I recently met with the CEO of an organization that was in the midst of a process improvement initiative. Like many consultants, I am rarely in conversations where everything is perfect: few people talk to consultants for fun!
The project was into its second phase and was proceeding swimmingly. All timelines were maintained with results better than expected. Before long, we got to the heart of the issue: the successes were not being broadcast effectively, which, my client suspected, was the reason for a lackadaisical air around the entire initiative. Of course, there were regular project team presentations to the wider group on results and learnings, but the true success of the little wins along the way were not getting across.
To of us who are familiar with “selling the sizzle, not the steak,” think about a prime cut of meat—beautifully cooked—in a Tupperware container at the back of the fridge. And there are plenty of them back there!
From experience, I know that considerable effort goes into organizing the kick-off sessions for big change initiatives, and that a key objective is to “get people excited” about their projects. Leadership team members, internal experts or third-party consultants who speak at these events are careful (one hopes) to prep both message and delivery for optimal results. Rick Spence, who provides advice to small businesses in the Financial Post, prepared a quick list of dos and don’ts for “delivery” (aka: public speaking) here: (http://www.financialpost.com/small_business/story.html?id=654070) The list is good, but will likely be familiar to anyone who has waded into the waters of being a better speaker/presenter.
I find it noteworthy that numbers one and two on the list are “tell stories” and “tell your own stories.” The thinking is that stories relax speakers (it’s not a script to memorize, it’s a story to tell), and the “your own” part of it brings credibility and sincerity to the mix. The perceived absence of the latter qualities, I would suggest, puts the “nay” in those naysayers who can try to quell the excitement that a successful kick-off creates, and give rise to the lackadaisical air.
In our situation, the “presenters” are relaying the results of projects (e.g. stories), with which they were directly involved (e.g. their stories). So where’s the gap?
I spotted two: (1) those involved do not realize the importance of “communicating the success” and not just “presenting the information;” and (2) those with the stories to tell have little experience and understanding of how to present information.
If GAP #1 is beneath the radar screen of senior management, someone needs to help them “get” that the necessary cultural shift for any change initiative does not come from good—even great—results alone. In my earlier anecdote, my client was keenly aware of this gap, but I doubt he is in a vast majority. Fixes for GAP #2 can take many flavours from the school of hard knocks (forced experience?) to random pop quizzes on Mr. Spence’s list (forced understanding?).
The most effective means for unlocking the potential in these communication opportunities will do two things: (1) involve those at senior levels of the organization, and (2) will provide the required resources for the “presenters” to succeed, namely time (to prepare and practice) and expertise (internal or external, to coach on delivery). This may require some financial resource outlay (investment), whose return will come in the form of a steak that brings adequate sizzles.
This originally appeared in the July 2008 e-Newsletter for the Canadian Supply Chain Sector Council
Stories about work/life balance and mobile communication (usually Blackberrys) are easy fodder for articles and columns on business skills, careers, etc. A recent such article (Blacking out the Blackberry from canada.com) provides one “after work solution” and one “during work solution” in its discussion of the “PDA pandemic.” Both suggestions are problematic, in my view.
Apparently the Canadian Citizenship and Immigration Department has issued a “Blackberry blackout” between 7PM and 7AM to help people detach from work and focus on family members. I guess the message could be: be productive while you are here, so you don’t need to take work home. Great idea, right?
I would say “No.” What about the people who jet out the door at 5 (to get home for dinner with their family, make a yoga class, etc.) but then log on from home later (after the kids are in bed, or after “So You Think You Can Dance,” etc.) to tidy things up that can be handled by e-mail? Smart employers will find employees who can balance themselves and provide them with the tools and flexibility to do so.
The “during work” rule used soccer (aka football) precedent of two strikes your out: employees get a yellow card warning for checking their Blackberry during a meeting; the second offense garners a red card, which brings a penalty of paying your own PDA “phone bill” for the month (likely in the neighbourhood of $500). What a great deterrent, right? Not if you think back to your Psych 101 discussion of rewards and punishment (Skinner anyone?).
In this world with information and request overload, why not be explicit about “competing” for people’s attention? If I have called a meeting (or am delivering a presentation) it should be my job to get your attendance and keep your attention. Colleagues should have the right to decline on both fronts, but more often give the former and withhold the latter. Let’s shift meetings from “necessary until proven useless” and put the onus on people to explain why others should be there. Do we really need the update? If so, why? Do we really need to get together every week to “go over” things? If so, why?
NOTE: The trick is in asking those questions (especially of superiors) without getting backs up.
If I, as the meeting instigator, have failed to get your attention, go ahead and catch up your e-mails. It’s probably the best use of your time. Maybe then you can get your work done before they turn the servers off at 7PM!
This trilogy started with a discussion of three books, the last of which is Getting to Maybe, co-authored by Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Quinn Patton. The subtitle for the book is “How the World is Changed,” which carries interesting ambiguity: does this refer to “how changes happen in the world” or to recent trends that have changed the world? It doesn’t really matter.
In my understanding, “Getting to Maybe” entails prolonging the discussion. The emergence of a “yes” or a “no” indicates are hard stop or start in direction. Some examples of conversation endpoints are:
- “No, we are not going to pursue this partnership,”
- “Yes, we need to develop a new offering,” and
- “Yes we need growth, but, no, your ideas for growth are beyond our capabilities.”
Depending on who is involved and how those individuals operate, the time involved to reach these end-points could be minutes or months. A “maybe” is not an end, it is a continuation, extension, or hiatus. There is an understanding–on both sides–that the dialogue will continue or resume.
Recently ending a lengthy run for the development of 3Ms “Post-it” as the most overused business cliche is the Google 20 per cent rule, whereby employees must devote one day a week to unrelated projects. This could easily be termed “maybe time,” which would allow those bringing forward the above ideas to:
- Continue exploring future possibilities for “this partnership” to take shape;
- Tinker with the current offerings to recreate relevance with an existing market segment; and
- Examine the fluidity of our capabilities to explore novel growth strategies.
The power of “maybe” is in accepting that no one knows for sure. Decisiveness is necessary, but can at times be limiting. There are times when keeping too many options open becomes counter productive. Given the speed at which things change, one might expect an increased need for decision. I would argue that with the state of constant flux, some things may benefit from being able to simmer for a little while. Maybe time let’s these things ripen… or rot.
I have run into friends and colleagues whose strongest motivation was to combat a perception that he or she “couldn’t” do something. Maybe time legitimizes a pursuit that would either be done “underground” or would be a nagging “shoulda” when things inevitably turn south. Passionate and motivated employees will likely make their own maybe time, but will appreciate having it included among official activities.
To “get to maybe” also demands those in authority (formal or informal) to recognize and pull back from “gut feeling” decisions, when maybe is a viable option. Backing up from a knee-jerk decision takes self awareness or deft positioning of the “maybe” or both in order to further the dialogue.
No matter who is working together, the right ideas can emerge if information flows well. At different stages “Yes,” “No” and “Maybe” from all sides of the interaction can support that information flow. Go ahead, call me naive.
August Busch IV said “While the process was at times difficult for all parties, in the end, the right outcome happened for everyone” as comment on the recent acquisition of his family’s company by InBev. I would love to have a glimpse into some of those “difficult” discussions and if there were any personal bests set in depths of facial redness or heights of blood pressure readings.
There will certainly be opposition from other areas, as well. From a business perspective, the deal appears to be solid, as indicated in a description of the Wall Street Journal account of the deal, but will no doubt face opposition when the potential efficiencies start to be realized and, as Tom Pirko of Bevmark consulting says here the company is forced to behave like other global companies in pushing workers and suppliers to market levels. Busch’s “everyone” likely does not include suppliers of hops and electricity that will bear the brunt of increased “buyer power” from this new entity.
Can we assume that this is an objectively good deal?
If so, all parties, including workforce and suppliers, should be content: benefits are reasonable, and any heartache was eventual. The dollar figure ($70/share or $52 billion) gets a lot of attention, but as always there is much more to the deal than the price. I am intrigued by the decision to rename InBev to include the legacy of the Busch family. “Anheuser-Busch” is much more recognizable, I have to assume, to Bud drinkers than “InBev” is to those imbibing Stella-Artois, let alone any Labatt product.
Perhaps we will never know what it was that tipped the scale on this negotiation, but if August Busch IV was able to move the company into the future more easily given that the family name will live on, more power to him and to those who were at the table to close the deal.
This is obviously not all about ego and family legacy. Busch et al have two seats on the Board, and InBev will be able to benefit from this hands-on experience in further exploring the US market, as well as bringing Bud products to the rest of the world. It is fascinating, however, to see the subtle indications of what were obviously emotionally heated discussions. I am not surprised that a couple of cold ones were cracked at the end of it all. Well deserved!
My take on William Ury’s “The Power of the Positive No” (follow-on to “Getting to Yes”) is that clarity on what we don’t want helps refine what we do want. There in lies the “Positive No.”
It can take some thinking to get to what is the No and what is the Yes. David Cameron, the U.K.’s leader of the opposition, didn’t mince words this week in saying No to a society with diminished personal responsibility, and Yes to one with more personal accountability. Bold words for a politician, but any individual’s “ideal” will have a strong degree of good-old human judgment of “this beating that.”
Some of the No assertions are tough to make because they expose our values. In school I had to say “No” to a fellow student who wanted to repurpose an assignment a friend had used in the same class the previous term. The difference in orientation came down to our respective Yes and No statements.
- Me: Yes to learning by doing, and No to taking someone else’s work.
- My Classmate: Yes to efficient use of available information, and No to reinventing the wheel unnecessarily.
A thousand personal beliefs, experiences and orientations inform my and my classmate’s position. It is almost pointless to argue who is right because it comes down to conflicting emotional judgments that could stem from “fear of getting caught,” “pride in own work,” etc.
Being aware of our ideal is important; how open you are about it is another matter. Declaring these ideals really does put you “out there,” and it is tough to keep control of a conversation or exchange that touches these. That said, whether it is No to being underemployed, No to being micro-managed, or No to imbalance in life, sometimes the buck actually stops. In my working history, it has always (eventually) felt good/paid off to stick to real Nos. (All due respect to my time-starved classmate!)
I was called “naive” this past week during a conversation with a client.
The context of the comment was skeptical rather than critical because I had suggested that it was possible to have productive conflict conversations where teams neither like nor trust each other. My optimism/naivety comes in no small part from three books, whose titles and approaches complement. Below is the list, and at the risk of minimizing each work’s unique contribution, I provide one essential take-away from each:
- Getting to Yes: Use objective criteria as support; be receptive to objective support for the other position.
- The Power of the Positive No: Distill what is unacceptable (e.g. your “No”); pursue the acceptable/desirable.
- Getting to Maybe: Dialogue creates opportunities; extend the dialogue by latching onto the “Maybes”
So how does this help a conflicting senior team discussion when all niceties and “benefit of the doubt” are long gone?
You don’t have to have “the answer” (e.g. the Win/Win “Yes”) to provide support to a position. Those at the top of the org chart should be prepared to explain their rational, even if it is: “I don’t know for sure, but I think we need to do something and this approach is closest to the strategy that we are all working towards.”
MAJOR ASSUMPTION #1: One hopes that this can be correctly interpreted as, “If you don’t want to do this, you will have to change my mind.” Our org-chart topper has to be truly open to having their mind changed, provided the counter proposal is grounded in objective information… no matter who brings it forth.
MAJOR ASSUMPTION #2: One also hopes the dissenting second-in-command has intrinsic motivation for the venture to succeed. This motivation doesn’t have to be financial, but certainly could be based on self-serving profit sharing. It could also be interest in job security, emotional investment in the project/team/venture, pride in overcoming a challenge, etc.
Remove either of those assumptions and hope for a quality result is, indeed, naive.
If you are the team CEO, project head, team lead, etc., are you really open to dissenting opinion from those that report to you? If you are not ready to listen, you better be “enlightened.”
If you are on the team and you don’t like the direction: (1) are you motivated to express your dissent (as opposed to holding out for a personally satisfying “I told you so” opportunity); and (2) are you prepared to back up the position to move from “I told you so” to “I tried to show you so” with objective support?
Look up or forward to thoughts on “No” and “Maybe.”
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