Discussions don't matter? Think again

By Kim-Mikael Arima on May 17, 2018 3:31:56 PM

”Oh, so this is just for discussions”. The look on her face combined with the tone of voice told me that Karen* would never understand what I consider to be the most important part of our product.

"Just discussions?"

What Karen then unveiled to me was a great example of a certain mindset that’s become so dominant in the business circles in Western world that few people even realize it exists. I’m talking about our fixation with documents.

You see, we’ve mixed abstraction with the real thing. A business strategy equals a powerpoint presentation. A customer meeting equals a log in CRM. Health equals washboard abs in Instagram. A great trip equals a few staged photos in Facebook.

I could go on, but you get the point.

In this worldview, discussions are being documentified: first an agenda, then some slides to talk about, decisions neatly documented in minutes, and finally a list of next actions. We’re missing the forest for the trees.

To paraphrase Jaron Lanier, my favorite dreadlock-wearing-AI-guru, another person is an unexplored well of difference in the experience of living. A discussion is one of the best tools to explore that well that separates you. Because who knows what you’ll find: life-changing epiphanies, disruptive business innovations - even love. But the point is that you don’t know that going in.

The value in discussions

A long time ago I had a summer romance with a beautiful, brash blonde. It didn’t last long: she broke up with me, explaining that it would never work out because she was studying abroad. I disagreed, but understood. (Actually she dumped me twice in that one summer, but that’s another story. Now where was I…)

We stayed in touch. When she was visiting Finland, we would go out for pizza. Not because we had anything going, but because we liked to talk. I remember my friends giving me crap at the time. ”What are you hoping to achieve with that?” I wasn’t hoping to achieve anything, and that was the point.

Ten years later, that blonde - still beautiful as ever, but a bit less brash perhaps - and I are happily married, with two adorable daughters. ”Just discussions” over pizza turned out to have been the most meaningful and impactful interactions of my life.

I know what you’re going to say. ”That’s a nice story Kimi, but business is different. You need to have an agenda, you need to stick to it, you have to make decisions and agree on next steps. And whatever you do, make sure you keep the group small, otherwise all hell will break loose”.

But you know what? That sounds like the stuff that will be increasingly handled by AI in the future. What makes us human is our ability to have non-linear discussions, to toss the rules and go with our gut, to be bold. Emotion, empathy, and innovation.

Towards a more social future

I see a shift happening in organizations. Realizations that in an unstable environment processes can quickly turn into liabilities. The sudden flash of ”we need a company-wide discussion”. But the last time you had a company-wide discussion was when you were 50 people. And now you’re 5,000. And all the software and tools you have in the company are just supporting fixed business processes.

Sound scary? Don’t worry, I’m always happy to have a discussion.

So what happened in my discussion with Karen? I realized it was never going to work out, so I steered the discussion in another direction, we parted ways 15 minutes ahead of schedule, and I used that time to outline this blog post. As I said, you never know what might come out of a discussion.

*to protect the sanity of the people I talk with, the name and gender has been changed. Maybe.