September 25, 2018

Use the snowball technique to gather input

The best leaders spend a lot of time listening

Whether you’re just finding your way in a new role, or working through a tough decision in a position you’ve held for years, there will always be times when you need to simply listen.  But how do you ensure you hear what you really need to hear? Well, for one, you should talk to Chrissy.


That’s what I said when I was starting a new leadership role in an academic medical department.  My dean had told me to talk to Chrissy.

I was using a favorite tool I call the snowball technique.  I spoke with my boss, her boss, my peers and colleagues, direct reports, and more, asking each one of them the same questions, always ending with: “Who should I talk with next?”  My boss sent me to the wisdom keepers.

Chrissy was a young woman with Down syndrome who volunteered to empty the recycling bins around the medical center’s offices, delivering their contents to the recycling center on campus.  She, along with the head of security and the groundskeepers, were wisdom keepers.  They had a perspective on my new workplace that I simply couldn’t find anywhere else.  They had seen it all and were, in some ways, the heart of the institution.

I asked Chrissy, my boss and everyone I spoke with a handful of questions.  They went along the lines of:

  • How do you see my role here?
  • How should I communicate with you from my position?
  • What three things do I likely not know that I need to understand to do this job well?
  • Who else should I talk to?

I asked everyone the same questions, and then I followed up on their suggestions, speaking to anyone they named and then asking them the same questions.

Eventually, it snowballed.  I found my way through the entire community at my new work home.  Did I know everything I needed to know to do my new job?  No.  But I knew a whole lot more about my new professional environment, the people around me and their priorities and needs than I did before I started asking questions.  And I had context for my work that I couldn’t find any other way.

In addition, I hope that everyone I spoke with learned something important about me:  I listened to them, and I treated them all with the same importance and respect.

The snowball technique

That systematic way of connecting and collecting information throughout the professional environment is the snowball technique.  You can use it to get to know a new place like I did, but you can also use it for fact-finding, to give you perspective on a persistent challenge you must solve, to collect ideas for addressing a problem or to gain insight for filling a key position.

[bctt tweet=”The idea behind the snowball technique is to get a broad range of input and make sure you don’t leave anyone out. This will likely lead you to a far better solution, and far greater buy-in from the people around you.” username=”MettaSolutions”]

You simply need to:

  1. Identify a few key questions, making certain that you end with “who else should I talk with?”
  2. Ask the same questions of everyone you speak with, and be sure to tell them you’re asking everyone the same questions so they understand the process is fair and transparent.
  3. Keep going until you stop getting referrals to new people.  You and your snowball of wisdom have reached the bottom of the hill.

Try it out, and let me know how it goes!

How might you be able to use the snowball technique?

I think the possibilities are probably endless.  What about you?