When you begin your career your most important skills are your hard, technical skills; the finance and accounting, the statistics and economics, the physics and chemistry, the engineering and calculus. But as I tell my business school mentees, as your career progresses, the emphasis changes such that much sooner than you might initially think, the most important courses you took in college turn out to be psychology, philosophy, literature, sociology and anthropology. Of the trio of Technology, Money and People, people are invariably the most difficult component to manage. As a manager it becomes far more important to understand the motivations of Iago, Gatsby and Yossarian than to be able to compute risk-adjusted discounted cash flows (besides, we have analytics for that). The so-called “soft” skills of the technician become the hard skills of the manager.
The most valuable training I ever received in this respect came during a week-long management retreat focused on nothing less than the complete transformation of my company at that time. Our coaches during this process included Claire Breeze, who continues as a partner for the consulting firm Relume she founded several years ago, and who is also the co-author of a new book, “The Challenger Spirit”, that focuses on the needs of “organizations that challenge the status quo”. Of the many themes and concepts that emerged from that eventful week, including a song concept and title that ended up as part of “Sing for the Cure” (“Groundless Ground”), one has remained continually useful to me: the “Conversation Pyramid”.
It is completely unfair to the importance of the Conversation Pyramid that I condense two days of intense effort into just a handful of paragraphs, but so I must. In fact, the entire first day of the event was dedicated simply to establishing how fundamental the concept of “conversation” is to organizational operations and effectiveness. Most of us probably instead tend to view our internal functional PROCESSES as foundational, and as I don’t have the luxury of that amount of time, I will ask you to temporarily suspend your critical stance and accept for the purposes of this humble blog the premise that all human activity, including business operations, is predicated on conversations.
The pyramid consists of five levels, with Results at the top, conversations for Relationships at the base, and in between from bottom to top, conversations for Possibilities, Opportunities, and Actions. The top of the pyramid, Results, speaks for itself – it consists of the objectives and outcomes of the supporting chain of conversations. At the next level down, conversations for Action are of a rather unique sort. Consider sports as an analogy. What sort of conversations occur on the field of play? Short ones, to be sure, often not even using words, just grunts and gestures. When you are breaking down the right side with the ball you do not hand your teammate a white paper to let him/her know what you are going to do next. In fact, the sports analogy has another lesson for organizational Action - that of simulation. Consider how much time and effort in all sports (and likewise in the military) is dedicated to practice, which is essentially a simulation, compared to the time actually spent in a live game. NASA and airline pilots being the noteable exceptions, the commercial arena spends almost no time practicing and simulating real world conditions, and ends up paying the price by not having the right action-oriented communication skills ready-to-hand when the need arises.
Moving down the pyramid, there is a most important distinction to be made between conversations for Possibility and those for Opportunity that trip up most organizations and turn well-intentioned meetings into frustrating free-for-alls. Conversations for Possibility are your brainstorming types of conversations – anything goes, blue sky, nothing is off the table, no question is too stupid (YELLOW and GREEN hat approaches). Conversations for Opportunity, however, are more circumspect, the critical eye is applied, options are evaluated, constraints considered (the purvue of the BLUE, BLACK and WHITE hats). Nothing can derail a meeting faster than the attendees not having a shared understanding of which type of conversation they are having. How many times have you been in a meeting for what you thought was a conversation for opportunity (even if only implied by circumstances), where you are perhaps evaluating the top three options that have emerged from weeks and weeks of discovery, examination and analysis, only to have someone who missed last week’s meeting turn the entire process into chaos by announcing that they have just come up with an unbelievably amazing new idea that absolutely must be considered. Or, conversely, how often have you been in a conversation for possibilities, such as when you are simply attempting to comprehensively populate a SWOT diagram for later review, when the conversation degenerates into heated battles over blame and responsibilty for each of the Weaknesses, or when some wet blanket steps forward to announce that everyone might as well go home, that they have personally already solved the problem on their EXCEL spreadsheet, and by the way, we tried Jane’s idea six years ago and it didn’t work.
Lastly, there is the foundation itself, conversations for Relationship. The basis for this model of human activity and interaction is that, being conversation and communication based, relationships are the bedrock from which all possibilities, opportunities, actions and ultimately, results, emerge. If you do not cultivate your relationships, you can still proceed to take action on opportunities and achieve results, it’s just that your particular pyramid of opportunities, actions and results is going to be much, much narrower and smaller than for someone who takes the time to invest in relationships.
Just as the nature of the conversation at each level is inherently different, so too are the analytics applicable to supporting the business decision process at each stage:
- Building and developing Relationships in business is very much about the customer experience, sentiment analysis and social media.
- Brainstorming-like conversations for Possibilities are enhanced by analytics that support data discovery, text mining, and descriptive analytics.
- Narrowing the field of possibilities into Opportunities requires the analysis provided by forecasting, modeling and statistical analysis.
- Even the grunts and gestures of Actions can be supported by real-time optimization, simulations, execution, risk and strategy management, and also with the aligned communication of objectives, progress against metrics and alerts via visualization, dashboards and scorecards.
- Lastly, Results still need to be recorded and reported, financially and operationally, and fed back into strategy via closed-loop performance management.
Following the events of that week-long retreat, I became a convert to the primacy and power of effective conversations, and joined a group of like-minded colleagues in a year-long self-organizing team we called the ‘Committed Partners’, whose objective was to spread and develop the conversational skills that the entire organization would need to truly transform itself. Not for the first time in my life did I find myself in over my head, enmeshed in a team of expert facilitators, coaches, interventionists and communicators, but that was precisely the point – any significant and worthwhile transformation is going to challenge and test and stretch you (to tell the truth, it was sometimes down-right intimidating to be working with a group of professionals who seemed to thrive, rather than shrink, from interpersonal conflict). We all bring important skills to the myriad of different conversations we participate in every day, and while confrontation and intervention might not be your cup of tea, applying the right type of analytics to the problem, consistent with its level in the Conversation Pyramid, can immediately make you and your team valuable in either catalyzing your own organizational transformation, or simply improving your organization’s value creation or mission effectiveness.