Following up from last week’s blog post on reducing noise and having clarity of focus, the second pattern we have noticed a lot more in recent years is that too often managers raise a key issue, don’t get an encouraging or even useful response and then drop the topic and move on.

We saw this again in action late last year when we worked with the senior leadership team of a medium sized business. In response to our prompts, a couple of key issues were raised by individual managers that were obviously known to the group as a whole, but had either been put in the ‘too hard basket’ previously or had been repeatedly drowned out by more immediate concerns which required less time to examine and decide.

Without our repeated intervention the team was not able to stay in the discomfort of having an in-depth discussion of such a key question as ‘What do we actually want from Marketing?’. They all knew that the Marketing campaigns of the last few years had not led to increased sales, but nobody was willing to spell this out clearly and ask for a stop to doing the same type of campaigns yet again this year.

For us, this is a pattern we see much more often than we would like to, especially when working with the leadership team of a business who should have the commercial acumen to recognise that spending X million on marketing campaigns that produce no extra sales revenue is not the way to increase profitability.

How and why does this happen and what can be done about it if you see the same pattern in your organisation? The ‘How’ is normally quite simple – overloading the meeting agenda with topics and running the meeting on the basis of having to get through everything. Or not putting the difficult questions on the agenda in the first place. Either way, it is the focus on the wrong priorities – quantity, not quality and urgency, not importance – which leads to this pattern of behaviour. The cure from a ‘How’ perspective is rather simple; put only one item on the agenda and allow enough time to explore the issue fully.

Yet that in itself is not enough, we also need to take a look at the ‘Why’. Here the main pattern we see is avoiding pain and discomfort and not knowing how to have difficult conversations in a group setting without reverting to deflective humour or aggression. How do you think the Marketing manager felt in that discussion we facilitated? Of course he wasn’t comfortable as he could see the whole topic as either an implicit or explicit vote of no-confidence. We had to make it quite clear to the whole group that this was not just a failure of Marketing, the rest of the group had no clear idea what they wanted instead of periodic campaigns. What we managed to crystallise in the end of a drawn out discussion was that their brand had been left behind by changes in the market and what really needed to happen was a re-examination of the brand position and a potential refresh of the brand.

It was quite clear from watching the group that this discussion could not have taken place without our presence and repeated intervention. It was just too painful and the team didn’t know how to be in a state of explicit discomfort for such a long time. It was only when we pointed out that in their normal meetings they would ‘work’ through 50+ issues every week – meaning they all had to keep 50+ issues in their minds. That level of clutter does not make for sound decision making and allows no time for commercial thinking. It’s a different sort of pain, but because we have been conditioned to it, most of us don’t realise the level of mental stress it causes and avoid asking the hard questions.

You might wonder what the outcome was for the team I talked about. They designed and agreed on two controlled experiments to test a revised campaign approach and their current brand. Those experiments are clearly timelined (6 weeks) and we will be getting back together after the results are in to make a decision on how they to invest their marketing budget for this year. We will be there again to make sure that the discussion stays on topic and they get used to being in discomfort without having the luxury of jumping to the next agenda item when it gets ‘too hard’.