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Intellectual Combat in the Corporate Trenches

In the last few weeks, I’ve been asked by two marketing support functions to help them deal more effectively with the people they serve and support.

One is a market research function, the other a business intelligence group.  Both report that confrontations and debates at meetings with product teams and other senior staff are difficult for them to handle.

What happens?

Some issues they report:

Higher ups try to take over the meeting, or they talk between themselves and may miss research details crucial to the business plan.

When they don’t hear what they expect, they question the research methods–or they disagree with what the data mean.

Why does it happen?

All of us struggle to take in new information and relate it to what we already know and believe.

The research functions have designed the studies, done the work, reviewed the data and drawn conclusions.  They’ve spent time with the data—gotten to know it.

On the other hand, the product teams and senior people are seeing it for the first time.  They may have had prior experiences that would cause them to expect something different.

They need time to get acclimated to the findings, and let’s face it, they may think they know better.  After all, when they came up through the ranks, perhaps through the same functions, they did things differently.  So it’s no wonder they push back.

Where is the battle line?

So the battle lines are drawn.  The product team and other senior people in attendance are trying to master new information, and come to the meeting with the responsibility for making an important decision.  They are going to pressure-test the speaker, the data, and what the data mean for the strategic brand plan.

The speaker, on the other hand, wants her methods and data respected, and her advice taken.  She wants to be seen as a trusted advisor to the making of strategic decisions.

She doesn’t mind a constructive dialogue, or a healthy exchange of views.  But she does not want to be embarrassed or made to look bad, challenged on her basic competence, and lose control of her meeting.

What can the support functions do?

So what can market research or BI do to prepare for these difficult meetings, handle the intellectual combat, and earn the respect of those who rely on the research to create business plans for billion dollar products.

1.  Have the courage of their convictions

Support functions need to cultivate and display a fundamental belief that what they have to offer is of strategic importance to the overall marketing effort.  As a group, they need to pressure-test their own conclusions and recommendations, and deliver their findings in a crisp and confident manner.

2.  Build trust with the product teams

Decision makers are less likely to accept advice from people they do not know or trust.  It would benefit both parties if they were to get to know one another, personally and professionally.  Support functions should keep the brand teams up to date on the progress of research projects, share the data and findings before the meeting, and demonstrate a concern for the interests of the people in charge of the brand.

3.  Trust is more than you think

According to Trusted Advisor Associates, the elements of being trusted go beyond your expertise, experience, and academic degrees, and include reliability and the capacity to create intimacy with business associates.  The use of the word intimacy is deliberately controversial, meant to draw attention to the importance of creating a sense of discretion and interpersonal safety when collaborating with internal clients.  Think of it as bedside manner.

4.  Give dispassionate opinions

Passion is usually a good thing in a presenter, but not so much when helping senior decision makers come to the best conclusion and make the wisest choice.  In fact, if you look at this short interview with Chief Justice John Roberts, you will hear him explain why it is best to give considered opinions, not passionate ones, to people who are saddled with making important decisions.

5.  Get the lay of the land

If, based on the pre-meeting intel, the speaker/facilitator anticipates considerable disagreement, it would be helpful to state at the beginning of the meeting where the parties agree and where they disagree, make the case for both sides, and be clear why the support function prefers one view over the other.  One can accept that there are alternative views, but then explain why those views should not be given too much weight.

6.  Prepare for Q&A

Part of preparing for the meeting should be a rehearsal in which the members of the MR/BI group help their speaker/facilitator anticipate difficult questions, develop responses, and practice delivering them.

This rehearsal should also include practice in the physical behaviors needed to effectively respond to tough questions.   Body language, facial expressions, and eye movements all play a part in establishing and communicating confidence and command of the room.

7.  Manage meeting dynamics

In addition to dealing with reasonable challenges to the data, the methods, and the recommendations, speakers must also manage the meeting dynamics, which includes encouraging healthy dialogue and debate, eliciting responses from many people, and confronting dominant personalities in a diplomatic way.

This is especially difficult when the boss, or the boss’s boss, is the dominant one trying to take over the meeting.   Or, even tougher, when two bosses get into a heated debate about a particular aspect of the decision.

The effective facilitator will wait for the right moment to jump in to the conversation, using a slightly louder voice and an assertive hand gesture , and remind the combatants that time is limited, and that the discussion can continue after the meeting ends.

8.  Create timed agenda items

Which brings us to timed agenda items.  Presenters should prepare a simple agenda with a specific amount of time for each item on the agenda.  It’s a good way to limit the amount of discussion, drive the audience toward a decision, and encourage a crisp march through the material.

9.  Build a parking lot

A Parking Lot is a flip chart or white board set up to capture topics or areas of concern that do not appear on the agenda.  By capturing these concerns, participants feel acknowledged and are more likely to bring their focus back to the item under discussion. The parking lot also serves as a reminder of issues that may have been left unexamined by the various parties.

10.  Prepare an action item list

An action item list is also a flip chart or white board where the speaker (or a colleague) can capture the tasks that need to be accomplished to move the project forward, including who will accomplish the task and by when. This allows attendees to pay attention during the meeting because they don’t have to write things down during discussion.

These 10 suggestions for better meetings between brand teams and support functions are directed at the support functions for two reasons.

First, the meetings belong to them.  They are in-house consultants hosting an event for their clients, selling their expertise, hoping to earn their keep and get their advice accepted.

Second, brand teams and senior executives may be responsible for the occasional adversarial tone of the meetings, but the tone is set at the top, debate is good as long as it remains civil, and the members of support functions can grow in confidence and stature by engaging in such debates.

March 13, 2013 Comments (None)