A 5 step way to getting better outcomes from discussions.
As it happens often, my corporate organization is on the brink of change. Which means, consultants are flooding in from every corner of the world — trying to make sense of the change and impart their wisdom for a fee. As such, in the cacophony of experts, our world has turned upside down — forcing us to shift our paradigm multiple times to understand the signal that these experts (and trust me, they really are the experts) are sending.
How does it relate to better discussions? Well, as PMs, we often find ourselves amidst a discussion where there are both technical and non-technical parties — both with a different view (and depth) of the problem at hand. It falls upon us to ensure that time is utilized properly and the right conclusion & consensus is arrived at, without any underlying confusions laying dormant.
To do so, I’m proposing the following steps:
Step 1: Pre-work
Step 2: Leading by questions
Step 3: Simplifying language to align
Step 4: Iterating agreement/Playback
Step 5: Documentation
Step 1: Pre-work
Wherever there are experts, there are opinions. Each expert holds their view of the world — stemming from their experience. Experts have an innate ability to move from 10000 feet to 10 feet in a matter of seconds, all the while maintaining the main vision.
Unfortunately, not everyone can follow without facing some sort of whiplash.
First thing you have to do, before the discussion starts is to get the experts aligned on the ask and play the zigzag with them to get the core misconceptions out of the way. Using poignant questions, which allow them to think of the context, you can get them to center around the problem at hand.
Why? Simple — experts deal in solutions. They have a solution for every problem you bring to them. What you don’t want is for them to fit the first solution that comes to their mind to the problem at hand. You have to force them to preprocess (which they can do really well and really quickly) and come into the discussion with the right context.
You’ll also need to identify what you want from the discussion. Are you only looking for a solution or alignment? Typically, in a business setting, finer details around the solution are left for the experts. The focus is more on the macro aspect alignment of the solution, after establishing the problem space.
Step 2: Leading with questions
As ridiculous as it sounds, in open discussions (even those with agendas can quickly become a barrage of ideas thrown around to fit egos), questions help the discussions focus.
But which questions do you ask? How do you ask them?
Borrowing a page from this article, the best way to approach these questions is by categorizing the approach:
You can read more about the questions in the article linked above.
The core idea is to ensure everyone understands the flow. It helps if you can draw this out on a board or a canvas (Miro/Excelidraw):
In the first two steps, you’re essentially setting up the Problem space, establishing understanding and the extent (via Adjoining) of the problem to be solved. This aligns everyone in the room to the broader understanding of the problems and their network effects.
From there, you’re making a journey to figure out the main problem, via clarifying questions, finally landing on the Funneling questions that rely heavily on the solution space to provide context and discovery of possible effects of the problem.
Remember, this is the most difficult step. It’s difficult because you’ve to:
a. Understand the content being discussed
b. Avoid contextualizing with details that can derail discussion
c. Employ empathy to ensure everyone is ‘getting’ it.
all in a matter of minutes before the conversation turns on its head and becomes a monster out of control.
The pre-work step comes in handy to quell your misconceptions, if any.
Step 3: Simplifying language to align
Jargons. Especially jargons that have fluidity in their interpretations. Hate them. Avoid them.
Or even better, simplify them.
One key role you can play in such discussions is to iterate important concepts to ensure everyone is aligned on the meaning. Do this by repeating what was discussed in simpler words. Play the user card — if you can.
How do you avoid knowledge gap?
Tricky. But possible. Remember, complex concepts have an impact. If you’re discussing setting up EMR for better performance and for some reason there is a business person in the discussion, all you need to do is flip the concept on its head. Ask — “Will the new EMR reduce site/app load time by 50%? If yes, at what cost?” or “What are the real world impacts of doing this?”
This is where you can get simpler answers — data processing will be faster, marketing will be more reactive. Sometimes, you’ll need to identify the network effects and build up your line of questioning to force the experts to think about those effects.
Step 4: Iterating agreement
Consultants call this ‘playback’. I like the term. At every stage, or whenever there is an agreement, play it back.
“We’re aligned that data processing is caused by primarily by slow compute, impacting X, Y, Z areas”.
This ensures that anyone who isn’t aligned or paying attention has the opportunity to voice their opinion or counterpoint.
But, why do you need that?
Watercooler conversations — that’s why. Imagine if you didn’t do the iteration, and, a handful of folks walked away from the discussion with anti-views or worse, misconceptions. When they meet up at the proverbial watercooler, they’ll bring it up and create blockers — while you are putting things in motion.
Encourage a voice of dissent — provide one if there isn’t one. Disengaged audiences ‘remember’ things later in the day, much after the bell has tolled.
Step 5: Documentation
The final protection to quell any dissent. Document what the team agreed on… a simple mail would do with the bullet points.
Remember the following:
- Documentation doesn’t mean a wall of text. It’s a simple 5–6 bullet points that capture enough detail.
- If your key audience members were disengaged, and you have the bandwidth, intentionally add an incorrect agreement. Nothing fuels the experts motivation more than the act of finding something incorrect, especially one in an email.
- When you have business users, it’s often important to add the business/user level impacts of the solution. It serves as a simple, easy to understand, way of interpreting technical mumbo-jumbo.
Though it may seem relatively simple, there are few challenges when you lead such discussions. I’m listing two from my experience, but I’m sure you’ll have plenty more:
How can you orchestrate?
Hierarchical organizations aside, you have plenty of opportunity to orchestrate the discussion. I recommend the following (what I used to do):
- Be the first to speak. Set context. Tell them that you’ll be moderating the discussion.
- Moderation itself requires buy-in. Ask the team if they’re comfortable to vote on runaway discussions — they can be opportunities or rabbit-holes. The team decides.
- You don’t have to keep meeting notes, but it helps. Don’t make it a he-said, she-said. Focus more on the points discussed and concepts agreed on.
- Make the notes public — as you write. A Google doc that people can see is very helpful.
No matter your level or expertise, making the discussion successful is your (and the teams) goal. Keep that in mind and go forth!
Handling the bullshitters
Bullshitters are laymen disguised as experts. They show up to every meeting, breaking the flow and making it all about themselves. Remember, true experience and knowledge brings humility.
Bullshitters also have the innate ability to say something inane that throws off the group and hop-off to another topic, while the team reels from the impact. This creates a false sense of reverence — which the bullshitters really enjoy.
How do you handle it? Well, if the bullshitter is senior to you — tough luck! You can avoid inviting them to discussions, but don’t try to use logic. Logic and rationale serves only as pedestals for them to spread their bullshit even further. Instead, pacify their ego and keep them apprised of the outcome. Like an old colleague used to say: “Treat them like mushrooms. Feed them shit & keep them in the dark”
But, realize this, you cannot take on a bullshitter head-on. You can only hope that they eventually spend all their reputational currency and move to the next organization.
Instead, skirt around them and keep them as far away from your discussions as possible. Escalations don’t work as effectively as you might think. They usually have the top-ladder hoodwinked.
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