Does your company have very important conversations? Sure it does. I’m not sure what your’s are like but I’m thinking of particular kinds of conversations.
They happen when a team gets together to plan for the year or quarter. Or at major turning points, or you want to improve performance in some way.
These conversations don’t always announce themselves with fanfare but they determine how your business runs, how engaged your people are, how you service your customers, how you manage your value chain... in fact, they define your entire brand. And help determine some other things like profitability, growth, and talent retention.
Some of these conversations are inclusive, open, and productive; but we both know too many are not.
Sometimes very important conversations just seem too hard and we avoid them, allowing for some oblique or default process to produce whatever results it will. We may not like those results, but at least we didn’t have to have one of those conversations!
Sometimes the alternative to a very important conversation reminds me of a married couple deciding where to go for dinner. “Where do you want to go?” I don’t know, where do you want to go?” “I‘ don’t know...” Painful to listen to, and eventually there is a dinner, but hardly ever a great one where everyone’s needs are met.
As it turns out we avoid three specific types of very important conversations concerning
* Right vs. Right Decisions
A big reason we avoid very important conversations around alignment is that we work in silos. We’ve been in silos for years - that’s how we’re organized and measured. We identify with our silo and heck, our silo is better than other silos!
Sometimes silos are like college football fans in the South.
We want to appear reasonable from our silo, team players and all, but alignment seems to involve compromise and compromise doesn’t always equal our silo coming out on top, or at least not having to give something up.
It can be hard to remember when our silo was really aligned with another.
Where would our company be if we didn’t have so much internal friction and competition?
I’m a physicist, licensed to be nerdy, so I can tell you the difference between un-alignment and alignment is like the difference between a flashlight and a laser. And for the same reasons.
As far as obstacles, we avoid very important conversations about obstacles for several reasons: Do we even want to admit they exist? Do we want to look bad for only identifying them now? Do we want to argue about which ones are real or likely, or whose fault they are? Do we want to share our silo’s resources on solving them?
And the one I hear a lot: “Do we want to spend hours brainstorming a solution to every single freaking obstacle?”
The answer to that one is “No” if you’ll first take time to identify the root causes to obstacles. As it turns out, one root cause can result in a handful (or more) obstacles. This means one good solution can take you a long way.
Obstacles can be resource constraints, a lack of customers, they can be old processes, regulations, or competition. Very often obstacles are policies that were created to solve a problem that no longer exists.
And what exactly is a “Right versus Right Decision?” Those are very important conversations where both sides have legitimate and competing needs that both must be met. Neither side of the debate is wrong, both are right but in conflict. And you can’t just split the difference. You’re stuck.
Since we know we’re stuck and will stay stuck, we’ve avoided some of these conversations for years!
Here are a few classic Right vs. Rights: Investing in sales versus controlling cost, allocating resources between product or service lines, change verses don’t change, focusing on short-term versus long-term results, growth verses solidifying our base, local versus centralized management.
Many Right vs. Rights develop when culture, or cultural aspirations, meet business performance goals. Particularly those quarterly ones.
Do you maintain stock to be responsive, or reduce stock to increase inventory turns?
The ways we’ve made headway on a Right vs. Right is because we were stuck so long that something eventually changed or we were in a crisis. Or maybe someone had a stronger personality or a louder voice. Not the best ways to have a very important conversation.
How do we do this better? How do we elevate our conversations so we can safely have creative and productive discussions across silos? And up and down our silos, for that matter.
We can do it in three steps:
* Step One: Be more inclusive than ever. Inclusive of a broader span of people - including those outside your silo, and also of thinking styles and points of view. I think it was Patton who said: “If everyone is thinking alike, then nobody is thinking.”
* Step Two: Have a process and follow it. Make sure that process is rigorous enough to drive through to the desired output, while still allowing everyone to breathe. Use a process that works backward from the output you want, with steps that allow everyone to buy-in as they work together. Each very important conversation benefits from a different process.
* Step Three: Trust and follow the process. Even when someone prefers blame, old stories, old stories from other companies, false choices, or stalls. Stay on track and keep moving. A good process will get you where you need to go.
What you’ll find is that you’ll start having very important conversations and end up having dialogs that matter. You start with a simple discussion and end up creating shared meaning and alignment, a path to overcoming even scary obstacles and getting unstuck.
And that’s very important.