OWNER'S MANUAL

Why the Italians Hated Me, and Could Hate You, Too

The world may be flat...but it's not that flat. Unfortunately for me.
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Granted, "hate" might be a strong word...but it sure felt like it.

An Italian manufacturing conglomerate asked me to help improve productivity at one of its plants. I spent three days and nights on the floor and developed a number of recommendations to present to the leadership team.

I was eager to prove my worth, so I led with a bang. "Let's jump right in," I said. "First, you should funnel every short-run job requiring major equipment changeovers to one production line. While you will reduce efficiency on that line, your overall productivity should increase by at least 6%. Then I would..."

"Wait," one executive interrupted. "Please explain how you made that determination. What data did you use?"

"I promise I'll get to that in a second," I said. "For now..."

Another exec spoke up. "Historical data is useful, but tell me how you factored in potential changes in customer specifications."

"We'll cover that in just a moment," I said. "But if we could just..."

A department manager raised his hand. "How did you assess the relative skill levels of different crews to see how that could impact the changes you describe?"

My "bang" was a dud. I got frustrated. Worse, they got frustrated. Felt like they hated me.

Yay, me.

According to Erin Meyer, a professor at INSEAD and author of a superb (and I don't use that word lightly) new book, The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, their frustration wasn't their fault.

It was my fault.

***

First some background. There are two basic styles of reasoning:

  • Principles-first reasoning derives conclusions or facts from general principles or concepts. Basically you first establish the "why" before you move to the "what."
  • Applications-first reasoning is when general conclusions are reached based on factual observations. Basically you start with the "what" and then--maybe--move to the "why."

Me? I'm an applications-first kind of guy. To me the "good stuff" was what we would do. How we got there was certainly important...but definitely secondary.

To my Italian audience, though, how I got there was their first concern. They weren't willing to consider my "good stuff" until I proved they could trust I actually had good stuff.

Why? Much of the reasoning lies in the difference between our respective countries' educational systems. Both get to the same place but take a very different path.

Generally speaking, schools in countries like the U.S., Canada, and the UK tend to spend 80% of their time focusing on how to apply a tool and 20% of their time explaining its conceptual underpinnings--they take an applications-first approach.

Other school systems in countries like Spain, Portugal, and Germany, and in Latin America tend to spend 80% of their time covering general principles and only 20% of their time on how to apply those principles--they take a principles-first approach.

Unfortunately for me, the list of principles-first countries also includes Italy.

***

And that, aside from my spectacular inability to read the room, is why my presentation failed. Based on the needs of my audience--which is the only thing that ever matters--my approach was backward.

Instead of leading with my conclusions, the better approach for this audience would have been to:

  1. Introduce the scope of my presentation
  2. Describe my methodology, the data used, the assumptions made, and the potential limitations of my analysis
  3. Ask if anyone had questions about my methodology etc.
  4. And then share my recommendations, when necessary tying each back to the specific data and analysis used to arrive at my recommendations.

Granted you might be thinking, "No way. Lay it out that way and you lose me halfway through item No. 1. Don't get right to the point and I'll assume there is no point... and I'm checked out."

If you feel that way, then the way you like to process information is different. Not right. Not wrong.

Just different.

***

So how do we deal with those differences? Say you need to implement a change.

Some of your employees may be totally "American." They expect you to get to the point and tell them what will happen. They will quickly tune you out if you spend too much time up front on explanation and analysis and background. What they most want to know is what will change (and how they will be affected by those changes).

The "why" stuff is, well, kind of boring.

Some of your employees may be totally "Italian." First, they expect to find out why you're making the change. They want to hear the background. They want to understand. Only then will they listen closely to what the actual changes will be.

To them, "why" is everything. Without sufficient "why" you will never get their buy-in...or earn their trust.

But most of your employees fall somewhere along the continuum of preferred reasoning and persuasion styles: a few near the extreme ends, most falling somewhere between.

Individually, it's easy to tailor your communication to meet each person's needs (as long as you know each person well enough to understand his or her needs... which you should because that's your job).

Some will care deeply about why; others will only want to know what; most prefer a blend of reasoning and application. To persuade, convince, and gain buy-in, tailor your message to meet each individual's specific needs.

But what should you do in a group setting?

Here's what Meyer says:

"The best strategy is to cycle back and forth between theoretical principles and practical examples. Provide practical examples to capture the interest of your applications-first listeners. The principles-first participants will enjoy them also.

"But you may find the latter asking theoretical questions and, while you are answering them, the applications-first learners get board. Try ignoring their boredom for a moment. Avoid the temptation to push away conceptual questions as you risk sacrificing the interest and respect of your principles-first audience.

"Instead, take the time to answer the questions well and then quickly provide a couple of practical examples to recapture the waning attention of the applications-first learners.

"If you are aware of the (different ways people reason) and the challenges it presents, you can read the cues from your audience more clearly and react accordingly."

And that's what I failed to do. My audience asked for--okay, demanded--more data, more analysis, and more explanation. I should have immediately shifted gears and responded to their needs.

But I didn't. I tried to force them to stick to my script. I kept trying to get to what I saw as the good stuff.

Big mistake since the best audience is an engaged audience and this audience definitely wanted to engage...but I failed to meet them on their terms.

Think I'm wrong? Look at some of the best Steve Jobs presentations. He built layers of facts and emotions...while weaving in possibilities and practicalities...until everyone in the audience had a reason to not just pay attention but also care...and then he sprang the solution: the iPod, the iPhone, iTunes, the iPad.

Jobs painstakingly crafted presentations that made everyone in the audience, regardless of background, genuinely care--both about the reasons and about the solutions.

When you hope to engage, when you hope to inform and persuade and convince, what you say is important, but how you say it, how you structure your message, can make all the difference.

To "Americans," to "Italians," to everyone--regardless of "nationality."

IMAGE: William Marlow/Flickr
Last updated: Jul 11, 2014

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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