RAISE THE QUALITY OF CONVERSATIONS
Building on pioneering work from the field of organizational learning by theorists and practitioners such as Chris Argyris, Peter Senge, and
Robert Putnam, consultant Ken Macher developed expertise and tools for helping business teams dramatically improve discussions and decisions, and he brought the full force of these ideas to D1’s early growth process. Conversations became a unit of focus for D1’s leadership team and a powerful point of leverage for increasing capacity throughout the venture. “I began to realize that the quality of conversations is not only indicative of the culture,” he says, “it creates culture, and it determines the quality of decision-making, planning, everything.”
In Appendix B, I have included a list of helpful resources and tools for improving the quality of conversations that will drive the success of your venture. Here are a few principles and guidelines to keep in mind:
■ Frame conversations as a pathway to team intelligence. Some startup founders are hesitant to spend time building interpersonal clarity and chemistry, because they fear it will be seen as a touchy-feely exercise more suited for an episode of NBC’s The Office than a startup environment. Counteract this concern by positioning high-quality conversations as a non- negotiable business imperative, a way to elevate your team’s collective IQ and performance. Most of your competitors’ half-hearted efforts at teamwork will result in a net loss of capacity; their whole will be less valuable than the sum of individual parts. Tight teamwork will give you a competitive advantage and a more reliable path to value creation.
■ Use targeted involvement. One of the skills in creating productive conversations is knowing who to involve, when to involve them, and why. Be careful to include people who bring key expertise to a decision or who will play a major role in implementing it, but don’t make the mistake of involving everyone in everything. I’ve known a few founders whose teams became unnecessarily bogged down in unending consensus-oriented deliberations. These not only were a bad use of most people’s time but also led to cynicism about the value of team meetings. Skillful leaders strike a balanced approach
To involving others, using multiple channels of communication to keep people in the loop while saving more inclusive conversations for matters that are best resolved in a face-to- face format.
■ Value data. Communicating with integrity hinges on the ability to distinguish fact from opinion and to infuse decisionmaking processes with verifiable data and logical thinking. The more passionate you are about a plan or a product, the more vital it is to invite others to scrutinize your facts and your logic. “You’re neither right nor wrong because other people agree with you,” says Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway. “You’re right because your facts are right and your reasoning is right, and that’s the only thing that makes you right.”7
■ Encourage team members to share their left-hand columns. We are all familiar with conversations in which what is talked about is far removed from the unspoken thoughts and feelings that swirl beneath the surface. Sometimes these thoughts are not worth sharing. At other times, they point to issues that desperately need attention. The left-hand column represents all of the data, insight, and emotion that we withhold from others. If you want to elevate the quality of your conversations, you can do so by taking three simple steps: First, become more aware of your unacknowledged thoughts and feelings during key conversations. Second, skillfully share these where relevant. Finally, invite others to do the same.
■ Balance advocacy and inquiry. In my consulting role with new ventures, I sometimes assess the core team’s ability to solve problems and make decisions. I often start by grabbing a notepad and quietly observing the conversational patterns in a team meeting. Everything that is said falls into two categories: advocacy, where team members assert, claim, or push for their point of view, or inquiry, in which team members seek to understand another person’s opinion or gather infor-
Mation about a situation or an issue. Invariably, business discussions are heavy with advocacy, where 80 to 90 percent of the air time is devoted to staking out positions and pushing points of view. This leaves very little room for inquiry, aimed at surfacing and evaluating new data and testing assumptions. And it points to a tremendous learning opportunity for most new venture teams: to promote more frequent inquiry into the thinking of others and to cultivate more skillful methods of advocacy, such as revealing the logic underlying an assertion or inviting others to scrutinize one’s logic and add new perspectives to it.8