The leader’s job is to start some conversations that focus on “What else can we make of this?”

An executive I know was promoted to be the CEO of his organization. He’s following a much beloved leader. Like most organizations these days, they’re facing a tough operating environment. It’s natural that the people there might focus on the downside of losing a leader they love at a time when it’s hard to meet goals. The new CEO is asking the question, “What else can we make of this?” When you ask that question, the possibilities open up. You give people the opportunity to come up with new options and new ways to view the roles they play or could play.

In his book,  Managing Transitions, William Bridges reminds us that before anything new can begin, something else has to end. Leaders need to help their organizations acknowledge the endings and engage them in the new beginnings. Asking “What else can we make of this?” seems like a good way to engage people in reframing their context and getting ready for what’s next.

What do you do to help people focus on the possibilities?