Every business has its own language. It’s a mashup based on people’s past experiences, their desire to contribute or a need to exert presence or authority.
In most cases team members communicate with a clear intent to move their organisation forward. In doing so they look to their CEO or founding team members to calibrate their communication style.
This subconscious exercise takes cues from the tones used in emails to gestures seen in stand-ups to the emoji’s used in Slack. And this is an ongoing process and these recalibration events can occur many times a day as teams focus on iterating and evolving quickly in the pursuit of product/market fit.
Unfortunately, a high level of team interaction isn’t a proxy for clarity of mission. In fact rapid iteration often exposes more questions that it does answers and teams look to their leaders for clarity (whether they have it or not).
If they don’t have the answers or more importantly a strategy to guide their team through the uncertainty, a leadership vacuum inevitability appears. In these circumstances it’s not uncommon for team members to project their past experiences into the vacuum as a means to help stabilise the conversation and regain momentum.
I’ve often seen these past experiences manifest as three statements and it’s important to understand why their inadvertent use is potentially destructive.
The first reason is that these statements tend to generate more uncertainty. And the second is that if these statements become re-used in periods of uncertainty, it becomes more likely that the team will begin using them more liberally or by default in other conversations.
And if you’re in a startup more uncertainty is the last thing you need so keep an ear open for statements that begin with…
1. “If we believe…”
There are few statements more destabilising than those which open with “If we believe…” because it contains a troubling undertone of uncertainty.
The very nature of this statement questions the belief system of the team, the product being built and how they will get it into the hands of customers. And whilst the intent which accompanies this statement is usually positive and designed to elevate the team’s thinking back into the macro, it often precipitates questions which are equally difficult to answer.
The reality is that by the time a product or sales team is sitting in the office they’ve already bought into a belief system around the customer pain-point they are there to solve.
So it’s not about if you believe.
You already believe, you’re sitting around the table!
You just need to negotiate the product or sales challenge that’s in front of you at the moment.
What’s an alternative?
When a team strikes uncertainty try reconnecting them with the experience you’re trying create for someone in your target market.
Try briefly discussing how the immediate challenge fits with the company vision and mission. This anchors the team back to purpose and provides perspective on the size of the issue.
I’ve seen this approach help teams realise that the challenge they were trying to solve was far smaller than first thought. And when more material issues are at play, a reconnection with the big picture has made an issue much more negotiable.
2. “It would be useful if…”
The activity-generating potential of statements that start with this is enormous (and not in a good way). This is because these statements are often opaque information requests that may or may not serve as an input to a future decision.
In an effort to gather and make sense of data to support these types of requests, a significant amount of effort and energy can be consumed with little or no payback, not to mention the impact on morale of those chasing the answers to ground.
The reality is that it’s up to leaders to be mindful of the effort that can be consumed on opaque requests. At the same time team members can also shortcut these situations by digging a little deeper in order to add value.
What’s an alternative?
If you’re a leader who’s contemplating “it would be interesting if…”, reframe it to include the decision you’d like to make. If you can’t articulate why you need the information, hold back from asking until you know.
If you’re on the catching end of a vague information request, share that you’re keen to help nail the request and that by knowing more about the decision, you’ll be able to gather the needed data more efficiently.
3. “From a [X]’s perspective…”
If you’ve ever been part of a conversation that starts with “From a [customer / user / supplier]’s perspective…” and ends with vague or confusing observations, this will resonate.
Solving for the intent of a person’s pain point IS the main game. HOWEVER it’s one thing to make data-driven product and marketing decisions and quite another to rely on a vague recollection of insights to make the same calls. The challenge with the latter is that people’s recall is generally poor and when it fails, it often becomes supplemented with people’s own experiences. And this leads to a distraction as the team reorients to solve a different (and unjustified) intent.
What’s an alternative?
The only way to make a compelling statement on behalf a customer, user or supplier is to have corroborating evidence. So the next time someone starts a statement with “From a [X]’s perspective…” ask for the data that supports the point of view and avoid making decisions without it.
There’s little doubt that these statements bring value when testing hypotheses, designing business models and evolving strategy. Outside of these times their nearly random use creates uncertainty. Don’t underestimate the latent impact this has on your team.
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