The Most Underrated Strategic Tool

We are all cats in boxes.

This is an analogy I once heard (can’t remember where) which really speaks to me, and has a lot of importance for smart and strategic thinking.

Expanded, the concept is something like this. Imagine you have a cat in a box, with air holes punched in it so it can breathe.  When the cat looks out of those holes, it’s able to get a pretty good idea of the environment surrounding it – but naturally, the picture is incomplete. Now imagine there’s another cat in another box right next to it. It is in exactly the same situation; only out of its holes it can see a slightly different image of the same environment. This means that although the two cats are looking at the same thing, they see different things.

Clearly, these cats are an allegory for our own limited perspective on the world before us. We are all looking at the same thing, but only partially; through random little holes of clarity, with the majority totally obscured.

Just like the cats, if we want to get a more complete and true picture we need to pool our knowledge. We need to add the view another person has through their holes to our own – producing a still imperfect, but markedly more complete picture of reality.

When we fail to do this, we arrive at the root of pretty much all conflict: the assumption that what we see through our holes is “true”, and what others see through their holes is “false”. This then leads to the central paradox at the heart of almost every conflict: that nobody is wrong. In fact, both sides are probably right. They are just looking at things through different “holes”.

(As an aside I think this particular point is a truly powerful one.  When you start to realise that most debates don’t have a “right” side and a “wrong” side and that in fact, both sides are right, you instantly understand them much better.)

In any case, the unavoidable incompleteness of our individual perspectives leads me to the point of today’s piece:

The power of the humble chat.

Yes, I believe that the most powerful and underrated strategic tool that any of us have at our disposal is this – preferably one-on-one, preferably confidential, and preferably informal.

Many people underestimate the power of the chat thanks to its loose, everyday, and “unprofessional” nature.  They prefer instead analysis; workshops; number crunching; exercises; etc. But whilst these often have their place, to me, they are all basically corporate pastiches of the chat. Flawed attempts to add veneers of respectability and science to the real sauce.

Chatting through a problem with someone supercharges your thinking. It is not simply a question of “doubling the amount of information” at your disposal because there are two of you (two cats = double the amount of holes). It’s more like squaring it because the interpersonal dynamic adds new dimensions which you can’t achieve in other contexts.

Consider the following crucial characteristics which only chats have:

1 – They are opinion-based

I’ve referred to opinions before as “dynamic facts” since rather than being the half-truths many people think they are, they are more like approximations of how multiple facts interrelate. This makes them often more powerful than the blunt one-dimensional information favoured by other forms of analysis.  In an informal chat, the currency tends to be largely opinion, and this means it contains a uniquely high-quality form of information – providing you carefully unpick it, and don’t take everything at face value.

2 – They are candid

The workplace (and indeed wider world) is of course ridden with hidden political pressures, expectations, and codes of conduct.  As a result, anything with a whiff of formality about it is likely to become sanitised and diluted to the point of uselessness.  Nobody wants to risk the kind of controversial thinking that actually makes change happen.  In a chat, however (especially when alcohol is involved) these restrictions are removed.  Granted it’s hard to remove them completely if, say, you’re the boss speaking to an employee.  But even so, taking things “off-record” can be powerful in any context.

3 – They induce pressure to perform

Although chats are low pressure in terms of their atmosphere, they are high pressure in another way, and that is pressure to contribute.  When there are only two of you there’s no hiding.  The silence must be filled.  This of course is a big part of the way talking therapy works.  When you’re exposed and forced to talk about yourself, with no way of wriggling out, interesting things will eventually bubble to the surface.  With chats, we can play the same game in a business context.

4 – They are open-ended

Finally, a crucial way this underrated strategy tool differs from their more structured brethren is that they don’t have a destination in mind. They are free-wheeling; perhaps without a well-defined start or a clean and tidy end. Granted this can make them pretty inefficient – lots of red herrings, blind alleys, and rabbit holes. But it also makes them surprising, and surprise is the very essence of strategy.

Speaking for myself, although there are some more formal elements, I place one-on-one chats at the very centre of every strategic project I undertake.  I would say they are responsible for 75%+ of breakthroughs.

No leader with decision-making power should underestimate them.

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