What Problem Are We Trying to Solve?

An old business friend told me the other day that the thing he most remembers me saying was, “What problem are we trying to solve?” As he put it, “That little phrase is the key to unfreezing more off-course conversations than any other technique I know of.”

I can’t claim invention. I got it from the United Research side of Gemini Consulting, one of several pieces of clever social engineering they brought to business. Here’s how, and why, it works.

How Business Conversations Go Astray

To hear us tell it after the fact, many business meetings follow a logical flow. They start with an agenda or problem definition, data are then presented, discussions held, and conclusions reached.  Then pigs fly.

It’s not that those individual elements don’t happen – they do. It’s that they happen like a Tower of Babel, randomly and all at once. When everybody’s got an opinion and a vested interest, and nobody’s a designated facilitator – a description of most meetings – we shouldn’t expect much else.

Have you ever been in a planning board meeting?  A condo association meeting? A meeting within your firm’s HR department? An inter-departmental meeting? A sales call with an interested but wary client?

Then you’ve seen the following dysfunctions:

  1. People pursuing their own agendas as sub-text to a given issue
  2. Aimless wandering around various problem definitions
  3. Randomly proposed solutions without grounding
  4. A social struggle for air time
  5. An airing of pet peeves as they manifest in the given issue
  6. A game of dominance and submission playing out in an issue.

And I’m sure there are more. All are forms of incoherence, lacking sequence or structure, generating more frustration from which to feed more incoherence.

It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way

If the root issue is incoherence, then there are several ways to tackle it. You can agree on an agenda. You can enforce sequencing. You can apportion air time.

But one way seems to work better than others. When the babble begins to peak, and the frustration level is palpable, raise your hand, furrow your brow, and ask, genuinely, “Hey folks – what problem are we trying to solve?”

Notice what this simple formulation does.

First, it is socially neutral-to-positive. Logically it has the same effect as saying, “You fools are all over the map – you can’t even define the problem” – but the emotional effect is totally different. You’re not claiming the moral high ground or fighting for your point of view – you’re simply observing a phenomenon, and asking a question.

Second, it’s a very good question. Asking a group to gut-check a problem definition almost immediately elicits an answer – and often it’s the same answer. In which case, collaboration is restored – you all have a common mission again.

And if it’s a different answer, voila, you’ve distilled the essence of the debate – “we have two competing problem definitions, no wonder we were having such difficulties!” In either case, the group becomes re-centered around a dynamic goal – problem definition and resolution, rather than bitching and moaning, or power games.

The net effect of all this is claiming, centering, and norming. A group becomes a group again, with common goals, moving forward, rather than a fractious collection of squabblers.

Give it a try next time you’re in a meeting that’s driving you a little batty – just ask, “Hey folks – what problem are we trying to solve?”

 

Competing with Colleagues

When I co-wrote The Trusted Advisor with David Maister and Rob Galford a few years back, it became reasonably successful within several months. (Amazingly, it still ranks #5,252 – as of last night – on the list of all books on Amazon. That’s all books, including Harry Potter, Malcolm Gladwell, etc. I’ll take long-sellers over best-sellers any day of the week).

With its success came a happy problem: how to parcel out the leads between the three of us? Let me be clear, the book wasn’t drowning us in leads; any one of the three of us could have happily fielded all inquiries. And while we wanted to be fair to each other, we were also all of us very clearly in competition with each other.

So the question: how do you compete with colleagues?

Competing with Colleagues

What if one of us got a lead based on the book? Did we have any obligation to pass it along to the other two? If so, how?  Should we establish a quota system, whereby each of us would get every third lead?

Should we let the market dictate things, and let whomever the client had reached out to handle the response? What if the client had written to all three of us?  Should we all respond confidentially, or in some sense share our responses?

The problem was not unique to us, though it seemed so at the time.  You may face a similar problem within your organization – who gets the lead? Who gets to present?

Or, you may come face to face with an  old friend who has changed uniforms and now works for a competitor. In any case, the tension is much the same – the sensation of being a colleague feels intensely in conflict with the sensation of being a competitor.

How do you resolve it?

The Solution

The answer to the problem came to us fairly quickly, on reflection, and I documented it as part of the Four Trust Principles in my later books. The answer lies in true focus on client needs.

In our case: we agreed that we should all respond similarly to all client inquiries, regardless of to whom they were addressed. In all cases, we would say words to the effect of:

The Trusted Advisor was written by the three of us. I suspect that each of us could do an excellent job in response to your query, and each of us would handle the work slightly differently. You would be best served by having discussions with each of us, and making up your mind on that basis.

We will each be candid with respect to our own strengths and weaknesses, and answer questions to the best of our ability about the others. Each of us will respect your decision, and we are each committed to you making the best decision possible for you.

The best decision for you is what all three of us seek, and each of us will do our best to help you reach it, regardless of your choice.

This solution made everything easier. It kept our relationship collegial. It removed any awkwardness about responding to clients. It removed any awkwardness that clients might experience in choosing whom to talk to.

And, of course, it resulted in the best decision for clients, as each of us have our own particular skills and drawbacks.

So what’s the answer?  Grindingly relentless focus on client service, and the willingness to pursue that logic wherever it leads.

Are Your Clients Lying to You?

Have you ever had that sinking feeling that your client—or your hopefully prospective client—is being less than honest with you?

Maybe they haven’t returned that call. The last three email exchanges have been one-way. They haven’t mentioned that meeting they were so eager about just last month. They’re talking constrained budgets. Is it possible your client is lying to you?

There Is Lying, and There Is Lying

I’m not talking about flat-out lies like, “We’re going to give you the project,” when they already signed an agreement with another firm. But consider a few other situations from your daily life:

How often do you answer “How are you?” with “Fine, thanks,” when you’re not fine?

How often do you answer, “No problem,” when, in fact, it is a problem?

How do you answer the classic, “Does this dress make me look fat?”

How often do you say, “Let’s do lunch,” meaning this is goodbye?

How about, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m booked on Friday?” Or, “Yes, let’s definitely stay in touch.”

I’m not trying to draw a sharp moral distinction (or to blur one). I’m not trying to justify or excuse any type or level of truth-telling or its absence. I’m simply pointing out the ubiquity of situations in which we, on a daily basis, are Less Than Fully Transparent. Let’s call it LTFT. And let’s recognize that it happens—a lot.

What You Mean When You Are LTFT

What about when you are LTFT? Do you have evil intentions? Are you attempting to hoodwink someone? Are you a swindler? A thief? A con artist?

Almost certainly not. Your motives are probably to be careful of and solicitous toward the other person. You are trying not to hurt their feelings. You want to spare them the embarrassment of being contradicted, rejected, or humiliated.

And oddly enough, the less you know them, the more you are likely to feel a need to protect them. After all, if you knew them well, you’d feel more comfortable having a heart-to-heart.

But from another perspective, this isn’t odd at all. The fact that you don’t know them well is precisely why you don’t want to get into uncomfortably specific details. You can afford to think “out of sight, out of mind” because you won’t see them much more—if ever—but you don’t want them to speak ill of you either.

And so we choose a strategy for handling difficult situations with not-deep acquaintances we don’t want to hurt—to be polite and give no offense.

And so, you are LTFT. Or, if you prefer, you lie to them.

What They Mean When They Are LTFT

Be honest: why should other people’s motives be any different, or any worse, than yours? Unless you’re a candidate for sainthood, odds are your motives are the same as theirs.

What, then, to make of the girl in high school who, when you asked her out, said, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I’m busy Friday night,” before turning away? Do you really wish she had said, “Look, I just don’t want to go out with you at all?”

What to make of the prospective client you met at a networking event who said, “Yes, let’s do lunch one of these days.” Would you prefer he said, “Look, I’m just not interested in you or your offering, and I don’t want to waste any more time talking about it?”

What did your client really mean when they said you lost the bid on price? Would you really prefer they said, “Frankly, you were fourth out of five on most dimensions, and fifth on the rest, and we don’t want to invest more time in explaining it to you?”

Like you, your clients are trying to be polite, to spare your feelings, and to disengage without hurt feelings—or, at least, with the ability to say to themselves that there were no hurt feelings. They’re not “lying” to you; they’re just being LTFT with you.

The Solution to LTFT

If you don’t like being in an LTFT situation as a seller, you have two options.

The first option is appropriate when you really don’t have a viable proposition to bring to the table—when you know in your bones that you got solidly beat by a competitor or you just don’t have game. In those cases, your strategy should be simply to accept it.

In fact, be grateful for it. At least they liked you enough not to be “brutally honest.” Stop obsessing, stop feeling angry, and stop the self-pity. Resolve to either change your proposition for the next time you face this situation or not to get into that situation again.

The second option is preventive and prophylactic: drive sharply past the “friend zone,” and create a personal connection of trust. Use the “Name It and Claim It” approach and speak out loud the issue that everyone is dancing around. Give them an off-ramp, but be sure to put the issue on the table.

You don’t have to be a full-blown trusted advisor to have a trust-based connection. Nor does it have to take a long time. What you must do is speak a direct, unvarnished little piece of The Truth. Here’s what some “truth-bits” might look like:

  • Don’t send that third email pretending nothing is wrong. Say something like this: “If I don’t hear back from you, I’ll assume things have shifted or changed, which of course does happen.” Then if you don’t hear back, move along.
  • Instead of saying, “Let’s do lunch,” lean in while you shake the person’s hand and say, “Look, would you like to have lunch a week from Wednesday, or would you prefer to just get back to me at some later point of your choosing?” Then if you don’t hear back, move along.
  • Instead of meekly accepting that you “lost on price,” say, “Look, Joe, I just want to ask you one favor, just one yes-or-no question with no follow-up. I know we did several things wrong—was it really just price that determined your decision? Or was it several other things, too? I just want to know where we should focus our efforts going forward, and that yes/no would be a huge help to us.”
  • Better yet, before the bidding results are announced, say, “Look, Joe, I know we may win, and we may lose. I’d like to ask you one favor. If we were to lose, could I ask you to be honest with me about the main reason we lost? So often people give just a nice ‘So sorry’ and then we go off and make the same mistake again. You could really help us learn going forward. If you’d be so kind, I’d really appreciate it.”

Instead of meekly submitting to the LTFT ritual, be the one to break out of it. You can’t force other people to break out of it with you—you always need to give them the LTFT off-ramp—but you can lead by example.

You can show them that you’re willing to speak directly and truthfully, and you’ll appreciate the company—if they’re up to it.

 

Hitting a 7-Iron from the Tee Box

This weekend I joined a dozen school buddies for an annual golf outing. Now, I took up golf late in life, which explains why I’m pretty much the worst player in the group.  At least, that’s what I tell myself.

Nobody minds much, except for me; everybody respects everyone else’s level of play. After all, that’s why handicaps exist. That said, once per outing, I will ask one good player for some advice. This time, I got some great advice from Dave.

“Charlie, your drives are too erratic. When they’re good, they’re as long as anyone’s, but much more often they end up in the woods on either side. Put away your driver club and just hit a 7-iron off the tee. You’ll give up 100 yards in distance, but you’ll always be in the fairway.”

An Insult? Or a Challenge?

As golfers know, on the face of it, that’s a bit of an insult. A 7-iron is made for much shorter shots than the driver.  Telling me to use a 7-iron from the tee is like telling a cyclist to use training wheels, or a poet to go work on rhyming. But I know Dave, and he knows me, and I knew he was just trying to challenge my thinking in a creative way. And thinking is at the heart of the matter.

All sports are about one’s mental state to some degree; but no other sport can touch golf in the attitude-to-performance linkage. How can you miss a two-foot putt? Easy – start worrying about missing it.

For most golfers (me included), the tee shot leads the list of stress-inducing moments. There are a thousand ways to think wrongly about your tee shot – and every one of them can make for a self-fulfilling prophecy. The trick is to leave your thinking behind when you finally approach the tee, and let the habit of your muscle memory take over. Over-thinking is the root of all evil in golf.

Over-thinking: a Metaphor for Life

There was no way I was actually going to hit a 7-iron from the tee – these are my buddies, and I’m not all that ego-free! But I realized Dave had given me a gift. All I had to do was envision the result of a 7-iron from the tee – and duplicate it with the driver.

Mechanically, that meant slowing down, dialing back the swing, not trying to kill the ball. Mentally, that meant feeling relaxed, staying within my comfort zone, not pushing the limits – and especially not fearing all the bad things that could happen .

The result was powerful. I gave up some distance (less than 100 yards, though) but stayed within the fairway much more often. Result, better scores.

The Tee Box of Life

How often do you invite failure – because you’re pushing the limits on a dozen variables, living in fear of missing on one of them? Does it happen in sales calls? Client progress meetings? Presentations? Performance reviews?

Maybe you should try hitting a 7-iron from the tee box. Dial back the rough edges; stay within yourself; be very clear about the core message, the core values, the core parts of the relationship. Find your swing, and learn to trust it. Be clear and simple about what you’re doing. You may not make the occasional spectacular shot; but you’ll miss a whole lot of disastrous shots, and improve your score.

Blow Up Your Budgeting Process

If you work in a large organization – This Blog’s for You.

You know what season is coming soon – you dread it. ‘Tis the season of Planning & Budgeting; the annual ritual of much time, many iterations, and little meaning – full of sound and fury, signifying not much.

What if you could radically revolutionize that process? Almost blow it up? All in a socially and politically acceptable manner, of course.

Resource Allocation is So Last Millennium

Planning and budgeting processes are about resource allocation. Partly that’s to coordinate plans. But partly it’s about predicting the future – of markets, the economy, technology – so we can intelligently place resource bets. So that we can plan on having umbrellas in case it rains.

We have built processes to worry about the future so that we can place resource bets in advance. But what if we didn’t have to place those bets in advance? Who cares about predicting rain for tomorrow if I know there will be an umbrella within arm’s reach when I need it?

What if you always had access to an umbrella? What if you did not have to make capital investments, hire and train people, develop new products – until the day before you needed to? And you were then able to do so with the snap of a finger?

You wouldn’t waste time predicting the future – you’d just deal with it on arrival. And increasingly, that’s what the world looks like.

The umbrellas, it turns out, are right within our grasp, right when we need them – if we just know to look for them. And there are three places to look.

The Three Sources of Umbrellas When You Want Them

Old style planning and budgeting assumes scarcity of resources – few umbrellas. We need to re-think; to recognize the umbrellas are already there, and we’re just facing a sourcing or distribution problem.

The three keys to changing that problem definition are speed, collaboration, and transparency.

Speed. You probably budget for headcount. If so, you assume a certain elapsed time for a category of employee – let’s say, a three-month cycle.

What if you could cut that to three weeks? To three days?  Think contracting, outsourcing, working virtually, across time zones, modularizing work. It’s the way software and movies and consulting and projects get done now, why not extend it to “core” hiring?

Speed attacks the need to plan for umbrellas, because it reduces your exposure to time-spent-without-umbrella.

Collaboration. You probably budget for facilities and equipment – because you assume you must own or have first call on assets. But what if you could get all the access you need just by sharing with others? And save tons of money at the same time?

After all, you rent a room at the Marriott in Chicago instead of owning a condo there. Push that thinking further; it’s like doubling your proven resource reserves without spending a penny on exploration.

Why own a car when you can use Zipcar? Why are you paying Microsoft for software to sit on your PC getting old when you can access cloud software, always updated, for less? Why are you buying books instead of renting them? Why are you spending money on dedicated office space when you could share it out with other tenants? Why are you driving alone?

Collaboration attacks the need to plan for umbrellas, because it changes a resource scarcity problem to a capacity utilization problem, while expanding perceived capacity.

Transparency. You probably budget for knowledge management and IP development – because you think your organization must carefully nurture its precious wisdom. But what if you could generate more knowledge, and more know-how, by openly sharing what you have with everyone else?

This is the logic behind meet-ups, networks, communities of interest, affiliate marketing, tribes, wikis, webinars, curating, mash-ups, and Spindows.

Transparency attacks the need to plan for umbrellas, because it sensitizes everyone to the presence of more umbrellas, to the availability of umbrella substitutes, and to rain-control initiatives.  

——-

Help free your organization from the tyranny of old-think resource-constrained planning and budgeting processes. Ask yourself how to get your group’s work done faster, more collaboratively, and more transparently.

This is how to be a socially and politically acceptable business revolutionary.

(Props to my mastermind group of @StewartMHirsch, Scott Parker and John Malitoris for this post) 

Making Collaboration Work

I’ve got a problem. Once or twice a week, someone approaches me and says:

I really like what you do. I do something very similar. We should talk and figure out ways to do things together.

The problem: this almost never works.  Let’s figure out why.

Intent is Necessary but Not Sufficient

I’m glad people want to collaborate with me. I increasingly have little patience for those who won’t.  And when I’m the one who won’t, I know I should hit the reset button and start the day over. After all, collaboration is the new competition.

But intent alone doesn’t cut it. I can feel it in my schedule. I hate to be rude, but I just can’t take any more meetings based on goodwill and karmic synchronicity. Millions are in sync with me; I’m in danger of feeling boring, not lonely.

A Clear Vision is Necessary but Not Sufficient

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. From a false assumption, any conclusion logically follows. So clearly you’ve got to be clear.

But clarity alone is worth not much. 20 years in strategy consulting taught me that a brilliant strategy and four quarters is worth a dollar. Despite what the Hegelians and the authors of The Secret will tell you, thought alone will not move matter.

Action Steps are Necessary but Not Sufficient

Before nearly every keynote address I give, someone says, “What our people really want are tangible action steps they can begin using the very next day.”

Okay, here you go. Tell the truth. Tell your spouse you love them. Make lists with five bullets. Fix your attitude. Meditate. Exercise. Be kind to dogs. Read your client’s industry newsletter. Listen better. Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.

Yes, that’s what people want. But try just giving action steps, and see if you get paid.

The Three Pathologies of Collaboration

If you’ve only got one of these three factors working, you’ve got bupkus.

More frequently, you’ve got two factors working.  But if you’ve only got two, you’ve got a pathology.  There are three pathologies:

  • Spinning Wheels. You’ve got Intent and Vision, but no Action Steps. You get no traction. You keep on talking, but it’s always to the same people, and you’ve already convinced each other. You need some action steps.
  • Grinding It Out. You’ve got Intent and Next Steps, but no Vision. You’re all processes and metrics and execution and best practices, but you never get anywhere, because you never figured out how to aim, align, coalesce, define a purpose, set a goal, do the vision thing. You’re only running a ground game, and it’s wearing down your offense.
  • Passive Aggression. You’ve got Vision and Next Steps, but no Intent. Your team is talking the talk, but blame-throwing behind the scenes. You’re all brains and no heart. You’re stuck in a 70s military strategy game, all Machiavelli and no truth-telling. You need some positive Intent.

Those people who call me up and offer to work together?  Wheel spinning. The solution, I’m finding, is to say, “Fabulous; you come up with one great Action Step, and I’ll buy lunch. Until then, let’s not “do lunch.”

Do you work in a grind-it-out organization? Swallow your subject-matter-expert pride and hire a motivational speaker. It’ll do you good.

Do you work in a passive aggressive organization? You’re far, far from alone. Go sit in on a 12-Step program and realize that you do not have to be co-dependent.

 

What do you think? What does it take to make collaboration work?

Note: if Anne Evans or Howard Schwartz are reading this, big props to you for an earlier version of the pathologies. And if you’re not reading it, write me and explain why.