Friday Rant: Thank You Whit Stillman — Even in Business, Good Dialogue Matters

Last night, I had a planned date night with my wife to see Whit Stillman's latest flick, Damsels in Distress (after writing this post, it was called off because some type of stomach plague is circulating around Chicago, but I do hope to make it this weekend). Stillman is better known for his three earlier movies: The Last Days of Disco, Barcelona and Metropolitan. I've always been a huge fan of Stillman's dialogue and the seemingly heady yet petty conversations his characters are known for. If you're a serious movie person, you either love or hate his work (others usually just don't get it, which probably explains why his movies have such a cult appeal among, like, ten of us).

Personally, I find his flicks all the more captivating because I spent my adolescent and teenage years in perhaps the most quintessentially preppy environment of all, Philadelphia's Main Line. Yet I was as an outsider. And I lived on the wrong side of the tracks. Worst of all, I was, horror of horrors, actually born and raised for the first ten years of my life in the city (despite the prep school pedigree which covers it up, I suppose). In other words, I don't just watch Stillman's characters who would all make Lisa Birnbach (Preppie Handbook) and Paul Fussel (author of Class and Bad, two hilarious books) proud. I think I knew half of them in my youth (as many thumbed their noses at me, no doubt).

Regardless, on the subject of Stillman's movies, what sets them apart from the art of every other screenwriter and director out there is the dialogue and intellectual exchange between his characters in front of the camera. He can take the seemingly trivial and weave an extremely compelling exchange around it. And he does it, again and again and again, such that the broader plot matters almost less than the individual stories that push it along.

His interchanges are anything but tweets, however. They often end up becoming mini-disquisitions. Sometimes they wrap up in a tidy package. Other times they unravel into nothing, losing the interest of the moviegoer -- not to mention those on the screen.

When I think of Stillman, a smile comes to my face because he writes how people should talk if they were to explore a subject in its entirety versus in convenient bullets (or tweets for that matter). He is a man of many words, even if some are chosen better than others. I've come to believe the more I sit in on business meetings, especially the more senior people that are in the room these days, the more we're getting used to either:

  1. Speaking in soundbites or dumbing down our thoughts to fit in on slides (e.g., the healthy appreciation for 12 pt fonts is gone, but it shouldn't be in certain cases).
  2. Interrupting each other (not interrogating) in a manner such that the conversation is reduced rather than improved.
  3. Expecting a plot and story where the sum builds to a broader argument rather than appreciating detours and deep dives along the way to inform and guide.

Stillman's approach to discussion and dialogue flies in the face of the world we operate in today. And I think there's a huge opportunity within procurement, supply chain and other functional business groups to force the level of rigor and intellectualism -- and introspection, for that matter -- Stillman himself forces on his characters. Here are a few ideas his work can teach us about getting more fleshing out the best ideas from those around us (and in our case, they're rarely as trivial!):

  • Consider holding some meetings in a non-traditional yet structured format (remember Parliamentary Procedure -- the structure and rigor can work effectively for a reason!) Why not try such a structured presentation and question/answer model when exploring a topic for review during "lunch and learn" type meetings around such areas as new sourcing strategies, supply risk, influencing stakeholders in sacred cow spend areas, etc. You might even try the accelerated Pecha Kucha format which can have an ironic effect -- even though it compresses arguments into 20 slides presented in six minutes, forty seconds, it often forces a level of analysis and rigor to get it right in which the details matter even more than a tidy package.
  • Encourage your team members to force and defend their ideas and strategies in group sessions, even when those participating might come from other areas of procurement (e.g., category managers in different areas). Offer prizes for those who successfully "interrogate" the best to further the presenter's ideas and conversation.
  • Have an "anti-tweet" month where team members are encouraged to fully flesh out and present their ideas, as expressed in presentations, email, meetings, etc. at a level where depth is valued over brevity (bring on the small fonts and takeaway arrows). No doubt you'll see how going extremely deep into a topic -- and forcing a broader team to do this -- will help surface ideas and discussion that would never have occurred in a world obsessed with rapid responses and incomplete thoughts. Think of this approach as "looking at KPIs of KPIs" as someone once described it.

I believe good dialogue matters when it comes to everything around us. But increasingly, it's a rarity. Perhaps we can all do our small part to change that, not being afraid to foster an environment and workspaces where depth and exploration is valued over the dumbing down of ideas, not for the sake of simplicity alone, but because of an intellectually laziness that feels more and more common in an age of information and analysis where we consume more than ever but rarely take the time to digest at the level we should -- or argue back with the right zinger just for the sake of putting our colleagues into an intellectual pickle from which they must untangle to prove their worth (and the worth of their ideas).

- Jason Busch

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First Voice

  1. elitist:

    This is why procurement and supply chain groups should recruit just as much from the ivies and the top tier liberal arts programs as operations research trade schools (Georgia Tech, Michigan State, Arizona, etc.) Nothing against ’em but the ability to express and argue a complete thought outside of a demand forecast or RFX is not something many of these young grads have. Case study interviews are a start, but not enough to see the true thinker.

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