On Getting Ideas Across

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I recently read Obama’s Wars, a book authored by Bob Woodward, the famed Washington Post reporter who, alongside Carl Bernstein, broke the Watergate Scandal that eventually toppled President Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States, in 1974. This reporting produced the №1 Bestsellers, All the President’s Men and The Final Days. The book, All the President’s Men, was subsequently made into a multiple Academy Award-winning movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein.

Obama’s Wars covered the first year and half of the Barack Obama presidency, detailing how the young and inexperienced president confronted the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan inherited from President George W. Bush and the intrigues and back-and-forth machinations between the military and political apparatchik in Washington and in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

The negotiations and discussions that were detailed in the book were high stakes and intense, not unlike the typical intra-organizational situation. After spending the better part of a week reading this insightful book, I pondered on how the lessons of war stratagem illustrated in the pages could be applied directly to solving critical problems in business. I sought at once to make these lessons relevant to planning and presentations that are common in most organizations. While the lessons were inexhaustible, I picked out seven lessons that particularly stood out to me.

1. Do your homework: Before a meeting, negotiation, interview or interaction that may have an effect on your future or that of your organization, be sure to have done your homework on what the true nature of the problem is, the present state of affairs surrounding that problem, the wide range of existing and potential solutions, and the challenges limiting the adoption of those solutions. Your recommendation can only then be made with a reasonable degree of confidence, with it being the optimum solution.

As Christian Bonilla, the author of Smart Like How says, “If you want to stand out in a crowded field, find the information others have missed. Be the person who understands your market, the competitors, the customers and the investors better than anyone else. You want the best mental map of your environment that you possibly can.”

You should be able to foresee any potential loopholes in your analysis and recommended solution, and ensure that these are sufficiently minimized. Also suggesting appropriate mitigation procedures would put you at a vantage point. The end-goal should be to provide maximum value at all times.

2. Understand your audience: Audiences vary and the manner in which you present your ideas should also vary with the situation you find yourself in. In meetings with superiors to discuss an ongoing project, for example, you would not only be required to analyze problems but also proffer solutions which solve the problems. In other situations, a mere diagnosis of the problem may be what is required, especially if you have not earned the professional standing to offer informed opinions on advanced solutions.

Proffering solutions in such a situation might lead to you being viewed as a charlatan and an upstart, and such an image can ruin your chances of career progression in that organization. Starting from a point of agreement with your audience and then progressing through to the point of uncertain opinions helps in getting them to see your point of view, when you eventually present it.

3. Be aware of politics and competing interests: In organizations, there are always certain winds of interest blowing in directions you may not be immediately aware of. Say you are having a board meeting with individuals who are not well disposed to you and are actively seeking for a way to undermine your work and facilitate your departure, making smart, hard-hitting recommendations, although built on accurate bases, might only serve to further acerbate their feelings towards you.

You have to know that you have the sufficient goodwill to sway your listeners before making any far-reaching contributions. If you are alert enough to these winds, you can switch your strategy accordingly and avoid putting yourself in a tight hole, from which there are few ways out. While this is the case, do not switch strategy at the expense of your professionalism. In certain cases, politics is the enemy of strategy.

4. Be clear in presenting your ideas: At the start of your pitch, you should have a clear idea of the sequence in which you want your ideas to flow. A fluid talk, with the key points following each other in a way that is connected and easily understandable, is the key to great communication. The statement of the problem should always come before solution.

I would suggest that you adopt the Assert-Reason-Evidence (ARE) strategy popularly employed in British Parliamentary debates, in which you state your position, the reasons for your position and then tender evidence to back up your position. Use of simple grammar is important for the intended communication taking place. Do not complicate things. Sounding verbose and ambiguous may only succeed in putting off your listeners rather than impressing them.

As Steve Jobs once said, “that’s been one of my mantras ‒ focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” Walt Whitman put it even simpler when he declared that “simplicity is the glory of expression.”

5. Focus on the facts: Emotions often hinder the ability to accurately present cogent arguments. They becloud your ability to be coherent and present you as naïve and easily riled up. Being able to separate your emotions from the work at hand helps you deliver more accurate and effective analysis. Do not believe that you are right until you are sure the details match up.

It is essential to base your analyses and conclusions on universally agreed premises. Do not start a presentation or an argument or negotiation on a faulty premise or theoretical scenarios. Always be grounded in reality, on the problems being faced and the feasibility of the solutions you are proposing. Your reasoning should be evidence-based. Avoid pipe-dreams illustrated with charts and abstract ratios.

6. Avoid taking positions based on popularity: The key to a great presentation of a solution is the willingness to question everything. Nothing is too sacred to be investigated. Conviction without rigor is a strategy for disaster. Just because an idea is popular with others does not make it sound. Thus, holding positions without examining the foundations on which they stand not only portrays intellectual naiveté but could also lead to personal and organizational losses, down the line.

Absence of rigorous analysis during key decision-making periods has led to the fall of many organizations. Trends come and go and it is important to keep in mind that while staying ahead of trends is necessary for any sound organization, the role of fundamental analysis cannot be overstated. So, before adopting the popular idea and giving it your own spin while making a presentation, ensure that you have sufficiently checked the underlying assumptions. Be cautious of herd thinking. That could determine whether you have a successful career or not.

7. Always keep sight of your end goal: Start by identifying the end goal of your solution. At what point would the project be completed? What is the definition of victory or success? Are these realistic? What is required to achieve these? When can they be achieved? What are the challenges that may be faced?

Never deploy finite means in pursuit of indefinite ends. Always set realistic timelines to every project or solution you are proposing. The refusal to define a precise end and link this to the proper means demonstrates the challenge of proper strategic reasoning. Know that the buck stops at your table if things do not work out as you estimated. In the bid to make agreeable submissions, do not resort to the lazy habit of confirmation bias, finding only facts that agree with the intent and opinions of those higher up the chain of command. This would only lead to rotation of the same faulty solutions that led to the problem you were trying to solve.

Do all the necessary foundational research whenever you have the opportunity to pitch an idea or a solution to a pressing problem. Understand your audience so as to make your solution and your presentation relevant to them. Always be aware of politics and competing interests, if it is an organizational setting, and be clear in presenting your ideas. While presenting, focus on the facts and avoid adopting positions just because those are the popular trends. And through it all, always keep sight of your end goal. The objective of doing all of these is to provide well-reasoned and clearly expressed solutions to problems in a manner that is easily understood and effective.

Doing this consistently would increase your professional standing and enhance your ability to use your talents and skills in a way that does justice to them. This would only serve to elevate your problem-solving abilities, with each passing day. Always keep in mind that the only outcome that is inevitable, without proper action, is failure. These are the lessons I picked up while reading a book on war.