February 28, 2013
Whether in business or in our personal lives, when we make an investment, we want a good return. It is easy to know whether we’ve made a good investment--if we put in $100 and get $175 back, we’d most likely declare this a good Return on Investment (ROI).
When it comes to the financial investments in our organizations, keeping score is relatively easy. Since it is money that is invested, it is money that is measured--dollars in vs. dollars out (inside formulas of varying sophistication). But what about conversations?
The first thing to understand about conversations in business is that they aren’t free--every conversation costs attention, a scarce and valuable resource. The second thing to understand is that conversations are not incidental to the business--conversations are the action of the business. These conversations either forward the action, purpose and intent of the business, or they don't.
Since every conversation, email, meeting, memo or telephone call you make requires an investment of attention, and since the scarcest and most valuable resource of your enterprise is the attention of its people, the ability to have high-value, low-waste conversations is a critical skill for leading a successful business.
You would never consider it a good management practice to mindlessly spend money. Equally, great business leaders work to ensure that they and those they lead mindfully spend attention. Let's look at some ways of ensuring that the investment of attention you are making is worth the time, energy and more.
1. Know exactly what the purpose of the conversation is.
Clarity of intent is the first rule for having conversations that forward the action. Have you ever left a conversation or meeting and wondered “what was that about?" If you did, there was a very good chance that the meeting or conversation did not have a good ROI.
2. Only have conversations with people who are present.
Obviously, you can only have a conversation if you and the other(s) you are speaking with are participating. But reflect for a moment: how many times in the past week have you spoken with someone or been in a meeting with people who were texting or checking their phones or iPads during the conversation? How often have you noticed that the person you were speaking with was “checked out,” i.e., physically present but clearly thinking about something else while you were engaging with them? How often when you’ve been checked out yourself, have you called a halt in the conversation and said, “Excuse me, I wasn’t paying attention. Would you repeat that, please?”
For a good ROI on your conversations all parties need to be present and “checked in.”
3. Make sure clear measurable promises and requests are set.
There is a very common saying that “talk is cheap.” The truth may be that we cheapen talk.
Not every meeting and not every conversation is designed to cause immediate action. Many that purport to be conversations for action, however, do not produce action. Rather, they produce sideways motion—opinions, points of view or arguments with no resolution.
One measure of the value of a conversation or meeting is whether or not the commitments of the speakers were moved forward as a result of the conversation or not. An easy measure of this is how many promises and requests for action were made measurable and set in time (i.e., deciding when these promises and requests will be met).
A good way to think about your organization is that they it is composed of a network of conversations. Imagine if you were intentionally managing that network to maximize the return on investment of the conversations that constitute your organization. The ROI would be efficiency, effectiveness and ultimately profit.