If I find myself in the boardroom of a company that I am only vaguely familiar with, and I am asked to consult on a problem that I am only just learning about, I find it is useful to keep some basic approaches in mind:
Approach 1:: Ramming Your Square Peg Into Their Circular Hole
Although this is the silliest form of consulting it is often exactly what is expected of you. It comes from the notion that an idea is more valuable than the process by which the idea was generated. In this case you have been brought in because someone in the company has heard about your IDEA and thinks that your IDEA might be valuable in solving a problem that the company is facing. The success of these consultations depends more on the judgment of the person that invited you than it does on the quality of your idea. You are expected to explain your idea and then repeatedly frame their problem from the perspective of your idea. Sometimes it is a perfect fit, while other times you will struggle to spark a glimmer of synergy that you hope will burn just long enough so that you can get back to the airport.
Approach 2 :: Repeating Only What You Understand
This approach is painfully simple but is often more effective than (1). Here you might explain the IDEA that got you in the door only to the extent that it makes people in the room respect you as someone who is intelligent and open minded. Then you say that your IDEA might apply, but that you would first like each person in the room to explain exactly what they think the problem is. You will find that certain aspects of the problem cause people’s voices to trail off at the end of long rambling sentences. When everyone is finished, repeat the problem back eliminating anything you didn’t understand. Rinse and repeat. This helps isolate the confusing parts of the problem and allows you to tackle those confusing parts from the perspective of what is understood, rather than letting confusion co-mingle with clarity.
On a side note, psychologists use a different sort of repetition to negotiate communication problems between individuals. One person begins by stating what they perceive to be the problem. The second individual is asked to repeat back what they heard. Often the first attempt is not a repetition, but rather an interpretation. For example: “I think you don’t respect my ideas” is repeated back as “You think that I should stop whatever I’m doing whenever you want something done”, instead of “You think I don’t respect your ideas”. Individuals are asked to go back and forth until they focus only on what is being said and nothing else. I have never mediated this sort of approach, but have heard it works quite well.
Approach 3 :: Riding The Elephant In The Room
Sometimes you might get the feeling that the problem that is being articulated isn’t the real problem. This often happens when there is something distasteful that people are uncomfortable bringing up – for example a negative attribute of a product being marketed, or a tough relationship with an outside person or team. It can be tempting to try and bring these issues directly into the open by yourself, but this can be jarring and counterproductive. It’s better to find a way to get the rest of the room to do the talking for you. One thing I have tried (and wish I could try more often) is joke writing. First I talk about the process of finding humor in a thing – for example using exaggeration, inverting relationships, finding metaphors and puns, increasing stakes, or switching contexts. Then everyone is asked to brainstorm and extend jokes about the project using these guidelines. The room is “safe” in that none of the information leaves, but it is also agreed that no personal information is to be used. In the search for funny, taboo subjects become excellent fodder – those subjects are the areas where the most tension is ready to be released. After the room has loosened a bit, and some themes have emerged, you can point them out and try and tackle them directly.