Always Make Your Position Clear

Has it ever happened to you that you were approached by your subordinates (or even your boss) and after a discussion ended you were left wondering what the point was? One of the skills a senior leader should build is an ability to express his thoughts in a straightforward, easy to understand manner with clearly stated facts and points of view.

Imagine you come to the office and one of your employees comes to you and says “Jim just told me that CompanyX released a new product.” So? Is it great or bad release? Do we need to react? Why is he telling it to you? Or imagine that you sit on a meeting and someone brings up a topic to discuss “We have a big issue. Jim got a great offer from another company and resigned.” So? Why is it an issue? What should we do about it? Is it just that Jim is so indispensable? Or is it about us not being competitive on the job market anymore?

If an individual contributor comes with information like this it is fine as they are most likely not the ones to resolve it but if a leader and/or a manager makes this sort of statements then you have a problem. A manager who just provides the information without his opinion on what that means is essentially leaving all the work for you. He is just a proxy, a messenger. He did his part “informing” and if there is a problem later on he can always say “I told you so.”

What you should expect from leaders is not just gathering information and relating them to you but also forming opinions and coming up with solutions. The more senior they get the more important it is for them to learn this basic formula for communicating with other senior managers.

Context + Data + Opinion + Proposal = Actionable Information

Context – sometimes it may be necessary to provide a bit of context or “the big picture” to ensure that the actual data/information you want to provide makes sense. However, be very brief and very careful not to over-deliver. As I mentioned in What’s Your Point? you may get lost in providing too much context. Essentially you are providing “why” should we care about the rest.

Data – the actual information you wanted to deliver. Once again be as specific and succinct as possible

Opinion – what is your take on the news? Is it good or bad? What does it mean for the organization? Here you explain what is your position or at least how you understand the data you are providing.

Proposal – what do you propose we do with the information? Do we need to change something in our products? Do we need to change our compensation structure? Or do we just need to have a bigger discussion on the correct approach? Here you should give a proposal on the next steps.

If you follow all these steps you will come up with information that is actionable, information that allows the other participants of the discussion to know what you are saying, why you are saying it, and how you propose to approach it.

Let us go back to the examples from the beginning.

“Jim just told me that CompanyX released a new product,” could be transformed into something like this “CompanyX, the major player in our space [context] just released a new product with significant improvements of functionality [data]. A quick review showed me that it is significantly more powerful than our solution and may negatively impact our sales [opinion]. I suggest a quick survey of our customer base to understand what features are important for them and incorporate them in the next version of our product [proposal].”

Or

“We have a big issue. Jim got a great offer from another company and resigned,” can be communicated this way “To follow up on the compensation discussion from last week. We have already fifth person to resign this month [context]. I just learned that Jim got a significantly higher offer from another company [data]. Based on the trend I believe we need to speed up the compensation adjustments as we don’t seem to be competitive [opinion]. At the same time I plan to do a quick employee survey to make sure we are not missing some other reasons for the retention issues. [proposal]”

Remember, even though both words start with “m” manager shouldn’t be just a messenger. If you want to manage and lead others you need to be able to formulate your own opinion and provide a direction on how to deal with the information provided.

Twitter type summary: “A manager is not a messenger. Always provide Context, Data, Opinion and Proposal to deliver Actionable Information.”

What is your trick on communicating information with your senior management? What do you expect from your team when they communicate with you?

Tough choice

I have recently faced couple of choices in my life that made me think about the way how we make decisions. What sort of decisions are easy to make? What decisions are difficult? How do you define a really tough choice?

Limited amount of decision-making energy

There are situations when I’m not really willing to make a conscious decision at all as I simply don’t care and just go with the flow or let someone else decide. When I look at the decision making process I believe that each of us has a certain capacity to make a decision. We make decisions all day long, most of them are small, trivial things like “What should I have for breakfast?” “Should I wear blue or white today?” When making these decisions we spend our decision making power.

Let me give you an example from my life that is a bit silly but I observed it pretty consistently in the way I act. I love yogurt. I love trying new things. Logically, I love trying new brands of yogurt. I have discovered that when I go shopping for food in the evening after the whole day in the office I usually spend couple of minutes looking at the myriad of choices, deciding what yogurt to buy and then buy the plain one. The same as the last time and the time before. I’m essentially not able to make decision! If I go shopping on Saturday morning I tend to buy one or two brands I haven’t tried before and the decision which one to pick comes really easy.

In these situations I have found that what works for me is to acknowledge this fact and just go with the intention to pick the first thing you see. Basically decide what you will do or chose even before you see the choices.

Base it on your values

When the decisions get bigger and they may have a profound impact on you, your life, lives of people around you it is a bit tricky as you don’t want to make a mistake. But even when faced with decisions whether to go right or left at the grand scale very few of them are really tough choices. What you usually do in such situations is to compare the options available to you. You check some metrics, try to see all the pros and cons and then one of them usually comes as a winner. The actual criteria used will come from your overall goal and value system. If you base your decision on your values, it makes it usually very simple. It also makes it very difficult to regret as you go with your values and with what your heart is telling you is the right choice.

Let me give you an example from recent media storm triggered by Marissa Mayer‘s decision to abolish working from home at Yahoo. If you would look at it from money saving or productivity perspective you may argue a long time, coming with various statistics that will swing the decision from one side to the other and back. If you look at it from perspective of your value system, values of your company and culture you have or trying to create the decision is suddenly not a decision at all. You see that only one option is the right one. So something that looks like a really tough choice and difficult decision to make, could very well be the most simple and straightforward thing in the universe. Of course, you have to live with consequences. The good news is that because the decision is based on your values it will give you the drive to get through all the consequences with enough power and speed to make it a success.

More data will not help

What do you do when all the options are really comparable even when you look at your value system? Well, if everything is really more or less comparable then just stop comparing and pick one! Doesn’t matter which one as both are fine and you are wasting your time trying to figure out which of these two fine decisions is finer. Don’t over-analyze, stop getting more data, just pick one, any one, flip a coin, and move on to spend your energy on other stuff. Having 80% of data is more than enough, in fact 60% is fine. More data very often make the decision harder and harder as you have to analyze more stuff, compare more things and you get to a point of being boiled alive with data unable to decide.

Twitter type summary: “Having more data will not make your decision easier. It will just require you to spend more decision-making energy.”

How do you make decisions in your life? Have you been in situation that you just cannot make up your mind? How did you overcome it?