In disassembly of how I approach a zero-knowledge situation, a few key dynamics emerge. The goal of this simple framework is to accelerate the bond-forming process of dialog between individuals.
Not everyone has an appetite for the full menu of techniques here, and right-fitting takes sizing up others in real-time, which itself takes practice. If you’re really interested in how to have more effective conversations that leave all parties feeling positive, this is what I can currently offer.
- Exploratory Listening
- Open-ended questions (a.k.a. “double-clicking”)
- Challenging to understand how topics relate and handling skills
- Confirming what was shared with close-ended questions
- Synthesizing the crucial point
- Identifying the “as-is” current state
- Share “the Summit”
- Assess the journey to date
- Materialize motivations (unearth drive)
- Planning the “to-be” desired state
- Identify milestones, past and future
- Hunt for and prioritize gaps in order of risk to reach the summit
- Summarize approach and obtain permission
- Co-develop a plan of action
- Visualize the timeline to reverse-engineer milestones
- Socialize with key stakeholders
Be cordial, clear about your role, short about your background, and quickly move to questions that help the other person(s) engage about themselves.
Present well. Shave, brush your teeth, wear a bit of a smile. Smell like someone you’d want to be around. Be attentive, particularly in the eyes, and suppress the urge to look like you’re anywhere else but this conversation right now.
Make sure that the person has time to talk a little. If not, politely ask when. If so, ask them how they arrived here, where they’re headed, and what’s got them going this direction. Build a basic rapport in the first few moments. Start off well and build on the previous moment at every opportunity
Ask far more questions than the number of statements you make. Extroverted learning prefers information you don’t know over suppositions you could make alone.
Use open-ended questions when you want to explore directions. If you don’t know enough about what someone’s describing, open more windows. When the way of conversation is unknown, let them talk and learn how they communicate. There’s a lot of ‘meta’ information in human speech.
It’s important to challenge people, in no abrasive manner, but through asking how the current conversation point or branch relates to another topic or branch. The dichotomy of human behavior is that what is unknown represents simultaneously a source of both intrigue and fear. Questions can either encourage people to engage or to retreat, and our job is to engage.
Asking a question that someone doesn’t have an answer for leads to insight no matter what. How someone deals with unknowns will become useful later. When the question is right-timed and right-fit to the context, people without an answer are likely to explore with you. Poorly-timed or out of context, a question where no one has the answer feels awkward and often causes people to retreat.
When something seems very important, narrow down the scope of the questions you ask, never coerce. Close-ended questions confirm that what you think you heard was actually what was said. Don’t ignore non-verbal cues. Look for expressions of emotion surrounding quantities. Form a mental map of how these points affect their recipient and which seem relevant to them, not just you. Verify their relevance to others with close-ended questions.
Once a branch of exploration is sufficiently developed, synthesize the crucial point uncovered back into the main theme of the conversation. By understanding it’s impact, you can bring the point of the branch back to the goal of the conversation: to understand and support what the person is currently working on, suffering from, or driving towards.
Anyone can voice the crucial point, but it’s better if it’s someone else. You don’t have to be the one with an answer. This is why being curious about their perspective is so incredibly effective. Questions (open or closed) guide the conversation, even though people tend to think that an idea is original and their own simply because they voiced it. When someone thinks the idea is theirs, they tend to champion it with banners and bugles. Questions help steer champions in the right direction.
Identifying the “as-is” current state
The first move in any consultation should be to gain situational awareness. In other words, qualification of what dynamics and decisions are currently in place. Before a hypothesis and plan of action can be formed, observation.
To make broad and holistic observations, you must share the summit. As the landscape of context emerges from your listening expedition and as you process that landscape together into a shared construct, a key state will emerge, “what we have accomplished so far.” This is often coupled with pains and challenges regarding where the person currently is in their journey. Point and click with the camera in your mind because later we’ll be doing a before-and-after photo collage. The highest point achieved is a summit, even if it’s not the tallest peak visible.
You may need to know more about how they arrived at their current summit in order to fully flesh out gaps in context. This sense is highly subjective and experientially developed, so practice earning the right to get to this point. It’s important to step back and assess their journey every so often. This helps to uncover information gaps.
These gaps of context, though you may be the one to bring them up, must be accepted by others before they can be addressed. You can’t convince someone of a solution if they don’t think there’s a problem. And if something really isn’t a problem, it’s important for you to know that too. This is just another form of permission. The best way to ensure people show up to a party is to bring them with you.
Equal parts collected context and ‘meta’ (appetite, capabilities, deficiencies) makes for a very good peep into what motivates someone, either to stay in the current state, migrate to a future state, or even drive a future state. Motivations are imperative to materialize about others. An accurate understanding of someone’s motivations is worth more than developing a trust between you and them.
Planning the “to-be” desired state
Moving from what is to what could/should be the summit, start with our friend, an open-ended question, about where they want to be. In a group, this may get complicated; everyone communicates differently, and everyone has a different perspective. Quantize. Start with one person at a time. Give them non-verbal cues about length, but let them finish. The smaller the group, the easier this process is.
With a shared vision of the future summit, ask what it would take to get there. Searching for important, measurable future achievements is called identifying milestones. Again, not something everyone knows up front, and while some people have immediate intuitions or ideas, others take time to form their thoughts and answers. Since humans are notoriously bad at predicting the future, extrapolating future milestones may be difficult. If stuck, revisit past milestones, the ones that brought them to the current summit. This will help form a ‘meta’ understanding about how people categorize just-busy-work from notable achievements.
Make sure that the flow of questions to answers at this stage is 100% you questioning to 100% them answering. Questions may come up, but anything can be put in the “parking lot” provided it is suggested politely by you and agreed to by them.
With a set of milestones laid out, reorder them based on which events are dependent upon others. Ask about which milestones enable other milestones. Build the most efficient decision tree. As always, pause at junctures that feel important to obtain agreement. For those that don’t obtain consensus, circle back once, but otherwise parking lot it to keep the conversation flowing in the forward direction.
Now that you have a map of the landscape and have sketched out a path to the new summit, hunt down gaps (unstated objections, parking lotted details, well-known deficiencies) to arrive at MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive) on a list of variables that exist between knowns. There will always be another iteration, so “exhaustive” simply means when people seem like they are happy with moving on.
With this list of gaps, ask how people would prioritize them. Root the conversation in terms of establishing priority based on relative risk to achieving the milestones and accomplishing the goal, getting to the summit.
There is no one right answer so long as those in the conversation express their perspectives on what order things should be prioritized. The how and the why they prioritize things the way they do is not key to this logistics exercise. Though useful meta information about individuals, justifications and disputes drag down the goal, which is alignment and on an approach to confidently arriving at positive outcomes together.
With a sense of how to prioritize milestones and gaps, circle back verbally to summarize the approach to moving from the old summit to the new one. This should take no more than 60 seconds. By now you should have mentally wordsmithed the goal, the milestones, and the approach such that you can do this. Those involved in the conversation up to this point will very likely unanimously agree because the summary incorporates their perspectives and terminology. When you do this effectively, you fade into their view of how to accomplish the goal. You are part of their team. You’re in.
Co-develop a Plan of Action
With all this context and alignment under your belt, it’s time to whip out some artisan management tools and have at it.
Crystalize the new summit into a single statement/slide/executive summary structured as a Goal-Strategy-Objective-Tactic (GSOT) framing. This progression properly organizes information in an approachable hierarchy that stakeholders and sponsors can grok quickly. Everything in it will be defensible because it came from the people that know how to accomplish the new goal and they’re already aligned with the details.
There typically should be only one goal, otherwise, the approach serves more than one master and the purpose of the objectives become muddied. An approach (or strategy) should express a strong point-of-view about the objectives that is fundamentally different from the prior approach which led to the current summit, even if the prior approach was good at decision time.
Every leg of the journey requires a pivot to ensure the direction is correct. Once a GSOT is constructed, make it easy for humans to visualize the timeline of objectives and key tactical events that support forward motion. These should be expressed in relative timeframes. Ranges, not absolute dates/times, are best at this point.
Reverse-engineer where/when to place milestones progressively. Start by placing the biggest rocks in dependent-events order, then layer in tactics that support various objectives. Adjust as necessary when tactics are tight (risk of slippage) or clustered too closely together (work bottlenecks). Do this with one slide, and you have the most effective meeting with an executive sponsor you’ve ever had.
Finally, with your ducks in a row, with everyone aligned, it’s time to socialize with stakeholders one at a time. Don’t present an idea for the first time in a boardroom. Objections are a fixture of the boardroom, so make it hard for them to maximize negative impact. Start with individual stakeholders. Do this under the auspices of collecting feedback, but then actually incorporate the feedback so you’re not a liar.
Pick your early stakeholder reviews carefully. A troll will turn around and proclaim your incompetence, but people with the most to gain will become your champion army when it comes time to fight the trolls. I wish you zero trolls, but living under bridges makes it hard to see them in advance.
On a Personal Note
The narrative above is a reflection of my observations and collaboration with technical engineering teams, boardroom executives, investors, sociologists, bartenders, and wolves. I broke my finger pretty badly two months ago which helped me deeply understand what would really hurt someone else. Likewise, as we exercise empathy and effective patterns of communication, we better understand how they improve us and their importance in our work together.
Thank you for your time, and as you may guess, I’m also on a journey. We all are. If you found anything in this post useful, connect with me so we can journey a bit together.