In a Nutshell: The reluctance to have honest conversations puts Big Ideas at risk, costs a lot of money, and leads to ineffective teams.
What are crucial conversations?
I recently attended an excellent conference on Crucial Conversations, based on the book of the same name by Kerry Patterson, et al. (I recommend it: You can get it on Amazon). The book defines three conditions for a conversation to be crucial: 1) stakes are high, 2) opinions vary, and 3) emotions run strong. The basic premise of the book is that people typically do everything they can to avoid such conversations, but do so at the peril of an organization or team.
How do elephants fit into the picture?
As I sat through the sessions, the image of a herd of very large elephants kept popping into my mind. I wasn’t sure of the source of that apparition until I recalled my work with two insightful fellow coaches, Margaret Maat and Liz Plaster, on hunting “elephants in the room.” These are the big fat ideas walking right across the conference room table, seen and maybe even smelled by everyone, but that no one wants to acknowledge. Why? Because they want to avoid difficult but crucial conversations.
Two out of every three team members suffer from EP!
I’m talking about Elephant Phobia, of course. When I work with executive teams, my first step is almost always to identify these elephants in the room. It usually takes one-on-one conversations, because people are afraid to mention them in a group. Once team members become comfortable talking about them in a private conversation, I can then facilitate a conversation about them with the team. Afterward, with the elephants acknowledged and discussed, the decreased tension in the room is palpable.
Elephant Hunting as an Idea Risk Management Strategy
By the end of the conference, I realized how crucial conversations play a critical role in Idea Risk Management. I realized that each of the four risk factors associated with turning ideas into results, as described in my book, Leading Through Ideas, can be mitigated by confronting specific elephants in the room. For example:
Risk Factor #1: Lack of Focus. People may disagree with, or not even understand, the who, what and why of an organizational initiative when it is first brought to the table. But they neglect to call out this elephant because 1) They hope the idea will disappear on its own, or 2) They don’t won’t to be seen as rocking the boat or resisting change. A crucial conversation at this point could identify flaws that could be fixed or provide reason to abort the idea before resources are wasted on it.
Risk Factor #2: Inappropriate Shape. People often allow Big Ideas to slide by without comment when they are so fuzzy that it’s not clear what is being proposed. Instead of saying out loud, “I don’t have the slightest idea what you are talking about!” people avoid the crucial conversation—and potential embarrassment—by keeping their mouths shut.
Risk Factor #3: Misalignment. When people sense a proposed Big Idea may be contrary to an idea important to them or to a powerful entity in the organization, they may choose to ignore it in the belief that someone else will shoot it down sooner or later; or, they may hope to find more subtle ways to subvert it. Either approach will waste a lot more resources than would be consumed by a critical conversation or two.
Risk Factor #4: Lack of Engagement: People avoid elephants in the room because they don’t want to be engaged with them. Avoiding crucial conversations will guarantee that people will avoid engagement, i.e., they will have little concern about the failure of a Big idea to achieve results.
When I got back from the conference, I paged through my book, looking at all of the case examples to check out my observation. Indeed, the root cause of almost every failed idea was closely associated with the lack of one or more critical conversations—one or more elephants allowed to roam the room at will.