How to bring transparency to, ‘That’s Not What We Wanted!’

We’ve all been there. You’ve worked hard to develop the presentation or proposal. During the meeting there’s shuffling of feet. Suddenly, a member of the team says, ‘This is interesting, but…’Presentation. Briefing. Alignment. Solution Focus

The presenter of the bad news has only mild awareness that likely this situation arose because they were, a) under skilled at briefing, and/or b) the project briefing and its context have changed.

In a world of increasing transparency, we still work with the fallacy that when the customer (your boss, a client, etc.) asks you (the manager, supplier, etc.) to address a goal or answer a problem, that your initial proposal will be the right solution.

Why does this happen? The art of giving good briefings is lost on some. Plus, change is constant. The time between a briefing and the presentation may only be a few days, but it’s subject to constant change. And, few projects involve only one stakeholder – just think of the changes going on around each stakeholder. All of this undermines what you were told in the briefing (vs. an information dump!).

Hence, when you present your ideas, there’s a good chance that what you show makes the key decision maker and/or some of the stakeholders fearful, i.e., that they will have to implement it, or that it will conflict with their own emergent strategies and tactics.

Using Solution Focus how do you, the presenter, a) respond, b) help the client (internal or external) to avoid this happening again?

1. How to respond to ‘That’s not what we wanted!’

Don’t fold. Their perceptions or the specs may have changed, but there’s still value in what you brought to the table. After all, they may have gotten some of the brief right! Rather than trying to justify the solution you brought, or worse becoming defensive (remember, it’s their problem!), try this approach:

a)     Ask them to clarify what they meant by, ‘not wanted.’ Sometimes people overreact when they see what they asked for. Just let them speak and don’t respond.

b)     Refresh them on the original briefing, but don’t open up a debate about it.

c)      Ask, ‘What parts of the proposal do work for you?’ relative to the briefing. If the answer is ‘nothing,’ try scaling 1-10 the various elements (1 is worst, 10 is ideal). The parts that get better numbers should be noted. Make sure you hear the different stakeholder perspectives – that will help them see what they have in common and their conflicting perspectives

d)      Ask, ‘Thinking of what’s not working, what would it look like if they were to get better?’ This will encourage them to clarify what they originally wanted and what’s changed.

2. How to help the customer avoid giving you a thin brief next time they request your thinking (and a lot of your time)

Take a leadership position and assume that it’s your job to help them give you a good briefing. Instead of an information session, make the briefing process an outcomes clarifying experience.

a)  During the briefing ask, ‘What’s working (relative to the project) that we don’t have to fix?’ And, ‘What’s the one barrier that we have to overcome?’

b) Make sure you get the perspectives of each the key stakeholders. For stakeholders not present at the briefing, ask the briefing person/team, ‘How would you see that working for your other stakeholders?’

c)  Ask, ‘Suppose we are successful in not only bringing you a good proposal, but implementing it so it’s a success – what would be different/better?’ Again, from each stakeholder perspective

d)  Ask, ‘Suppose during the proposal development period things changed, how would you see yourself handling that so that our proposal continued to align with your circumstances?’ And, ‘Suppose we check in with you to see what progress/change is happening how would you see that being useful to you?’

Why does this approach work? Because we take responsibility for helping people making a request are clear on not only what they are asking for, but also the outcomes that they seek. Hence, greater transparency.

The oldest line about the client/supplier is that they can never fully align. Use Solution Focus better questions to help your customer increase the likelihood of sustained alignment in an infinitely changing world.

More about better briefings and presentations in my book, ‘Monkey Free Meetings.’


2 thoughts on “How to bring transparency to, ‘That’s Not What We Wanted!’

  1. James T Pereira

    Hi Alan,
    Your paragraph that contains, “never fully align”, really hit home.

    Just yesterday, a client decided to terminate a website project after 2 months of work because he felt, his concept of classy and mine could never merge!

    For two months, he never gave any feedback (although I always checked in with him) and just told me to do what I felt was right and then suddenly snapped. And the weird part was that this guy is a coaching skills trainer – no feedback until the end.

    Guess this world is made up of many complicated characters.

    1. Alan Kay

      Yes, we often wish we could either avoid or ‘educate’ this sort of client, don’t we!
      There’s an academic piece (somewhere on my hard drive!) that I read years ago which points out that since people started digging salt out of the ground, selling it to trader who then sold it into the distribution chain in some distant place, supplier / client alignment has been an issue. I’ve always said that in consulting services if the client could tell
      you exactly what they wanted they could probably to do it themselves. Since becoming a Solution Focus advocate and practitioner I have practiced asking better questions at the briefing stage knowing that the questions drive up client trust and that the project brief will likely be emergent for some time.
      I’ve also urged job-seeking people to use Gail Miller and John Briggs job interview approach using Solution Focus. It’s the same issue – the interviewer may not know what they are looking for so the interviewee has to ask better questions.

Comments are closed.