When Is a Good Conversation Bad?

03/25/2015 07:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2015

"How do you think that went?" I asked Colin as we stood up from the table. His reply: "Really great. I thought it was a good conversation."

But here's the problem: this was a decision-making meeting, not a cocktail party. The table was in the board room, not the dining room, and Colin is a senior executive of a Fortune 500 company, not my dinner companion.

Around the dinner table, good conversation is the goal. An interesting topic, an exchange of views, some laughter, some debate and maybe even enlightenment on a new subject. Perfect.

Around the conference table, a "good conversation" means a reasonably interesting and spirited exchange of views that looks like progress, but really isn't.

Dinner party conversations meander. Effective decision-making conversations follow a pattern:

  1. Frame: Define the specific decision being made now and how it fits into a broader business objective
  2. Expand: Collect information, seek diverse perspectives, generate options
  3. Constrain: Compare options, analyze impact, seek executive direction, narrow the field
  4. Decide: Make the decision and assign accountability for documenting and executing it

Think back to any effective group decision -- from deciding where to hold the holiday party to making a strategic acquisition -- and you'll recognize this productive pattern. (Though, the length, speed and rigor of a group decision-making process will vary depending on the context and level of risk, importance and permanence of the decision.)

Effective decision-making requires the obvious ingredients: accurate information, good criteria and shared context. But there's another factor that is equally important, but rarely considered: The intention and orientation that the participants bring to the conversation.

Here are some illustrations of common orientations we observe in decision-making meetings:

Intention or orientation
We need to hear from everyone until we get to a consensus
Likely impact
The group circles endlessly gathering additional perspective and loses momentum towards an actual decision. Everyone is heard but nothing is decided

Intention or orientation
I need to make sure my point gets heard
Likely impact
Lots of facts and opinions are expressed, but the quality of listening is low; the conversation becomes repetitive with everyone repeating themselves but no one is really listening

Intention or orientation
Other people just don't get it, but I can't openly challenge them
Likely impact
The conversation lacks authenticity or productive conflict; it appears that progress is being made, but doesn't stick

In each of these cases, the dialogue could appear to be engaging, interesting and even relevant. Sadly, that's as good as it will get. The conversation is over but you're no closer to a decision.

Next time your decision-making meeting feels pleasant but vaguely unproductive, take a minute to notice your own orientation. Activate the group with a proposal or question, such as:

  1. Can we take a minute to recap what we've learned or concluded so far?
  2. I see three distinct options emerging. I propose we apply the decision criteria to each of them and see how they stack up.
  3. Let's play devil's advocate for a minute: what are we missing?

Then finish strong with the two essential questions from Patty McCord, the Netflix's former Chief Talent Officer: Have we made any decisions in the room today? If we have, how are we going to communicate them?

With a little effort and intention, you can drive faster, better decisions that stick. Maybe you'll even make it home in time for dinner and some good conversation.