decode the language of the meeting room

The universal boardroom language pays dividends for those who can decode it, so here’s a crash course

The purpose of the Whitehall and Industry Group is to encourage and facilitate greater cooperation, understanding and learning across the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. There is a misconception that these three entities speak a different language. They don’t. Let me explain.

There are only four themes that an organization talks about, and there are only three fundamental topics in each of them. The challenge is simply to identify what is discussed and therefore understand what is not discussed (often a more interesting discovery and a great way to impress colleagues in meetings). Let me tell you about it and you can try it for yourself.

The four themes, or pillars, are: Strategy, Risk, Priorities and People; taking each in turn.

Strategy is the “ends”, the “ways” and the “means” often cited. Or, to put it another way, the application of resources in such a way as to achieve a desired result or objective. So, for example, a conversation about a fundamental change in goals immediately raises questions about the necessary means and changes in plan to achieve the new outcome.

Risk takes into account the questions “what now?” “, ” and then ? and “what if?” Risk is both the threat posed or the opportunity presented by possible events. We are all used to dealing with risks through mitigation measures etc., but the time element is often overlooked. The same goes for the strength of probability against the analysis (not just the data) available. Therefore, a conversation about a “what if?” possibility that crowds out a “what next?” the analysis is obviously worthy of a question. For example, perhaps a debate about setting aside “means” to mitigate a possible trade threat three years from now would seem misplaced if the prospect of higher interest rates was not raised.

Priorities can also be thought of as issues labeled “dodge”, “fight for”, or “forget”. Where can we compromise? Where are the red lines? And what can we stop doing? A decision that is often difficult but ultimately almost always necessary to square the circle of “ends, ways and means”.

People cover ‘task’, ‘team’ and ‘individual’, to borrow John Adair’s timeless Venn diagram of action-centered leadership. These are the nature of the task, the formation of the team and the requirements of the individual. Often this focuses on the expertise required, but also has everything to do with leadership and development. This theme has a close relationship with ‘means’, ‘what next?’

So there is a common ground and vocabulary for one organization to understand and communicate with another. This allows us to deal with even the most baffling company or departmental verbiage, such as: “The ‘front first’ strategy will seek to capitalize on the inherent strengths of the organization, while allowing for the kind of agility we need to react to the future environment, it will generate the ability to focus on the core elements of our unique results as well as sustain the activity critical to our purpose.

In the face of such assertions, we can unstick the essentials of the altered paths (if there are no more “means”, then what is “faked” or “forgotten” – or the “ends” have they also been modified?). Other helpful areas include a sense of doubling down on “striving for” items as well as a clear signal about which items will need to be “forgotten” and the implications for “teams” to deliver agility.

Next time you’re in a meeting, try playing meeting room bingo. Draw a chart with our four themes on one side and the three related topics in rows next to each. Listen carefully and circle the combinations being discussed.

What will jump out at you are the areas that are not covered. In no time, you can impress your colleagues and annoy the president with questions like “do we have the extra resources to build the teams needed for this, if we don’t plan to compromise around our delivery approach?” “.

You can also attend a WIG event and test your new language skills in another industry. You’ll be fluent in no time!

Whitehall and Industry Group is an independent, non-lobbying charity that seeks to stimulate learning and collaboration between industry, government and the not-for-profit sector