April 19, 2021
Ep. #4, Everything is an Experiment with Charity Majors and Liz Fong-Jones of Honeycomb
In episode 4 of Unintended Consequences, Yoz and Kim speak with Charity Majors and Liz Fong-Jones of Honeycomb about scaling teams and compa...
Thanks for the invitation. Thanks for showing up. I always get nervous when people say they've created an evening event, I can think of about 8 billion things you'd rather be doing than learning about executive communication, but I really appreciate you giving me a shot with your time. I have to set up a little tiny bit of context so that the story makes sense. Here's the context I want to share with you now.
This is a graph of gross domestic product per capita for earth, and the data set from which I pulled these numbers goes all the way back to about 1 million BC. I lopped it off at 1,000. For the last about 1,015 years, how much have we produced on the planet earth in dollar value? Best estimate. Credible people did this, the data behind it. Real credible. Total dollar value divided by the total population, this is the curve that you get.
If you look at just the last few hundred years, it's pretty obvious that we're on an adventure that nobody's been prepped for. This is an amazing adventure up until the right trajectory, "Creative destruction."Some people call it, "Pain and suffering." Other people call it, "Great growth, and opportunity, and progress." Some people call it, "I don't care what you call it." You have to be familiar with this chart to understand where the ideas that we're going to talk about came from.
This curve, if I have to boil it down to somebody who's never thought about economic history, for me it boils down to a few things we figured out over the last couple hundred years. How to put together people, machines and methods of work in entirely new ways.
The second thing we figured out to do with that combination of people, machines and methods of work combined in new ways was to produce and distribute stuff. You define "stuff" at outrageous scale, at that "up into the right trajectory" kind of scale. Because production distribution is really hard, we also had to get really good at administering those complex systems.
For me, industrial revolution on earth is a transformation with all the good and bad that goes with fundamental transformation of people, machines and methods of work that led to a whole new way to produce, distribute and administer complex systems that lifted us out of a subsistence existence into a wealth existence. Every good fight is about what to do with this now-growing pie. This chart takes no position on what to do with the pie, it just says "There's a pie and it's getting bigger than ever." Why does this matter?
It matters because the executive communication that's demanded by that, up into the right curve, the good coordination of those complex systems, the coordination of that growth is incredibly difficult. A colleague of mine recently was talking about general management and running companies. It's incredibly hard and it reminded him of this meme about drawing owls. He told me this story, I laughed, and I said "It reminds me of that too." Then I went upstairs and Googled the meme about drawing owls because I didn't know what he was talking about, and it turns out there's a meme about drawing owls.
This is what he was getting at when he said, "General management is hard." The playbook seems to be, "First draw some circles. Step two, draw the rest of the freaking owl." I think executive communication as a slice of general management, as a slice of running a company, is just like this. I would add one step in the middle. Step 1, draw some circles. Step 1.1, Let's steal some tools and ideas from people who've drawn owls professionally. Let's practice drawing parts of the owl using their playbook. Let's borrow their brains. And now step 2, Draw the rest of the freaking owl for the rest of your career until you're dead.
That's where Barbara Minto comes in. This is a photograph of Barbara Minto, one of the first 20 women admitted to the Harvard Business School in the late 1950s, early 1960s. Barbra's the hero of our talk today. You can email her after we're done, and tell her that you're rooting for her. Her email is BarMinto@aol.com and she's waiting to hear from you. This is a photograph of her in the second year of her MBA program at Harvard. I want you for just a minute or two, in your mind, think back to what might be going through her head. In 1959-1960, as she's preparing to be one of the first 20 women admitted to the MBA program at Harvard. The class is 900 men, her and 19 colleagues.
What's going through her head? You can just call it out, I'll repeat it for the purposes of the recording. What's going through her head? "Fuck." Unpack it a little bit. What's behind that? "A lot's hanging on me. " By the way, the school billed it as an experiment. We all know what that means, right? It could go either way. "It's not just about whether I do well, it's whether the door remains open for the millions of people who might like this experience as well."
What else is going through her head as she's thinking about going to Harvard Business School? By the time she gets admitted the school is already regarded top tier, it was about 55 years old at the time and was very well regarded. Ticket to ride was getting an MBA there. What else is going through her head? "Got to do this,"because of some of that pressure feeling like, "I want the door to stay open for more folks."
When you think about the "This, do this,"what are some of the things that might come up for her on a daily basis, thinking about joining this program as one of those first women? "Study." It's hard, there's a lot of work. The first year is designed to break your spirit in some way. It's a pile of work. By the way, when you get a pile of work that big and that hard to sift through, you typically form study groups with other colleagues so that you don't have to prepare every subject to the - nth level of detail. Everybody does a little bit of prep, you pick a subject and you go deep, and you share those notes with your study group members so that they can leverage your brain.
What else is going through her head? "A lot of work, a lot's weighing on me." "I need to get a job afterwards. What's the path out of here? There's barely a path in. But what's the path out?" "Will I be treated fairly?" What might be a version of unfair treatment that would be very easy to believe about America in the late 1950s or early 1960s for Barbara? Maybe professors will refuse to call on her. Great. I mean, not great, but that's exactly right.
So the grading system, 50% class participation, 50% final exam. How do you get a good grade in class participation? You've got to get called on. If you don't get called on, that's a problem. Moreover, if you get called on but your colleagues don't hear you and don't build on what you're saying, or worse they go out of their way to shoot it down, that can diminish your opportunity to get that good class participation grade.
I'll add a wrinkle to this, the bottom 10% of the first year class is expelled at the end of the first year. It's called the forced curve. So, add that into the mix. What else? A couple more ideas before I tell you what really happened. "Pride."Absolutely. I feel like you've already talked to Barbara, because she would have listed that too. She said, "I was so excited. I was excited to be part of this batch. I was excited that I got picked and I was fired up to go.
Some of the other things that she would mention if she were here with us, she was nervous about being regarded as a country bumpkin, in a sense. Like she was from a small town in the Midwest, and she thought Boston and the folks that she was going to be in school with were these ultra-cosmopolitan types. She was worried about, how would she present in that group? Would she be judged less sophisticated by what she wore or how she spoke ? This should all feel like, "OK. I can see why she might feel those things."
So she shows up for the first year and the school has decided that because it's an experiment, they're going to keep the women in a separate classroom for the first year because the traditional classroom is this big amphitheater style mahogany-paneled palace where there's the Socratic method happening, and tenured faculty is leading these incredibly fun case discussions, incredibly intense case discussions. Probably better to have that first batch of women go through a more traditional lecture style in that separate classroom, where they can have an on-ramp that's probably better for them.
This is the school, I'm pretending I'm the school. She had 10 colleagues in her special section in the other room, they formed a study group and she's telling me this story about her experience at Harvard Business School. I'm just agog. I love Harvard Business School, I went there and I think it's a wonderful place. So to hear that a wonderful place that you love treated somebody you care about this way, it's hard to hear it. It's really hard to hear it, even though inside you know it rings true.
She's telling me about the classroom and she's telling me about the way that they're being taught, and she said, "Then they told us that our grading curve was not that you couldn't finish in the bottom 10%, it was you had to finish in the top 10% in order to earn your second year spot with the men across the river." I'm just thinking, "This is crazy." I said, "How did you handle it?" And she said, "We formed a study group, the 10 of us, and my subject was macroeconomics." Barbara's last math class had been 12th grade math in a pretty decent but not great public school in Ohio, so you can think about the gap. Macro has calculus in it.
If your last math class was the 12th grade average middle of the road math class, you wouldn't have had the same four-year degree math experience that the other people in the class would have had what that macro-teaching plan is geared for. I said, "What did you do?" She said, "I took the textbook and I started to prepare my notes," and she said, "Then I got really mad." I was like, "What made you mad about the textbook?" She said "It was so badly written. This person who wrote this textbook was keeping me from understanding this cool topic."
Once she got through it she really came to love macro, she said "But he wrote it so poorly it took me extra time and he wasted so much of my time. That's what made me mad." The way she solved this problem is she rewrote the textbook. She rewrote it line by line, paragraph by paragraph, page by page until she could teach macro, the basic concepts of macroeconomics to her colleagues in the section.
This was an unlock for Barbara. Barbara and all of her colleagues finished with grades in the first year equivalent to the top 10% of the men. They moved across the river, they joined the classroom, the big amphitheater style palace. That's when all of the things you'd imagine happened. "Why are you here?" "You here just to get married?" "You took the seat of my buddy, who I served in the army with, that couldn't get in." "We can't invite you to any social gatherings or study groups because our wives and girlfriends won't have it." All the stuff you'd imagine.
But for her, figuring out that she loved macro and that bad communication was keeping her from understanding it, was like somebody leaning against a door to hold her back. She didn't want to be in that position again.
Her first job out of business school was to go to McKinsey and Company, where she became one of the first female management consultants. Now, if she were here and you asked her to tell you about her time at McKinsey, she'd say "I think it's OK to tell you."She'd say, "I hated it. Didn't like being a consultant, didn't like my clients, didn't like the work." I said, "Why'd you stay?" She said, "Because I really had fun rewriting other people's presentations."
Barbara Minto as she came out of Harvard Business School in one of the first batches of women to make it through that program, first female management consultant, McKinsey and Company realized that her super power was executive communication. She's still doing it to this day. She's 86 years old and she flies around the world teaching the method that I'm about to give you a sneak peek of. That's how I met her.
I worked at the Walt Disney Company for a man named Michael Eisner when he was CEO, and his deep religious conviction was that Barbara Minto had cracked the code on executive communication. He's not alone. If you go around the world and you talk to the most accomplished executive communicators, they are practicing a version of her framework called the Pyramid Principle. I'm going to share it with you in a moment.
But for her, what I'm about to show you isn't just, "Sound better at work," which is a way to think about it. It's not just, "Sound better at work." It's "Unlock doors." It's "Unlock doors so that you get to decide what business opportunities you get, that the market isn't silently bucketing you into a 'Not sure they can handle it,' bucket." I had the great privilege 25 years ago to spend three days with her while she coached me, rewriting a three page memo to Michael Eisner about why we should buy Winnie the Pooh for $850 million dollars.
I fantasized that when I showed up to the workshop with her, she was going to read my draft and say, "Honey, I can't help you. You're already there." She calls me "Honey." I've heard her call other people "Honey," too. I'm OK with it. But I wish she would only call me "Honey." We spent three days together rewriting this memo and it was a frickin'work of art. She unlocked the door for me.
I might choke up in the next 10 seconds when I tell you that because she made me better, I was able to sit at that table utterly unqualified to weigh in on an $850 million dollar cartoon character acquisition. I was 26 years old, I had no life experience to speak of except running a department store in Boston. It had nothing to do with Winnie the Pooh. I was at that table because of what she unlocked for me, and that's why this framework is so important.
Her framework is in a book called The Pyramid Principle, and I strongly urge you to buy a copy. It's expensive. It's $200 dollars. You should buy it. It's worth it. I will simplify the framework as a teaser so that you go buy the book. The best executive communication for Barbara starts with "Situation." The nickname for this is SCQA, or the Pyramid Principle.
The best executive communication starts with the state of affairs. It's fact based, unambiguous. It's totally not controversial. No matter what side of an issue or a hard choice you're on, you should be able to read the situation and go, "That pretty much sums it up." Whether you're on one side or another of an issue, it doesn't matter. You should read the situation and agree to it. Agree that's fair.
The next thing that comes out is the complication. A crisp, short statement about what has changed or what's making things harder. What's changed, what's making things harder? The question, the "Q" falls automatically out of "S"and "C" and it's almost always "What should we do?"You can save yourself a lot of anxiety if you're trying to practice this, if you get hung up on "Q" it's almost always, "What should we do?" "Answer," "A," answer first at the top of a pyramid.
Pyramid-shape your evidence underneath it, and it has to resolve the complication 100 %. She is rigorously devoted to this framework. If you go ahead and buy that book, which I recommend you do, and you read it you're going to get halfway into it and go, "She really believes this." I'm here to tell you, she really believes this. Every conversation in her life is an opportunity to SCQA. Friends, loved ones, pets, conversations at the deli counter, everything.
I carry around this cartoon to remind me of her technique, and I try to apply it wherever I possibly can. It's grease in the gears for my work life. "Situation,""State of affairs," "Complication,"this is what's changing and presenting a tricky situation. "Question," "What are we going to do about it?" "Answer,""Do X." The answer is always clearly stated and it's got bolstering arguments, those arguments across that second row.
You see "Answer," and then the second row. Those might be why my answer is right, they might be "How" arguments to implement the answer. But they're bolstering the answer. I want to show you an example. Underneath each of those bolstering arguments is the evidence .
Let's see an example. How does this make things better? What I'm about to show you is an excerpt of a real life email that was sent inside an e-commerce company. I tried to find a good technical example given this group, but you'll bear with me. This was written in a narrative style by a manager in charge of the watches category at an e-commerce company. The category managers writing a response to the CEO pinging her to say, "How's it going in watches?"
The answer that the CEO got back, "We're doing OK, not as great as we could be. We've got a decent growth rate and the new promotions coming up look excellent. I don't like what I'm seeing on the repeat purchase rates, though. Those are down about 10% versus last month. I think we 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."
If you're like me, you have read and written and spoken this way a gazillion times in your career, it almost sounds like we've overheard two people passing in the kitchen talking about something. It's a very conversational, very human tone. I want to show you what a Minto-ized version of this looks like.
Minto-ized is my shorthand for "Turn It Into Barbara Minto's Pyramid," because that's what Michael Eisner used to write on the cover of memos that weren't Minto-ized. He would just put a big "Minto-ize" on a red X on it and send it back to you. So let's see what "Minto-ized" is. I'll read this because it's a little hard to see on the screen.
This is "Minto-ized" answering the same question, "How's it going?""Watches is critical to our growth. It's 15% of our sales and it's a feeder category for jewelry and shoes. We're plus 3% to the sales plan year to date." I'm moving to complication now, in case yo can't tell, "However, repeat purchase rates are down 10% versus last month. That costs us about 300 basis points in growth if it continues.
Team and I are thinking about the obvious question, what should we do about that? We've decided to focus on marketing and merchandising to the buyers. First, we're going to increase cross marketing of other categories, here is some evidence for that. Second, we're going to accelerate the release of two new subcategories. Here's some evidence for why that's a good idea. Finally, we're going to do a price promotion test to the lapsed buyers. Here's a little bit of data to say why we picked that one." Think about, "What changed?"
There's definitely a little bit more information and more specifics in here, but I hope you see how fundamentally the Minto-ized version transforms the conversation.
I want you to put yourself in the role of the recipient to the narrative style version, what worries you or what goes through your head when you get this back as a response? Remember, the question was, "How's business in watches? How's things going?" Then this comes back. Let's be honest about what's going through your head. "Not good."
What's not good about it? There's some sense that this person has their eye on the dashboard, like I get that she's watching it. But it's not clearly organized. There's a poor and well-hidden dissatisfaction about halfway through. Repeat purchase rates, something feels off there. But do you feel your brain doing work when you're reading this? If you're going to engage with it, you've got to do some work.
Here, the author has done the work. She took a little bit more time to chop it up, to pull out the unnecessary words, and to get a little bit more firm in the conclusions. You might notice in this version there is a little bit of a sense of being on my back foot. There's a little bit of a sense of, "It could be, and it might be." It's not on your front foot. Does that make sense? That back foot, front foot metaphor?
When you're on your front foot answering an executive level question with an executive level voice, Barbara would say, "You're using your colleagues time wisely. You're not wasting my time. You don't give me work to do, you give me hope for the future." Tell me other thoughts that are coming to your head as you think back to this narrative style versus the Minto-ized style.
The narrative style, it is completely unclear what we're going to do about any of this. Is there a decision we're asking for support? Are we needing resources? Is somebody going to come back and say that any of these things were good ideas? Can you imagine what the response to the narrative style was? I'll tell you, but I want you to guess first what you think the CEO might have said in reply. "What's the TL;DR?" What a great question. What else is a possible response that this category manager might have gotten? Is there data or evidence that could bolster some of these conclusions that's missing? "What are we going to do about it?" Yeah, fair.
If it's unclear I'm going to go ahead and ask the question again, or ask another question. What else do you think might have come back from the CEO? What the CEO wrote back was, "OK, thanks."What the CEO did in his head was he silently moved this person from the "She seems great. I have high hopes. We don't know what jobs she might be up for in the future. That's why I check in with people. Skip-leveling." What happened was it was a little bit of a yikes moment for that CEO.
What's most important for you to know is, that is a completely incorrect conclusion. This person who wrote this, she did it quick, and like all of us will be pressed for time and will jump to write some stuff down before it's ready, before it's fully-baked. She has an A++ intellect, and an A++ character, work ethic, every attribute you'd want in a colleague. Somebody to ride their career wave with the company, she had it, and the CEO didn't get that signal from how she communicated it.
This technique, which takes like 5 minutes of extra work after you've practiced for a while, lands you in exactly the opposite bucket. It moves you from the "I don't know. Could be great,"bucket into the "Holy smokes. This person has their shit together," bucket. Now, why is that?
C oming from the brain of a high potential executive, what would be the markers of that? What would be the characteristics or attributes of this format that communicate that to you? "Decisiveness."There's a real point of view here. Absolutely, there's data and research behind this draft. It's very clear that she has put in the time to gather the facts to support her point of view, which is very clearly stated and crisply argued. The words sound good. Your brain doesn't trip on the words. It doesn't look like a wall of words. All the formatting, and word choice, and grammar. It's nice, it flows. It's concise. It's not wasting anybody's time.
If anything, it suffers from the shortcoming of being awfully brief for this big plan of action. I think that's an opportunity, and if Barbara were here she'd say, "Honey. Tell them they can add links to other documents if they want to go deeper. But keep that SCQA nice and tight." We took a trip in this one. We started looking at the landscape, we picked a path, she took us down the path, and we landed with a plan of action. We took a little journey together. What a delight. Here, I'm not sure what happened. I'm not sure what happened here, but it didn't feel like a guided journey. It felt like a dump. We've all done it.
There's a reason why the Pyramid Principle exists. It's the antidote to normal human thought. So there are some shortcomings of this, and we touched on one of them, which is the brevity really can be hard to take if you're dealing with something really monstrously complex. Also the way it's written here has a robotic, almost like an AI could have generated this answer.
It doesn't sound as warm and human as it might if Barbara were here. She'd say, "Go ahead and make it feel the way you want it to feel." She'd say, "People have been decorating stuff for 10,000 years. Go ahead and decorate your writing. But don't lose the skeleton, don't lose the underlying architecture of SCQA because it's a gift to the reader."
Another shortcoming of this framing, this framework, is it can sometimes feel a little bit like a PA announcement on a military base. "At 0300, we commence the marketing and merchandising to buyers." It sounds like somebody has already figured everything out and it's being commanded down from the top.
Similarly, if the style in your team or your environment is more collaborative and more exploratory, go ahead and put a draft stamp on that "A." "That cluster of ideas, we're going to meet and talk about whether this is a good prototype, we're going to revise it as needed, and we're going to get back to you with what we end up deciding to do." You can stretch it out to suit your cultural needs inside your company.
I'd like to practice on other people's problems, so I'd invite you to practice on a case study right now that is very straightforward. Something that you're going to want to pay real close attention to. It's an audio recording of a customer service call that happened at the world's best source for tricky situation business cases, Comcast. You probably have heard this recording before, but I want you to put yourself in the shoes of the executive team that's trying to figure out what to do about it.
So we'll hear a few minutes of this recording and then we'll talk a little bit about how you might use SCQA to unwind this problem. We'll take the role of the head of the operations at the company. The backstory on this recording is a person has called Comcast to try to disconnect their service and they've been on the call for a while. The rep is not letting them cancel, so the customer decided to record the call.
Comcast: It's 105 MBPS for internet. Astound [Broadband] will not give you that speed.
Customer: OK. We'd like to disconnect. We'd like to disconnect, please.
Comcast: OK. Why is it you don't want the faster speed? Help me understand why you don't want faster internet?
Customer: Help me understand why you can't just disconnect us?
Comcast: Because my job is to have a conversation with you about keeping your service. About finding out why it is that you're looking to cancel the service.
Customer: I don't understand.
Comcast: If you don't want to talk to me, you can definitely go into the Comcast store and disconnect your service there. It's going to be easy to kill two birds with one stone, you've got to return that cable card to the store anyway.
Customer: We're actually going to just mail the cable card in. But if you can just please cancel our service, that would be great. That's all we want.
Comcast: We're actually not able to return a cable card by mail.
Customer: Then I will send someone like a TaskRabbit to go return the cable card for us. I don't personally intend to go return the cable card. That's why we're probably not going to be canceling in store, so that's why I need you to cancel by phone. Can you cancel us by phone? The answer is yes, correct?
Comcast: It sounds like you don't want to go over this information with me. Did y'all want to go over that information? That's the easiest way to get your account disconnected.
Customer: I am declining to state why we are leaving Comcast because I don't owe you an explanation. So if you can please just go--
Comcast: Number one--
Customer: Proceed to the next question. If you have to fill out your form, that's fine. Please proceed to the next question and we'll attempt to answer that if possible.
Comcast: Right. Being that we are the number one provider in the entire country, why is it that you are not wanting to have the number one rated internet service and the number one rated TV service available?
Customer: I'm declining to state. We're switching providers. Can we please go to the next question?
Comcast: What is it about this account that is making you want to change?
Customer: I'm declining to state. Can you please go to the next question so we can cancel our service?
Comcast: OK. I'm just trying to figure out here what it is about Comcast service that you're not liking and that you're not wanting to keep. Why is it that you don't want to keep that service?
Customer: This phone call is a really actually amazing representative example of why I don't want to stay with Comcast. Can you please cancel our service?
OK, we are 2 minutes and 17 seconds in. There are 8 minutes and 14 seconds left. We're not listening to all that. I want you to roleplay for a moment that you're the head of operations at this company. I know that's hard to do, because you have much better judgment than to have accepted that job offer. If you were trying to practice Minto-izing the stickiest and messiest problems in your work life, and this was one of those tricky situations that you found yourself in, how might we start to use SCQA to organize our thoughts and come out with a better answer?
What's the situation? The unambiguous, fact-based, the state of affairs. Fact-based, unambiguous, non-controversial. What do you got? "It's too easy to cancel if it's 8 minutes?" Now, you're cheating a little bit because I know you're an SCQA pro. If you're just struggling with the state of affairs, what's the state of affairs here that might help start us on the path to a good resolution? Don't worry, I'm going to show you the train wreck that they produced in the wake of this. But I want to try to be our best selves. "Customers occasionally cancel their service." What's another fact-based opening line that we could use to frame the situation? "Sometimes people cancel."
What's another true fact, that no matter where you stand on Comcast, that you could add to the situation? OK, "Good brands have good breakup experiences,"something like that. People occasionally decide to stop doing business with us. Good brands offer them a way to do that, that's time respectful and time efficient. What's another piece of the situation here that you might add? Remember, we're trying to frame this for our colleagues inside Comcast. "It's perfectly reasonable for a subscription company--" That sounds defensive. "Sometimes we like to point out features and functions that might change their mind." I buy that. Yes? "We have a team of people that do this for a living."
Now, let's move to the complication. I want to pick up the second half of what you just said, because you embedded the complication in the situation . Situation, "Sometimes people decide to stop doing business with us. Good brands offer them a respectful way out. Sometimes we might like to try to change their mind, and we have a whole fleet of people organized to do that function." So far, no matter how you feel about Comcast, t hose are all true statements.
Now, the complication. What's changed or making our lives harder in this moment? The incentive plan. Can you guess? You don't have all the information, but can you guess what the incentive structure is for the person who was representing the company on that call? What might explain his behavior? OK, so if you're in his queue and you successfully quit, that somehow hurts him. Financially or performance measurement, whatever. Not a bad guess. To me I listen to that, by the way, and I think, "All he's really trying to do is get you to hang up so that you quit on somebody else's cue," because a hang up to the system might look like, "You did it. You retained the revenue by not letting it leave." That is retention.
Anyway, what we might have here is a framing about our business model. Basically a subscription business. Sometimes people want to leave, sometimes we like to change their mind. We've hired a bunch of people to do that complication. They've written a rogue playbook, or maybe it's not a rogue playbook. Maybe he was trained to do this in a way that is highly disrespectful. I think that's what this boils down to, folks. This is just disrespectful to keep badgering somebody when you know they're not salvageable.
Question, "What are we going to do about it?" Now, here's where you really get a chance to shine. I want you to pretend that you're new on the job at Comcast, that you just joined, because if you think of yourself as a 30 year veteran you'll never come up with an "A." What's the answer to addressing this situation complication, what are we going to do about it? Make one up. What's a good answer that an executive might have?
Remember, it's always pyramid shaped. We are going to radically simplify the cancellation policy to a one-step opt-out. Now the base of the pyramid can be, "Why?" Or "How?" Do you want to do a "Why" or a "How" argument? Let's do a "Why"argument. We have a lot of damage to repair and our brand might be "Why."Number one. What's, "Why" number two for a one-click cancel strategy? OK, we can significantly change the cost structure of this.
I'll make up an argument. I don't necessarily know anything about the cable business, but I'd say if you have one-click opt-out you always have that 24 hours to go email them an offer for three months free to come back. If you one-click opt-out, you can one-click "Stay with us."There's all sorts of things you can do that still preserve the business economics, but present a much more friendly, reasonable way to break up.
What's a third thing? These things almost always go in threes. We've got other products we might be able to sell down the road when we come back and market with a super duper version of Comcast to compete against Astound. Astound happens to be the competitor that the customer was switching to. We're going to preserve some goodwill in that market and ballpark our estimate of the ill will that we created here was umpty ump million dollars, something like that. That's a perfectly good "A." It's a very radical and progressive "A" and it wouldn't be at all what they came up with.
I'll show you in a second what they came up with, but there's all sorts of "A's" that you can come up with here. But SCQA gets you on the right path. "S"acknowledging the business situation, "C"acknowledging what made it harder, what's changed to make your job harder. "Q,"What are we going to do about it? "A,"Here's what we're going to do. Let me share with you the communication that Comcast put out. Trying to do a bunch of things in one communication and not doing either of them expertly well, particularly the part about the defensive tone or the bolstering tone. Like, "Yeah, folks. Our retention teams are doing great work. We train them to do a certain thing. Keep it up."
But we know that he acknowledges elsewhere in the note that something was really fundamentally broken. Does he give you any clue as to what he thinks was actually broken with this? He did his job, but he crossed o ver into the disrespectful territory. If only he had been more respectful. Can you find a particularly good phrase or line about that point? If he had only done it this way, it would have been OK?
He's got threads in here that he sees the problem with. It's disrespectful, there has to be a balance between selling and listening. There's a part in here that really gets to your point about the underlying disrespect, and that is that customers will make the right decision to stay if only they knew the truth, if we educate them. "This is a customer education problem, folks." In case you didn't catch that from the audio recording.
What Minto as a framework does for you is it forces you to organize your thoughts.
As I look around the room, I know there are SCQA Minto disciples in the room. It forces you to organize your thoughts, it forces you to slow down and say, "What's going on here?" That's what situation is. "What's going on here?" There are situation-worthy sentences in this document that I passed around, but it's not crisply organized. The complication is woven and hidden in lots of different places. Is it about training and development of our people? You might think so if you look at his action plan towards the bottom where he says, "We're going to review, refresh, and relook at how we do this,"with no specifics, no follow up timeline. None of the specific steps of an "A" that you'd really like to see.
One of the primary benefits of Minto, it forces you to slow down and to reorganize your thinking for the audience's benefit. To clarify, if he were a Mento disciple, I think he would have written one SCQA for the team and one SCQA for the public, and really kept those two things separate. He should have had competence to share both with the other audience, but he's trying to mix too many things together here.
Why do we practice this? We practice this because communicating poorly stunts your growth. Communicating poorly stunts your growth for better or worse. We live in a system where people use the quality of your communication to judge what must be going on in your head, and that's not a perfect proxy at all. We all know people who struggle to communicate clearly who have first class minds, work ethics, character, everything you'd want in a colleague. I introduced you to one, the category manager in watches. She needed a framework to deal with the high pressure question, the high pressure moment, and SCQA was that for her. I hope it's that for you.
This is greasing the gears with your colleagues and your customers, and practice makes you better very quickly. If you'd like to create an SCQA channel on Slack, we can go back and forth on some of these topics. But my hunch, my strong hunch is that people in this room who practiced SCQA in their real lives are going to chime up and chime in and say, "It made us better at dealing with those really tricky situations, in really hard moments to clarify our thinking and forced us to organize our thoughts and have a higher chance of success operating a complex business."
If this draft were going into a highly collaborative, cross-functional team where she is, the author, didn't have any of the authority to pull some of the levers in the "A,"it would be inappropriate. So in an environment that's highly matrixed, I know it's hard to imagine but think of one, where there's business folks who have to go collaborate directly with product design and engineering to implement some of these ideas. You'd probably want to put some space between the "Q" and the "A," and you'd probably want to say, "OK. I'm going to send you SCQ, and I'm telling you I'm working with head of product, head of design, head of eng on "A," and I think it's going to be about a day before we get our plan solid and bought in. I'll come back to you."
No rule that says you have to uncork SCQA perfectly on the first draft. So culturally, she could put more space between "Q"and "A." Another component that I hinted at earlier that culturally can make it go down a lot easier is to stamp it draft and say, "I read this wacky book called The Pyramid Principle. I'm trying it out. It helps me organize my thoughts. Maybe it'll help our conversation on this." SCQ, pause for "A," we're going to go do a brown bag and have coffee together to talk about what the "A" is.
There's all sorts of ways to stretch and morph this to make it feel like it's culturally appropriate for you. But don't lose the underlying structural value that saves your colleagues tremendous time trying to figure out what's in your head.
Barbara, if she were here, would say "One of the great gifts this gives your colleagues is clarity on where you stand. Clarity on where you stand, so that if I disagree with your "A," I know exactly how you came to it so that I can talk to you about the way we disagree. I have different data. I have different world view, or first principles." It's a gift to give people such clarity into your thinking. Versus hiding it inside a perfectly inoffensive paragraph that actually does nothing to solve the problem that's facing watches.
By explicitly building it into the SCQA, and to invite it and to say, "Here's my draft, here's my prototype 'A,' but we got to iterate this together. If you want to get together, I'm going to carve out some time. If you want to do that I can rework some of these points and come back to you." There's all sorts of things you can do to the SCQ and the A. To make it a lot more palatable to colleagues.
That's really just limited by your own imagination and the cultural implications. Barbara thinks Californians are crazy. "You crazy California people like those emoji - cons," she calls them. Put smiley faces and again, make it your own. But underlying architecture of SC QA gets you to better answers faster, no matter how collaborative you want to be.
There's an approach that I teach side by side with Minto. It's Robert McKee's storytelling framework for screenplays, and there's the basic status quo, there's the inciting incident which breaks the status quo, and then there's the journey back to a resolution. There's lots of echoes of these same ideas in different techniques. I think that where Barbara's trying to get you to a business answer, so she doesn't spend a lot of time on the emotive side of the situation and the complication.
The storytelling framework that I think you're referencing, that long tradition is about just the journey, the human connection to the protagonists, the visceral feeling you have for the antagonists and the deep desire you have for them to get back to a steady state of happiness or resolution. That's the purpose of those journeys.
I think for her, the purpose is, "Resolve a business conflict." For storytelling, the purpose is, "Have an emotional moment. Have a have a nice drawn out artistic experience." She's allergic to that, which is why she spends so little time on the emotional exposition and unpacking. If you buy her book, you will see in there variations on what I've talked about today specifically for the purpose of telling compelling emotional stories. I'd love your feedback after you've had a chance to look at it.
Absolutely. Great question. I think there are some short form interactions where it's tough to be full-Minto. A quick passing conversation, the classic example is "What's the elevator pitch version of this?" Imagine we're in the elevator and I say, "How's watches going?" Are you going to stand there like a business robot and say, "As you know, business watches is 15% of our business and a gateway category for jewelry and shoes." No, you're going to flex it and you're going to say the elevator pitch version of this, which probably stops at "C" or "Q."
In those very quick interpersonal real-life interactions, you might stop at "Q" and say, "If that's something you'd like to go deeper on, just drop me a note. I'll come by and show you some of the data we're using to figure out what to do about it." It's totally OK to break it up into pieces and to pick a form factor for the delivery, the "A," that's really appropriate given the scope of the "A," or the complexity of the "A."
Another form that I hear people talk about a lot when I talk about execution with folks is, "What about Slack? I've got this endless stream of stuff happening during the day and people are asking questions. Is this something I'm supposed to stop and add a whole big nugget? By the way, it took me 20 minutes to go produce and add a big nugget of text in there." I don't think so.
I think what you might do in those very short-form communication channels is tease it with a headline or a bit about the complication and link off to a form that's a more appropriate expansion of the topic. That might be a Google doc, that might be a presentation somewhere, but you want to practice. If she were here, she'd say, "Practice SCQA a lot so that you feel fluent pulling off the SCQ portion and dealing with that in certain formats and settings, and reserving your complex "A's" for other settings."
Get this in your toolkit because you're going to get a lot of value out of it, and more importantly, your colleagues are going to get a lot of value out of it because it's such a high signal way to communicate.
If it's something that you want to do, maybe I can add to the SCQA Slack channel, a look at other samples of work that people have produced and practice Minto-izing it. Just get in the habit of dropping in an idea in there and letting people practice SCQA-ing on it. One of the things I'll post in that channel is a workbook.
I've been collecting these examples of really bad communication for years, and the workbook has a bunch of examples that you can Minto-ize. In the back it's got suggested Minto-izations of those bad communications. You can see how, not just in that watches example that I shared, but in dozens of other examples in daily life how people use Minto to get to the right answer faster and to make the conversation much higher signal, much higher productivity.
When you think about this framework, I really want you to remember her story. For Barbara, this is not just a slightly more time-saving or efficient way to communicate. This is an unlock for a different chapter in your career. I always want you to be the one opening those doors, the one accepting or turning down those job offers, taking those leadership roles that you want rather than those being withheld from you. Rather than those being withheld from you by other people who mistake a narrative, expansive, beautifully human and disorganized communication style for not having your executive shit together. I'll leave you with that. Thank you so much.