December 20, 2016
Welcome New Member: Timekit
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Thanks for the invitation, first of all. It's great to be back at Heavybit. So, today: "Executive Communication." Now, this is a topic that is super important because your scarcest resources are time and money. And money is really just time of people who are optimized when you're good at this.
When you're bad at this, career options are cut off from you. You are not able to be your best self, and I want you to be your best self. I think this is not just an altruistic motivation; it's a selfish one. I'm a shareholder in Heavybit, and I want Heavybit companies to thrive.
One of the things that keeps companies from thriving is when sand gets in the gears of communication within the team. So, we're going to spend about 30-ish minutes talking about a hero of capitalism. Her name is Barbara Minto, and then we're going to take your questions. And we can talk about anything you like. If you want to talk about executive communication, we can do that. If you want to talk about something completely different, we can do that, too.
This is Barbara Minto. This is a picture of Barbara when she was a second year student at the Harvard Business School in the early 1960s. I want to ask you, and you just shout these thoughts out as they occur to you. I want to ask you what do you think it was like to be a woman at the Harvard Business School in the early 1960s?
I want to tell you a little bit more. She was among the first six women admitted to the Harvard Business School in the early 1960s. I just wonder if you have a thought as to what it might be like to be there at that time. This is "Mad Men" time, by the way, if you know that show.
"Invisible," someone said. Other thoughts? "Lonely," "Isolating." "Full of opportunities." This is a part of the equation not to be missed: "Infuriating." Well, if Barbara were here, she would tell you she agreed with every single thing you said.
Barbara had the good fortune to be, as I said, one of the first batch of women to be admitted to the Harvard Business School. She showed up, and it was a lot harder than she thought. Not because of the content of the material, but how the first women of Harvard Business School were treated.
The first women of Harvard Business School were kept aside from the men in another classroom across the river, on the Cambridge side, and they were kept in their own section, an all-female section. They had a deal with the administration that if they could get grades at a certain level, they would be allowed to come over to join the men.
Now, you can imagine that this is not a great way to set somebody up for success. Another way that Barbara was not set up for success was that Barbara had not gone to college. Her first job was right out of high school. She was hired as what back then would be called a secretary, to an industrialist in the Midwest, and she was a secretary to him for several years.
She shows up in this separate and highly unequal classroom where the teaching team was different, the curriculum was different, and her macroeconomics, her exposure to macroeconomics was somebody dropped off the textbook and said, "Here, you guys kind of self-teach and go through the problem sets and turn in your homework weekly."
This made Barbara really mad, and so Barbara got really good at rewriting the economics textbook.
She took it and she went home every night, and every chapter she would take and read this incredibly arcane material that had been written to keep you away from understanding it, and she rewrote it for her section mates to make it understandable.
What made her uniquely qualified to do this? Well, Barbara, before she was at HBS, was working for a man named Cyrus Eaton. Cyrus Eaton was famous for a whole bunch of reasons. He was a fantastically wealthy real estate mogul, railroad mogul, but he was also famous for starting something called the Pugwash Conferences.
Now, the Pugwash Conferences were a gathering of physicists and diplomats and academicians. People came together in this place called Pugwash, Nova Scotia. This was the only place where the Soviet scientists could come without risk of defection. I think the Soviet Union was comfortable that they would not actually decide to become Nova Scotian while they were there.
They'd get all these people together, and all day long they would talk about how to think about reducing the risk of nuclear proliferation. Physicists would be talking to diplomats. Diplomats would be talking to academicians, and none of them were speaking the same language.
So, Barbara, every night would go home and rewrite the notes from that day and come out with a bulletin the next day that summarized what had happened the day before.
She got really, really good at listening to people communicate, taking their words and reformatting them, and then giving them back to a broader audience so that the broader audience could understand what the heck was being talked about.
She accidentally had been training to rewrite that macroeconomics textbook her whole career prior to Harvard Business School. She and her colleagues, they made it through the extra high hurdle of the first year, and they joined the men across the river the following year.
In their second year, she experienced a lot of the feelings that you guys mentioned. The optimism balanced against the loneliness, the feeling that they weren't always welcome in the classroom. Many of the men told Barbara to her face that she should just quit because she was taking the place of a man who really would put the degree to good use. Because they thought she was just there to get married.
Barbara was told to her face by other members of the class that they couldn't invite her to the social events because the girlfriends and wives of the men students wouldn't be into that, so this was a very, very difficult challenging period for her. But it was one where she was able to put her special unique talent for rewriting and communicating other people's work to good use.
Now, before I tell you her framework, and I'm going to save you tons of hours, but you should go out and read about this framework and buy her book and buy everything. She's got an app for the phone. It costs $15, but it's worth every penny. She's got a whole series of writings on how to be a better communicator.
I'm going to tell you a shorthand version of what she says in a second. But before I do, I'll tell you after Harvard Business School, she was hired by McKinsey & Company. She was hired as the first female consultant hired out of HBS. She went from Harvard Business School to consulting.
She learned pretty quickly, and she'd tell you this if she were standing here, that she didn't really like the consulting work. But what she really liked is getting her hands on the written work of her colleagues, and she took that, and she developed a worldwide expertise in this. She'd take the written work of the consultants from all over the world, and she would coach them to make those presentations better.
Now, if you know McKinsey & Company, and I know at least one of you does, you know they're known for many, many, many things. One of the only things that they're both known for, and that you should praise them for, is the clarity of their communication.
This woman invented their method of executive communication, and it's something that she has taught to boardrooms and executive suites the world over.
She costs a frickin' fortune. Heavybit couldn't afford her, so they got me. She charges something like $50,000 a day to consult. I had the good fortune, when I worked for Michael Eisner at Disney, I had the good fortune that he paid for her to come to Disney and teach all of us in strategic planning how to write.
She helped me dissect, over the course of about four days, this memo I had to write about why Disney should buy Winnie the Pooh. I had done the analysis to say that Winnie the Pooh was worth $840 million to us. We should be willing to pay that, and she helped me refine that to the point where I could actually give it to Michael and his staff to read. She's a great, wonderful person.
Let me tell you about her framework.
Barbara believes that every argument you ever make in your life (personal life, work life, hobbies, arts and crafts), whatever argument you want to make, can be broken down into: situation, complication, question, and answer. SCQA for short.
Situation is a clear, crisp, unambiguous statement of the facts. It's the state of affairs as they are right now. Complication, well, that's just the thing that's changed. What's making things harder? What's the change in the circumstances that we should be concerned about? Question: this question naturally falls out of S and C. The most common case, the question is, "What should we do?" or "What should we be working on?"
Answer: give me the answer to the Q in pyramid form, answer-first, with the supporting evidence for each component.
Another way to think about it is that SCQ, leave A aside for a second, SCQ is a cluster of easy-to-swallow facts that are noncontroversial, comprehensive of the necessary information on background that you need to participate in the discussion.
And there's a question that falls out, and it just begs for resolution of the complication.
The answer, in Barbara's world, is always modular and presented in series. It's based on evidence, and it resolves, fundamentally, the complication. Here's a graphical representation of it, straight out of Barbara's writings. The answer first, the modular arguments A, B, and C for why the answer is right, and the evidence for A, B, and C presented along the bottom of the pyramid.
This is the state of affairs. This is what's changing. What should we do? Well, do this. Now I want to pause for a second and ask you. She says this is the right way to make every argument you ever make in your personal or your business life, but I'd love to hear where you think maybe this has maybe some strengths, but also some weaknesses. Where might it break down? If you're not sure you're right, okay. Let's pause on that for a second.
Barbara, if she were here, and I'll do my best to channel Barbara. She's alive and well. She's happy and healthy. She's rich as all get-out. Her next door neighbor is the king of Saudi Arabia, in London. It's a fantastic life she's built.
Anyway, if she were here, which she's not, she would say that, "It's to write the word 'draft' on this, five letters that convey the uncertainty. Convey the uncertainty. Convey the fact that this is a prototype answer, that I am open to suggestion and argument." That make sense?
Other potential strengths or weaknesses in this model that you see? Can you imagine what Barbara would say if she were here and forced you to defend her model? I'll tell you if you can't imagine it.
Barbara would say, "Bring it on. It is so much easier and better for me to have that disagreement with you about the situation if you've written out what you think the situation is."
"If you've written out something that I can disagree with and say this isn't quite right, we're making progress. And we're saving tons of time, because the extent to which that situational analysis is stuck in your head and not explicitly stated, we're not going to get anywhere.
"It's going to be like me trying to guess, or mind read where you're at, versus just knowing, because you've taken the time to give me an SCQA for the problem." That's what she would say.
There are many situations where this framework is completely foreign to the people in the room. How might they feel? How might you feel if you had never heard this pitch, and somebody showed up tomorrow with an SCQA format like this on a meaningful topic, on something that you care about? How might you feel?
It feels like somebody just raised the bar in a meaningful way. And, like, whoa, this is a little bit intimidating. It could be intimidating. I want to give you a real-life example of a situation.
This is an e-commerce company where a category manager had been asked the question, "How's it going? How's business doing?" This was in an email. This is a narrative style.
"We're doing okay in the watches category, but not as great as we could be doing. We've got decent growth rate, and new promotions coming up that are really excellent. But I don't like what I'm seeing on repeat purchase rates. They're down about 10% versus last month.
"I think you should make it a priority to do more research with users. Maybe we can also test some higher-frequency email campaigns. We're already locked and loaded on those new promotions, so that will be good to get those out." You've probably participated in conversations that sounded like this: "Hey, what's up? How's the business doing? Well, here's a story. Here's a story."
Now, I want you to contrast what's on the screen right now, this narrative style, this flow of almost just dumping information, to this: "Situation: our watches category, as you know, is critical to our growth. It's 15% of our sales, and a gateway category for jewelry and shoes. The complication I see is that repeat purchase rates are down 10% versus last month, so what should we do about that?
"Let's do three things. Let's increase our cross-marketing of other categories in the emails, and here's some evidence for that. Let's accelerate the release of two new sub-categories. Here's some evidence for why that's probably a good idea. Let's do a price promo to lapsed buyers and test it out and see what happens. And here's some evidence to support that." What's the difference between these two?
One variable where these differ markedly is objective versus subjective kind of interpretation of the situation. How so? There's an A, right? If I paid you money to find me the A in here, it would be hard-earned cash, because there's some maybes, and there's some stuff happening that will be good to get those out.
I think we should make it a priority. This is very conditional speaking. It's been made explicit the assumptions that he or she is operating on, about how important this is to the business. You're giving them something that they can digest and give a response to. That's one dimension of respect. Can you think of a couple others?
Time, that's the biggest one. Barbara, when she was telling me the story about that frickin' macroeconomics textbook that she had to rewrite chapter by chapter, she said, "I was so mad. I was so mad when I realized what they were trying to say. They were wasting my time. They were wasting my time." And that is, in her view, the worst thing you can do as a colleague, is waste somebody else's time.
Her recommendation, her prescription for that, is, "Full speed ahead to the answer, because if we're going to disagree about the answer and the situation, the complication, I want to know it."
"I want to run into the furniture. I don't want to feel my way around the dark room." I apologize, anyone else have a difference that they wanted to say about these two?
Let's do another one. This time, I have hundreds of these that I could have brought. I have them going back hundreds of years. I have memos from Samuel Slater to his financiers from 1798. I have blog posts from the founder of GitHub in the wake of the huge turmoil in the company that they faced in March of 2014. There's endless examples of Minto-izable content out there in the world, but I'd love to do one together right now.
I'd invite you to write an SCQA format for an update on your company or your work priorities that you could give to a colleague and say, "Here's the situation, the complication and the question and the answer for my work." And just a sketch is fine.
"This is the state of affairs. This is what's changing." The question falls out of S and C. Usually, it's, "What should we do?" or "What should you do?" Answer: do this. It's a pyramid.
Barbara is a big fan of "there's three-to-five things people can hold in their head, not more," so when you think about that pyramid structure, think about the answer on top bolstered by the foundation.
Three is a good number, so let's just stick with three. If you want to do four or five, that's fine, but it isn't two, and it certainly isn't one.
Take a few minutes and do that, and maybe, I don't know, should we play music while they do it? I hate silence. It's such a torture. Okay, so we'll just take five minutes. Sketch out a SCQA, and then we'll come back, and hear what it was like, and maybe we'll even convince some people to read their SCQA, and then we'll judge them harshly in front of them.
All right, who would like to volunteer to read their SCQ? Who would like to volunteer to read their SCQ for the crowd? Is that a hand raise at the bar? Oh, a head scratch. Head scratches and hand raises look the same to me. Are you sure you don't want to volunteer? You also have a mic, so treat us to the full volume version.
Audience Member: I'm just going to get it started. Situation: we have promoted and planned an event that is supposed to happen in four weeks. Complication: there's only a couple of speakers prepped, and the room isn't the right ratio of product to design people we wanted in the room. Question: what do you do, or what do we do?
Additional to the complication is that, in order to get this all done, our staff has to drop pretty big projects in order to make it all happen. So the question is, what do we do? And the answer is to prioritize all of the projects in order of importance to the company, and decide if this event is still a priority. If yes, keep pushing, and if no, postpone.
Dearing: Okay, imagine you're on the receiving end of this statement. In this case, Dana has taken the care and thought to give you, "Here's the situation, here's what's changed, here's what's kind of broken. What are we going to do about it? Here's how I'd like to proceed."
She has, in just a few words, totally taken the sting out of, "We got the event, and it's busted," right? She's actually given you a roadmap to how we're going to solve this and how we're going to work through it. Independent of whether you agree with her plan or not, she's actually given you a beautiful work product there to start from.
What could have been a real hair-raising conversation about a potentially at-risk event is now a conversation about taking some action to fix it.
So, if Barbara were here, she would say, "Bravo, well done." Because you've just saved your team a lot of time and anxiety by laying it out that way. Did you want to volunteer to read yours, or are you just leaning around the thing? Okay. Yeah, please. Situation, complication, question, answer.
Audience Member: Perhaps a little esoteric, but hopefully, I've given enough background to make it basically understandable. With cellular, customers pay for their data, so we need common messages to have as little overhead as possible. We've switched from TCP to UDP for the underlying transport, which makes a big difference.
The complication is that a small, published message still takes hundreds of bytes, not allowing users to send as many messages as we optimistically promised. So, what should we do?
Three things. We can make re-transmission timeouts less aggressive than the CoAP standard. We can document clear recommendations for our users for best practices, and lowering data usage. Longer term, we can develop the option for unencrypted publishes which remove almost all the overhead.
Dearing: Again, if you're a colleague on the receiving end of this, I want you to just think about how it feels to hear, not just a complaint, not just a description, not just a narration of what's going on, but actually an action plan.
I might completely disagree with your three points, but there's something for me to grab onto, and you just saved me a lot of time.
Other ones? Oh, come on, could the stakes be any lower? Go ahead.
Audience Member: I noticed he said "We can't" instead of "We shouldn't." The three points, should we speculate to get people to take it, or should we really try to argue, "This is what we are"?
Dearing: Now, this is where Barbara and I diverge, because I live in the Bay Area, and Barbara is from the East Coast.
And so Barbara says, "No. You downshift, and you drive over the opposition." My view is, look, if I've got a menu of choices I can say "Can, might, should..." I can be all Bay Area about it if I want to be, but it still serves mostly the same purpose. You see what happened?
One of the complaints, by the way, when we do this in a longer form over a couple of hours with people, one of the complaints is, "Oh my gosh, that sounds like a robotic dictator," you know? Saying, "The situation is this. This is the complication. Question you ask, what should we do? Here's what we do. One, two, three."
It doesn't sound human. It doesn't sound open. It sounds closed and robotic. Barbara says, "Nonsense. You get to pick and package your words around this however you like."
"You're saving the colleagues so much time and effort by shortening the decision-making cycle that it's worth pushing a little bit on their sensitivities there."
I know you guys are shy, and you don't necessarily want to read more of these things, but if you ever wanted to workshop one of these things for real, like in a presentation or a blog post, to your team or to the outside world, please let me know. I'd be happy to help out: MD@HarrisonMetal.
By the way, let me just say one more thing about Barbara. She is a hero, and she doesn't get anywhere near the credit she should for reinventing executive communication. There is not a senior executive in American business who hasn't been exposed to this.
They might not practice it, but they've been exposed to it because she invented a whole new way to communicate that's designed to save people time.
The one slide I wish were up here, which isn't, but I'll tell you, is that time is your most precious resource. Time and money. And you're going to save both if you practice Minto SCQA.
What about it feels not so tuned to verbal for you? What do folks think about that? That's a great point. Maybe it's kind of uncomfortable to talk this way, and it consumes a lot more resource to do it that way.
Audience Member: I know how often I feel like I don't have this kind of framework in my head. I'll be like, "Let me get back to you on that," you know, just tap out and say I have to think about it.
Dearing: Asking for more time is perfectly viable. Another technique I've seen people do is to diagram it out together. You all might have been doing it collaboratively, doing SCQA like, "All right, let's put on Post-it notes everything we can think of that's an S: S, S, S, S. Let's put on a Post-it note everything to be C, C, C, C, and then peel back and get some radical collaboration on that.
That's an easy way to defuse the workload of, like, you have to stand up and present a fantastic argument every time you talk to your colleagues. That's too high a bar.
You know, I think, hers is much more experimentally driven than researcher-theory based.
I think she just tried a bunch of different things over the course of her career, not just at Harvard Business School, but also at McKinsey & Company and then as a consultant afterwards, after she left McKinsey. She just did this for thousands and thousands of people. I'm going to guess and say she's taught tens of thousands of people over the years, and she just has practiced, over and over again. I think she structured her approach.
She's got a great book called "The Pyramid Principle," which you can get on Amazon. It's like $200, which I told you, you got to pay for that house next to the king. I think of her much more like Kahneman-and-Tversky, experimentally driven models, versus theoretical ones from academics.
The vague, non-actionable A, she's allergic to that. And so I think what she's trying to say is, even if you wrote a vague A, at least you're trying. At least you're going to give your colleague something to latch on to and to dial up. Maybe you can then force yourself to get more specific through iterations.
The first iteration of these almost always sucks. I mean, except for the two or three that we read tonight. Those were already good. I don't want to punish you for speaking up with your early draft, but she would say, "These are prototypes to be iterated."
You know, the reason she spent four days with me on my stupid Winnie the Pooh memo is because my first 100 versions of it really did not make the bar. I didn't clear the bar, so I think prototypes and iterations she's okay with.
You know, you would think so, but then you go and you listen to how people talk to one another at work, and you'd be amazed at how much time they waste not actually saying, "Here's the givens, and here's what I take away from that." It's shocking to me that this is newsworthy. Shocking, but it is. The number of people that practice this well are very tiny.
By the way, if you did SCQA tonight you're in like the 99th percentile of the Earth for people who have ever communicated clearly. It's amazing how rare it is, and I suspect as I look around the room, and I see smirks and laughing, some of you have been on the receiving end of the exact opposite of this type of communication.
The time waster, the indecisive, the cloudy words, the muddy communication. It feels like shit, and it tastes even worse. So don't practice it. And that's kind of why I'm such a zealot about it.
Well, we communicated in those days in memo form because Michael Eisner liked to read short memos and then write margin comments and send them back, physical copies. This was before email.
I'd say it's different now, for sure, but I definitely believe that you have to have multiple drafts of things. If you're not multiple-drafting your communications to your team, you're wasting their time. And all I'd ask you to do is look back at your threads, whether it's Slack communication or emails or pitch decks or whatever.
I guarantee you look at it against this gold standard. You'll find ways to cut, to save time, and to have fewer words. Usually, the criticism she gave me that was the hardest to take was, "Do it in fewer words." I liked to write. I liked to demonstrate that I had done the analysis on how Winnie the Pooh was better than Thomas the Tank Engine. But she's like, "It doesn't matter. Strip it out. Take the extra words away."
I think it depends on your company. Some people like to have a consensus-driven environment where everybody's had a chance to weigh in.
Certainly, this format encourages people to weigh in, because it feels like we're actually going to do something at the end of this conversation. I think a lot of times conversations in the consensus-driven companies, conversations can be had without any commitment to action. And so people think the stakes are lower.
I think here the stakes are higher, because you're talking about what actions you're going to take. But I've seen companies where the SCQA is presented from two or three different perspectives, and then somebody tries to synthesize. Somebody is designated as the synthesizer and chief.
I've seen other situations where it's a very clear, black-and-white decider. Somebody is going to say yes or no to those actions and everything in between.
I think, culturally in this industry we lean more towards, "Hey, let's talk about SCQA. Let's talk about this draft and then iterate it a couple times. But let's actually decide together,usually, majority-rules kind of setup." You can't run indefinitely with big dissension around the key actions.
That instant back and forth? I love that question. Anybody have any thoughts on this? How might you apply SCQA thinking to very high-frequency, very low-latency communication systems?
Audience Member: I kind of think of this as like a tl:dr. There's been many times I've written something in Slack, but then with conversations and Slack, it gets busy, and then you go, like, "Hey, this is the takeaway." I could potentially see this as a similar of, "Okay, we've had this long discussion. Here's the summary."
Audience Member: I think the framework can still be valuable. Because you have this back-and-forth, you can kind of pick each piece, and say, actually in real time, get consensus on what the situation is and then go step by step.
Dearing: Yeah, I like that. To me, those channels of communication, they're like sticky notes in the sense that they're very constrained in terms of what you can fit on them. They're back and forth, and it's understood, I think, that they're highly editable, and it's dynamic.
If you treated those channels like an exchange of sticky notes in a room in front of a whiteboard, I think it's probably a great place to gather S. To make sure you're clear on C, but certainly not a great place for big, open-ended Q's, and highly detailed action plans.
Maybe I'd say you could pick the tool for the stage of the problem you're at, and if you're gathering S and C, those are great, very high-signal channels. But maybe steer Q and A towards a more full-bodied communication channel.
Absolutely, there's bad news that has to be delivered sometimes. What do folks think? How would you want to hear the kind of bad news that Edith is talking about?
Audience Member: It's better that you don't sugarcoat it. I mean, you feel much more respected when people level with you. It's like with VCs when they tell you, "We're not going to invest, because you're shitty." That's much better to hear than, "Yeah, we'd love to, but it doesn't quite align with our thesis."
Dearing: I heard the exact same thing in two different forms. I don't know what you're complaining about. I have an example of this, and I'll send it to Dana, and maybe she can post it in whatever format you guys use. It's a memo to employees.
One is from an executive at Comcast who wrote to employees after that, do you remember that horrific, 18-minute customer service call that was recorded? A guy trying to unsubscribe. It was just this horror show of somebody not letting him quit, basically, and it went viral. It just fed every worst stereotype of Comcast you could think of.
The blog post that the COO wrote in response to that is terrible news delivered as a sort of narrative style. It's a story about the company, and it isn't at all comforting, and it isn't at all resolving the tension that existed inside the company after this debacle unfolded.
Another example is a real layoff from when they shut Nokia. It was the handheld device. I don't know, whatever it was. They bought something. They didn't like it. They ended up shutting it. About six paragraphs in, there's this thing, "And so all of this taken into account, we're going to reduce the workforce by 20%."
You cry when you see this, because it would have been so much more humane to say, "Here's the business situation we're in. Here's what's changed, what we didn't know when we bought this company. Here's what we're going to do about it. I'm just going to tell you." So compare and contrast when I show these to you.
These are smart people. These are A-double-plus, accomplished people who wrote these horror shows, dumpster fires of a memo. They're not stupid, but they chose to not communicate in a clear way, and they wasted a lot of people's time as a result.
When legal gets involved, that's when it gets real. I think that's true. My advice to any founder, or anybody inside a company, is the lawyers work for you. They are supposed to give you advice. They are not supposed to run the company. They cannot sign your name. You shouldn't give that power up.
If you are facing a situation where maybe there was some public embarrassment that could cause harm to the company, either a legal sense or an economic sense, and a lawyer gives you advice, that's all it is, is advice. And you have a choice as to what words you use, and when, and how.
Nobody ever regrets telling the truth. They only regret lying, and shading the truth. I'm going to send these memos to you, and you take a look at them. I'll send you a couple of good examples too, to compare and contrast.
Start doing it, start doing it. Barbara would say, if she were here, "Don't wait for the company to catch on. Just start doing it." In your case, you're going to have disproportionate influence, because people are going to look, and they're going to go, "Oh, okay." People are going to start copying you.
Other people are going to find the same thing, though. This will spread organically, very nicely inside the company. So I encourage you. It's like, OKRs, right? Don't wait for your company to come up with goal-setting and objectives and all that framework. Don't wait for every single last person to be "trained" how to be a fully functional adult. Just be one, and it will spread by example.
Thanks for the invite. If you want to follow up on any of this stuff, just hit me up. MD@HarrisonMetal, or on Twitter @mcgd. Thank you so so much. I appreciate the invitation.