It was back in the 1990s, at Versant, when my old (and dearly departed) friend Larry Pulkownik first introduced me to the phrase:
Win Them Alone, Lose Them Together
And its corollary:
Ask for Help at the First Sign of Trouble
Larry told me this rule from the sales perspective:
“Look, if you’re working on a deal and it starts to go south, you need to get everyone involved in working on it. First, that puts maximum resources on winning the deal and if — despite that effort — you end up losing, you want people saying ‘We lost the Acme deal,’ not ‘You lost the Acme deal.'”
It’s a great rule. Why? Because it’s simple, it engages the team on winning, and most of all — it combats what seems to be a natural tendency to hide bad news. Bad news, like sushi, does not age well.
Twenty years later, and now as CEO, I still love the rule — especially the part about “the first sign of trouble.” If followed, this eliminates the tendency to go into denial about bad news.
- Yes, they’re not calling me back when they said they would, but I’m sure it’s no problem.
- They did say they expected to be in legal now on the original timeline, but I’m sure the process is just delayed.
- Yes, I know our sponsor seemed to have flipped on us in the last meeting, but I’m sure she was just having a bad day.
- Well I’m surprised to hear our competitor just met with the CIO because they told us that the CIO wasn’t involved in the decision.
- While the RFP does appear to have been written by our competitor, that’s probably just coincidence.
These things — all of them — are bad news. Because many people’s first reaction to bad news is denial, the great thing about the “first sign” rule is that you remove discretion from the equation. We don’t want you to wait until you are sure there is trouble — then it’s probably too late. We want you to ask for help at the first sign.
The rule doesn’t just apply to sales. The same principle applies to pretty much everything:
- Strategic partnerships (e.g., “they’ve gone quiet”)
- Analyst relations (e.g., “it feels like the agenda is set for enemy A”)
- Product development (e.g., “I’m worried we’ve badly over-scoped this”)
- Financing (e.g., “they’re not calling back after the partner meeting”)
- Recruiting (e.g., “the top candidate seemed to be leaning back”)
- HR (e.g., “our top salesperson hated the new comp plan”)
I’ll always thank Larry for sharing this nugget of wisdom (and many others) with me, and I’ll always advise every manager I know to follow it.
Have you ever been to a business meeting that felt like this?
I love communications. Back in the day, I spent hours learning the comprehensibility of different typefaces on the theory that you shouldn’t fumble the ball on the two-yard line by building a great message, only to put in a typeface that people can’t understand. Yesterday, I just started The Sense of Style, a manual that one-ups Strunk & White by providing research-backed rules driven not just by elegance, but comprehension.
When working with non-native English speakers, it’s easy to blame language as the source of miscommunication. But language problems are pretty easy to identify — “Huh, what did you say?” The scary situation is when everyone leaves a meeting thinking they’ve agreed to something, but no one actually agrees on what that is. And that can easily happen even when everyone speaks fluent English.
That’s where culture comes in. Most big miscommunications — the kind that derail projects and cost people their jobs — are driven by culture, not language.
If you work with India, trying to communicate without Speaking of India is like trying to trying navigate Mumbai without a map. Living in France (as I did for five years) is greatly aided by French or Faux, which has nothing to do with language and everything to do with culture.
I’ve always found it interesting that the literal translation of jihad is “struggle.” I often feel like communicating is a jihad in this sense: an ongoing struggle to understand each other.
Having been to too many meetings where a false agreement was reached, I have come up with two different tricks that help minimize confusion among teams:
- Real-time minutes. Allocate a material chunk of the meeting to present the minutes of the meeting while it is still occurring. But putting key decisions and action items on the screen somehow grabs peoples’ attention and gets them to focus. Hey, we didn’t agree to X. Or, that’s not what I meant by Y. This trick works well for most groups, particularly those where both language and culture are not a real impediment.
- First-draft-by-you minutes. For more difficult situations, where miscommunications are frequent and important, I have found that it is incredibly useful to find out “what you heard” through the minutes as opposed to me simply re-writing “what we said.” Thus, one great trick is to pick someone on the remote team and ask them to write the minutes and send them only to you, so you can see clearly was heard as opposed, perhaps, to what was said. Once you identify and close any gaps with that one person you can then rollout the revised minutes along with someone on the ground who can explain them.
That’s it. Two easy tricks to reduce miscommunication in the workplace.