What happens when a big business meeting discusses a small proposal?
Consider yourself to be a project leader in a business meeting, with some big shots there with you. The next item on the agenda is your proposal for empowering customers and employees with easy access to market data. Your proposal is a response to a clear executive question in a previous meeting. Now you have reconvened and they are curious to hear what you propose.
The data to be shared is already in the public domain, so there are no concerns regarding confidentiality. In addition, your company owns the copyrights of the data so there are no legal issues either. But the data is scattered and thus inconvenient to locate. Your solution will create a service that delivers convenience in data collection.
Given that the investment is moderate, you have a solid business case, as it will save a lot of time currently wasted on collection. Operational costs will be modest and governance is simple too. A staff department will take on the responsibility of keeping the system up-to-date. This department will also manage the service requests any future beneficiaries may have.
In summary, the objectives that implementing the system will deliver are to:
- Share the data as and when they become available – so to be timely
- Share all the relevant data that we can find – so to be complete
- Check all data by a sort of quality assessor – so to be accurate
Normally, nobody objects to a cost-effective, data-driven, advanced-technology-based solution that cuts data overload and delivers need-to-know data to executives that need and accept to act upon it.
As there so often is, however, there is a catch…
A cat among the pigeons
This proposal was delivered by a young female who was respected as a tech-savvy expert. Moreover, she is a gifted presenter. So what could go wrong?
For derailing her good proposal, only one word was enough. No matter how well the proposal had been prepared and no matter how much the decision-makers had initially had positive intentions.
The word was ‘Twitter’.
Once the bird entered the room, the window of opportunity to reach a decision closed. Our expert presenter proposed to have the system be operated on Twitter. What happened?
The word Twitter unleashed all kind of silent assumptions in the audience. The fact that Twitter may have been a suitable tool to deliver the ‘how’ element of the proposal didn’t matter anymore.
Twitter was perceived by some – and here’s the catch – as only suitable for what it is now notorious for: a source of brief and rarely nuanced political messages.
Why would our company want to identify with the image of Twitter: we are nuanced, right? What does this staff department think: that they can send all kind of statements into the world?
As a participant in the meeting, the moment the word Twitter was mentioned I knew no consensus would be possible anymore. Withdrawing the proposal and delaying the execution had become inevitable. Having studied decision-making before I felt I recognized the script1.
How to avoid derailment
What happened here matched a typical pattern of biased thinking. A single word appears on stage. It means so many different things to different participants as to guarantee confusion. All the different participants upon hearing the word prematurely closed their minds.
The word Twitter triggered their already held opinions, no matter what facts they might be confronted with. They needed no more insights; they had already made up their minds. Solid opinions – and very different ones at that – suddenly populated our meeting room.
The presenter attempted to still position Twitter as the preferred technical solution for the realization of the system we all agreed we needed, but it was too late for rationality.
There are no easy answers on how to prevent this sort of thing from happening. Different settings may require different approaches. Different people in different circumstances may react differently and show more or less aptitude to control their biased thinking reflexes. Having said all this, there may be some ideas that may be generally helpful.
Start with acknowledging that there are and always will be biases. Different participants that will join in a meeting will have different instant reactions to one and the same word and subsequently prematurely close their minds differently. The word Twitter provides an example that shows that what could well be a knowledge management tool by many participants was perceived as a one-liner, one-way communication instrument. Such differences exist. When time permits it is commendable to approach at least some of the participants to the upcoming meeting in advance to check what they think and what implicit criteria they have in mind to judge a proposal they will be facing. When in doing so you uncover some of the decision-makers’ silent assumptions your mission is already partly accomplished before the meeting.
Subsequently your presentation should clearly split the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. The ‘what’ should meet the requirements of your brief. The meeting should agree to the ‘what’ prior to moving to the ‘how’.
Finally there is the ‘how’. Now one of the questions is: what ‘trigger words’ to avoid? The only thing that matters regarding the ‘how’ is the solid evidence that the ‘how’ solution meets the ‘what’ requirements. The best project leaders I know prefer to get a sharp definition and a clear approval of both the ‘what’ and the boundary conditions within which the ‘how’ should be realized. The rest of the ‘how’ they don’t wish to discuss. They know the ‘how’ for themselves, otherwise they wouldn’t have been project leader.
By focusing on the ‘what’ and avoiding executives to get involved in the ‘how’, you may keep biases like premature closing out. But don’t put that on Twitter too early!
.1. Elgersma, E. (2017), The Strategic Analysis Cycle – Handbook, LID Publishing, London, p. 438.
About the author
Erik Elgersma is author of The Strategic Analysis Cycle Toolbook and The Strategic Analysis Cycle Handbook. He is the director of Strategic Analysis at FrieslandCampina, one of the world’s largest dairy companies. He speaks and lectures frequently at universities and on business seminars on the topics of strategic analysis, competitive strategy and related data analysis and management. Erik holds a PhD from Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands, and is alumnus of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna, Austria.