Visualize a flock of birds taking off … they start out heading northwest, as they leave the ground. By about 50 feet in the air they have fallen into formation and, en masse, they suddenly turn southwest and head on their way.

What would have happened if, right on takeoff, some of the birds thought, “Hey, that’s not the right way,” and started going southwest before the flock fell in together? Chaos.

I find this to be a very helpful metaphor for getting a business conversation going. Amanda found us a prospective new client, and she set up a conference call yesterday to introduce this prospect and me. Amanda and I had an idea of what we wanted from the conversation, including the questions we wanted to ask and what topics we hoped to cover. We spent the first few minutes of the conversation “getting in formation,” locking ourselves into a good “trialogue.” Once we got in sync, we were able to “turn southwest” and have a very productive conversation.

(At one point, our prospect’s cell phone disconnected. Once we got back on the phone, we spent about 15 seconds getting back in formation, and then kept “flying.” Easy recovery, since we’d been in sync before the disconnection.)

I can think of plenty of times I didn’t wait to fall into formation before plowing ahead with a conversation.  Maybe I assumed that the other person and I wanted to discuss the same topic.  Maybe I didn’t like the direction the other person took off in, and resisted it.  In every case, however, we had a hard time creating dialogue, and the conversation was not a success.

So, over the next week, as you start business conversations, visualize the flock of birds.  Get into formation first, with you and the other person, or persons, locked in together, before you dive into your topics.  I think you’ll find that you all reach your destination, together.


  • David Porter
    Jul 07, 2009 - 17:15 pm

    Excellent distinction Steve. For me, stopping to think and establish mutual purpose and not presuming I know what the other party is thinking has helped me to become more effective.

  • Ed Markey
    Jul 08, 2009 - 08:05 am

    Pretty timely advice, considering the death of Robert McNamara. The front page obit in the NY Times contained this passage:

    “He had spent decades thinking through the lessons of war. The greatest of these was to know one’s enemy — and to ’empathize with him’…’We must try to put ourselves inside their skin and look at us through their eyes…'”

    Set aside whatever we may think of McNamara, and set aside any forced analogies between business and war. All relationships are enhanced by looking at the moment, the issue, or the relationship itself from the other’s point of view. That makes it much easier to get into formation and be sure the flock is all heading in the same direction.

  • Steve Yastrow
    Jul 09, 2009 - 00:08 am

    David and Ed,

    Thank you both for these insightful comments. Please keep them coming!

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