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April 27, 2005

Fierce Conversations

Fierce conversations keep organizations healthy. They also breathe life into those that are dying. Albeit difficult, confronting problems early on always saves in the end. Fierce conversations provide a means to open up and guide important confrontations.

In Fierce Conversations (Viking, 2002), Susan Scott gives us a roadmap into this potentially treacherous terrain. As used here, “fierce” doesn’t mean menacing, cruel, barbarous, or threatening.  Instead, “fierce” is used to signify robust, intense, strong, powerful, passionate, eager, unbridled, uncurbed, untamed. Scott outlines four purposes of fierce conversations. They are used to:

  1. Interrogate reality – “What each of us believes to be true simply reflects our views of reality. When reality changes (and when doesn’t it?) and when we ignore competing realities, if we dig in our heels regarding a familiar or favored reality, we may fail. Perhaps what we thought was the truth is no longer the truth in today’s environment.  (p. 21)

  1. Provoke learning – “A fierce conversation is not about holding forth on your point of view, but about provoking learning by sitting with someone side by side and jointly interrogating reality. The goal is to expand the conversation rather than narrow it. Questions are much more effective than answers in provoking learning.” (p. 118)

  1. Tackle tough challenges – “Hand in hand with the courage to interrogate reality comes the courage to bring to the surface and confront your toughest, most often recurring personal and professional issues. … It is possible that the emperor is, indeed sans clothing, that a sacred cow must be shot, that identities will unravel, that forms will break down, that there will be a period of free fall. It is also possible that a conversational free fall is what is most needed to help you turn the corner. … Because what’s on the other side of your toughest issues is worth it: relief, success, health, freedom from stress, happiness, a high-performing team, a fulfilling personal relationship. … And because of what’s in store for you if your continue to avoid addressing and resolving the tough issues….”  (pp. 124-125)

  1. Enrich relationships – “Successful relationships require that all parties view getting their core needs met as being legitimate. … So pry the permission door open just far enough to consider that you have a right to clarify your position, state your view of reality, and ask for what you want. … Coming out from behind yourself is part of the search, whether born of panic or courage, for that highly personalized rapture of feeling completely yourself, happy in your own skin. It is a reach for authenticity—a process of individuation—when you cease to compare yourself with others and choose, instead, to live your life. … Authenticity is a powerful attractor.  When we free our true selves and release the energy, others recognize it and respond.” (pp. 72-73)

Scott is one among many to advocate for fierce conversations. Here’s one more. In Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t (HarperCollins, 2001), Jim Collins says,

“Yes leadership is about vision. But leadership is equally about creating a climate where the truth is heard and the brutal facts confronted. There’s a huge difference between the opportunity to “have your say” and the opportunity to be heard. The good-to-great leaders understood this distinction, creating a culture wherein people had a tremendous opportunity to be heard and ultimately, for the truth to be heard.

“How do you create a climate where the truth is heard? We offer four basic practices:

1.      Lead with questions, not answers. … "[L]eaders made particularly good use of informal meeting where they’d meet with groups of managers and employees with no script, agenda, or set of action items to discuss. Instead, they would start with questions like: ‘So, what’s on your mind?’ ‘Can you tell me about that?’ ‘Can you help me understand?’ What should we be worried about?’

“These non-agenda meetings became a forum where current realities tended to bubble to the surface. Leading from good to great does not mean coming up with the answers and then motivating everyone to follow your messianic vision. It means having the humility to grasp the fact that you do not yet understand enough to have the answers and then to ask the questions that will lead to the best possible insights.

2.      Engage in dialogue and debate, not coercion. … "[A]ll the good-to-great companies had a penchant for intense dialogue. Phrases like ‘loud debate,’ ‘heated discussions,’ and ‘healthy conflict’ peppered the articles and interview transcripts from all the companies. They didn’t use discussion as a sham process to let people ‘have their say’ so they could ‘buy in’ to a predetermined decision. The process was more like a heated scientific debate, with people engaged in a search for the best answers.

3.      Conduct autopsies, without blame. "In 1978, Philip Morris acquired the Seven-Up Company, only to sell it eight years later at a loss.  … Hundreds, if not thousands, of people hours had been spent in autopsies of the 7UP case. Yet, as much as they talked about this conspicuous failure, no one pointed fingers to single out blame. There is only one exception to this pattern: Joe Cullman [A Philip Morris executive], standing in front of the mirror, pointing the finger right at himself. …

“In an era when leaders go to great lengths to preserve the image of their own track record—stepping forth to claim credit about how they were visionary when their colleagues were not, but finding others to blame when their decisions go awry—it is quite refreshing to come across Cullman. He set the tone: ‘I will take responsibility for this bad decision. But we will all take responsibility for extracting the maximum learning from the tuition we’ve paid.’

4.      Build ‘red flag’ mechanisms. … "If you look across the rise and fall of organizations … you will rarely find companies stumbling because they lacked information.  … The key … lies in turning information into information that cannot be ignored.” (pp. 74-79)

Think about your own organization. Are fierce conversations the norm?  They were not when GE was a third-rate, failing organization. Jack Welch made sure that fierce conversations became the norm during GE’s transformation and thereafter.

I have championed some version of fierce conversations for many years in the Forest Service. Sometimes I too shy away from them, but not often. Mostly, though, I marvel at what I’ll call Zombie meetings, Zombie conference calls, etc. Coffee chatter and bar room chatter sometimes livens up, but the Forest Service meeting-norm tends toward corporate Zombiism. Can we do better? If not, why not?  If so, how so?

Posted by Dave on April 27, 2005 at 11:45 AM | Permalink


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