The Power of Dialogue in Decision Making -A Leadership Lesson

Lucasfilm wanted to sell its animation graphics division as it was bleeding cash, though the unit was at the forefront of technological innovations. Ed Catmull, the division’s head, went and met several investors along with Lucas. They faced rejections and near misses. Finally, one investor showed a deep interest. He was Steve Jobs.

Steve bought the animation graphics unit. Later, the division was called Pixar.

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L to H-Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs, and John Lasseter. Image source -Telegraph.co.uk

The Startling Discovery -In the beginning, Ed Catmull and his team were little apprehensive of working under Steve Jobs. They felt that Steve had a forceful personality. At times, he was impatient and blunt to people in the meetings. He wouldn’t hesitate to call people out if he sensed mediocrity or lack of preparation. His assertive character was a little intimidating for others.

Ed Catmull writes, “Sometimes, Steve would be inspirational but he could also be impossible: dismissive, condescending, threatening, even bullying.” It was a challenging time for Pixar’s team.

On the brighter side, the team found out that even though Steve Jobs dismisses an idea, if the person was brave enough to come back to him, he often respected it. He appreciated grittier and passionate people.

Slowly, over the years of wrangling, Ed Catmull found a way to work with Steve Jobs. They began to understand each other.

THE DIALOGUE

In one of their earlier meetings, Ed Catmull asked Steve how things got resolved when people disagree with him. Steve replied, “When I don’t see eye to eye with somebody, I just take time to explain it better, so they understand the way it should be.”

I don’t know whether Steve followed that advice, but Ed Catmull practiced it -The process of explaining it better is called The Dialogue.

Ed Catmull used the power of dialogue in convincing Steve Jobs to give him what he wants.

So, what are those fundamental factors that make dialogue productive?

In meetings with Steve Jobs, Ed Catmull observed that many people tend to hold back their opinions rather than risk angering him. They accepted his ideas. It was a safe passage for them.

Why would you take a risk by going against your superior’s ideas and suggestions? Why defame yourself in front of everyone?

On the other hand, Ed Catmull never thought about himself. He thought about every issue/idea from the company’s perspective.

  • What would be the best solution for the company?
  • What would be the long term impact on the organization?
  • How would the solution influence the company’s core values?

Ed Catmull believed that if the company grows, he would naturally advance in his career. That’s the first lesson in any discussion. Don’t think about how the solution would affect/impact you -Think about your company.

Since Ed Catmull’s focus was on the company and not himself, he had less pressure while opening up himself in the meetings. He could express his opinions, share his feelings, and articulate theories without fear. The additional benefits!.

In the meetings, when everyone quietly accepted Steve’s ideas, Ed Catmull took the opposite path. He openly expressed his thoughts.

Ed played no political games. He neither argued nor forced his arguments. But he was candid about his opinions. You have to be transparent in the meetings. Practice candor.

And, there was an essential ingredient in Ed Catmull’s conversation during meetings -While sharing his opinions, his words and actions showed his deep respect for Steve Jobs.

You have to respect people from the depths of your subconscious mind, whomsoever it might be. Otherwise, you would unknowingly reveal it in your discussions that would force the opponent to turn against you.

In discussions, we could observe that Ed Catmull had two choices in front of him.

  1. Speak against Steve Jobs’ ideas and turn the influential person into his cursed enemy. Once, Steve Jobs told Catmull that one day he would take Ed’s job role to himself.
  2. Accept Steve’s decision and suffer in silence, which many people had done.

Patterson, in his book Crucial Conversations, writes that great leaders can avoid the second choice(Which he calls as ‘Fool’s Choice’).

Ed Catmull had reasons to believe that the second choice would result in many bad decisions. The reasons -Steve Jobs rarely spent time in Pixar’s office. He had fully involved himself at the Next computers. Therefore, his knowledge of Pixar’s needs, problems were not realistic. Naturally, most of his decisions would not be relevant or practically applicable.

Therefore, Ed Catmull was not going to remain silent and let the company suffer the long-term consequences of a poor decision. He was the type of person who would not take the Fool’s choice.

We know that Ed Catmull relied on the power of dialogue to convince Steve Jobs. Before joining discussions, it was necessary to think about the issue from the other person’s perspective and understand his/her limitations. We all enter meetings with our own opinions, feelings, theories, and experiences about the topic at hand. How about thinking from the shoes of another person to understand their perspectives. How did it help Ed Catmull?

  1. Steve and Ed Catmull had different histories, goals, and environment. Ed’s goal was to build an animation studio & Steve aimed to build the next generation of home computers to compete with Apple. It played a critical role in the difference of opinions between them. Ed was aware of this.
  2. Steve spent most of the time at his new venture, Next Computers & not at Pixar. He had no in-depth understanding of Pixar’s needs and problems. Ed Catmull knew how the lack of knowledge would skew anybody’s opinions and ideas at some times. So, Ed felt that it was his responsibility to furnish as much information as possible during discussions.
  3. Steve had sufficient experience in running a company. He felt that Pixar didn’t know how to run a business. Ed Catmull felt that Steve was right about this. Thinking from other’s shoes helped Ed to understand and value different opinions.
  4. Pixar was losing money rapidly. It created tension between Ed & Steve and had put Steve under intense pressure. At times, it influenced Steve’s decisions. Ed Catmull felt that Steve had every right to be anxious.

Once you understand the motivations behind your superior’s opinion, you could address that reason rather than targeting his/her ideas. So, the problem was not Steve or his ideas or his personality. It’s about Steve’s hidden anxieties caused by those environmental factors. Ed Catmull had to deal with them. How? He collected information that would address those anxieties and shared them in the meeting. This way, Ed provided clarity and confidence to Steve.

Bringing all the necessary information into the open is an essential requirement for having a constructive dialogue.

Are you finding out the hidden factors behind your superior’s decisions/ideas/suggestions?

In his meetings with Steve Jobs, Ed Catmull would put forth all the required relevant information that supports his ideas/decisions. He believed that the free flow of information was a critical parameter to ensure that the team makes the best decisions.

Many times, Steve had come out with several counter-arguments to dent Catmull’s defense. Ed would listen patiently to those views and think about them. It was a leader’s job to bring out more information, diverse perspectives about the issue into the open.

More the information, the better the decision.

Whenever Steve presents valid counterpoints, Ed Catmull would go back to the drawing board, think deep, and come back with a few more reasons to justify his case. Again, the more the information, the better the decision.

Ed Catmull’s objective was not to convince Steve to accept his decision but bring more information into the open. That’s how you proceed in a dialogue to ensure that the team makes the right decision.

We also have to note that dialogue will not ensure a consensual decision all the time. In Ed’s meeting with Steve, one of the three things happened -

  1. Steve accepts and gives what Ed needed.
  2. Ed would see that Steve was right and stop lobbying
  3. The discussion becomes inconclusive. In that scenario, Ed would just go ahead and do what he had proposed in the first place.

As mentioned earlier, Ed Catmull’s main objective was to get more information/ideas into the open during those meetings. It helped with better choices. Ed wanted to make the best decision & that decision, not necessarily, needs to be his choice.

A dialogue may necessitate the people to invest more time, but it is more than offset by the quality of the decision -From the book ‘Crucial Conversations’.

The research shows -If the employees believe that the decision-making process was fair, then they would be far more willing to commit themselves to the implementation of the resulting decision even if their views did not contribute. A right dialogue gives a perception of a fair process. When there is a dialogue, the participants would feel that they had a genuine opportunity to influence the final decision.

Ed Catmull observed that he and his team were fully committed to executing the idea. It didn’t matter whose concept got approved.

Imagine if there was no dialogue, and Steve had pushed his opinion -What would have happened? The team would have been passively resisting the idea during the execution stage. It would affect the morale of other employees too.

A healthy dialogue guarantees firm commitment from employees in executing the project.

CONCLUSION

Dialogue is a powerful tool to make smart decisions in your office meetings. Think about what is desirable for the company, Avoid Fool’s choice, Understand the reasoning behind other person’s ideas, Be transparent in your opinions, Have a deep respect for people, and bring as much information to the table.

References: Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull, Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler.

Written by

Secular Humanist, Business Growth Consultant, Design Thinker, India. Reach me at mmshah8@gmail.com. or https://www.shahmohammed.com

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