How often have you been caught in an argument about “What should we do?” that felt like a clash?

It happens very often, doesn’t it? In the heat of the argument we even have thoughts like “Are they stupid?”, “How can they miss my point?” and similar. Once you cool down you know they mean well and that they are smart and professional… until the next argument.

What happens here?

It seems like human brains are to blame and the problem is twofold. One, when we discuss about future we tend to communicate in terms of concrete solutions. Two, our brains are happy with just a partial understanding of our opponents message.

Let me expand these two aspects separately.

Communicating in terms of solutions

“Let’s go for a walk” my wife asks while I’m in the middle of writing. She is much bigger fan of walks than I am, I find walks boring if we stick to our immediate neighbourhood and I’d like to finish what I’m writing. What should I do? If I took her statement literaly, I should say “Not now, honey.” or, if I go, make sure I have something to do during the walk.

Well, neither is a good idea. And I know it because we have been happily married for many years we are pretty well aligned. I know that what she is really saying is probably: “I am tired and I need to ‘refresh by brain’.” or “There is something I need to talk through with you.” Therefore I’m willing to break my writing flow and I will not take a pair of headphones or a camera with me to make the walk more interesting.

The same happens when you discuss your next strategic initiative. Even if everybody means well and there’s nothing personal going on you will have disagreements as long as you keep arguing in terms of solutions rather than underlying needs. Preferably needs of your stakeholders, not just people present in the room.

Let me borrow a different mental exercise from my friend (Ewa Koprowska)[link]: Suppose you are about to start planning a holiday trip. One of a kind, maybe once in a lifetime, expensive trip with your family, your parents and your in-laws. You are going to survey their needs and expectations before you propose even the part of the world you are going to visit, aren’t you?

Partial understanding

I suspect that if we really knew what was going on in other peoples’ minds we would go nuts. We are not even fully aware of all the stuff in our own, are we?

Communication between people — as opposed to machines — is really weird. We take a roughly formed, imprecise thought, translate it into concrete words, these travel to the ears or eyes of another person, get interpreted on multiple levels of meaning, get skewed by the recipient’s immediate context, background and culture and transform again into a roughly formed, imprecise thought. What are the chances that the original thought and the one at the end of this chain are identical? Zero. Hopefully they are somewhat similar.

It probably makes total sense from the evolutionary point of view but it is not always an advantage when we are making important group decisions.

How to deal with it?

If you want alignment during the decision making process you need to share the foundations that inform your decisions. The group making the decision need to understand and interpret them in the same way.

Let’s take a relatively simple example: you are in the online retail business and you are thinking about your online marketing strategy. Your CFO agrues that AdWords has lower cost per impression than Facebook ads. On the other hand your marketers say that your following on Facebook has been improving recently. How to reconcile them?

This group is misaligned on the foundations of their business. The fact that one solution is cheaper that the other means very little on its own. The imprecise information that the “following has been improving recently” means even less. They have to figure out how their business really works, how different channels convert, what is the “word of mouth” about the company these days (because maybe they don’t need extra paid advertisement), where are they on the expotential “quality to cost curve” (maybe the law of diminished returns has alread kicked-in heavily)… All these fundamental questions should inform the decision.

If you are a group of seasoned professionals, each of you have taken a lot of questions like that into account before choosing a preferred solution. The problem is that you did it, to a large extent, subconsciously and now you are expressing them only in terms of the preferred solution and its advantages. If I do the same and concentrate on my solution and its advantages — which are different from your solution’s — we have very little to discuss in common. I will be playing my strenghts, you will play yours but where is our common ground? We are in the same business so we must share them. By definition.

VBD Consultant