Tough Talk – Why Crucial Conversations are the heart of ITSM adoption


I started the day with great expectations.

We had a new process.

We had spent a lot of time designing and tweaking.

And so I went into my meeting excited to explain the new process. Alas, I was not ready for what was about to happen. Barely ten minutes into the explanation of the process, the first salvo was fired:

“This is not what we do. That will not work.”

The exchange over the process escalated from kind explanation, to defending work steps, to questioning professional ability, to name-calling, and it didn’t end there. Trust eroded and partnerships dissolved. After the meeting (and several antacids), I tried to regroup and figure out what went wrong.

I didn’t realise that I just had the opportunity for a “crucial conversation”.

What is a “crucial conversation”?

The entire meeting interaction bothered me so I did a little soul searching to determine why I felt so bad. In my search for answers, I came across the book “Crucial Conversations”. The liner notes quickly described my meeting. Intrigued, and somewhat skeptical, I bought a copy and started reading.

A crucial conversation (as defined by the book) is “a discussion between two or more people where (1) stakes are high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions run strong.

Any journey undertaken to adopt ITSM has many perils. One of the toughest perils is communication. No matter how well you communicate, there always remains an opportunity for somebody to misinterpret, misunderstand, or change the information provided. When I discuss tough challenges of ITSM adoption with other practitioners, communication issues always rank in the top three. The truly toughest conversations not only exist when talking with the C-level, but in the day-to-day conversations with the teams who convert the vision to reality.

Why are they crucial? Simple, they are the day-to-day conversations that affect your life. Crucial conversations are crucial because a) opinions vary; b) stakes are high; and c) emotions run strong. Crucial conversations can be a service desk agent assisting a customer, a CAB discussing a change request, a service owner discussing a process with operation teams, or DevOps teams planning a release.

The Power of Dialogue

Di•a•logue (dìʹ ð-lôǵʹ)n – the free flow of meaning between two or more people.

We each have opinions, feelings, theories and experiences that shape how we view a topic. As we discuss a given topic, we do not necessarily share the same views as others. We do not have a “shared pool of meaning”. People who have mastered the skill of dialogue make it safe for others to add their meaning to the shared pool and having a shared pool of meaning is a key deliverable for any ITSM project. A shared pool of meeting leads to better discussions, better debate, and better decisions. If we position people to purposefully withhold meaning from the shared pool, individually smart people can do very stupid things. Shared meaning helps teams build synergy.

Time to look in the mirror

The key to good dialogue is heart, specifically your heart. We’ve all grown up with various forms of poor communication during crucial moments in life and/or work – debate, silent treatment, manipulation. Not the best role models or behaviors for important conversations, which is why you must work on your changing your own communication first. While we may want, wish, and desire others to change, the only person you can consistently inspire, prod, and shape is the person looking back at you in the mirror.

What do you want?

When I ask other practitioners what they most want in an ITSM relationship with a teammate, the answer is usually “good partnerships”. Successful ITSM adoption only occurs when everyone believes others are working to help improve the state of their situation (a shared pool of meaning).

In all likelihood, you are going to have moments (both in life and in ITSM) where someone completely disagrees with you. You present a change, like a new process for example, and the person counters with:

“We’ve been doing well for the past x years…this change will just confuse things and make it more difficult to do our jobs.”

You know the change is the right thing for the organization, but how do you make those reluctant to change understand this? In the past, when confronted with this type of situation, I have been defensive, offended, and even arrogant. Of course, those qualities led to failure in getting the change adopted and damaged any future efforts for collaborations with the person.

After reading the book “Crucial Conversations”, I changed how I approach these situations. I now take a step back and ask myself the following questions:

  • What do I really want?
  • What are my motives and are my motives changing as the conversation moves forward?
  • What do I really want for others?
  • What do I really want for the relationship?
  • How do I behave if I really want my desired results?

By asking these questions, we affect our psychology and physiology. We can think differently, look teammates in the eyes, and become genuinely interested in what others have to say. We get away from the old (bad?) habits, which we have been exposed to over the years and instead ask ourselves questions that remind us of our goal(s). This helps our brains stay on a path to focus on achieving said goal(s).

Winning and Losing

We often talk ourselves into the idea that we must win or lose, choose between peace and honesty, or try to find a way to make “everyone happy.” The idea behind Crucial Conversations is that we all need to win. We need to help everyone on our team, in our company, in our family, and in our circle of influence reach the results that make us successful. Crucial conversations are necessary to help people find ways to hold emotional and risky conversations safely and with purpose.

Moving forward

  • Read “Crucial Conversations” by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler
  • Practice, practice, practice

Don’t expect to read the book and then be beautifully successful in all your conversations moving forward. You won’t be perfect on your first attempt, but don’t worry about it. Just like ITSM, your ability to hold crucial conversation is a continuous improvement process. Just be persistent. Doing so should help lead you to better relationships and collaborations.

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2 thoughts on “Tough Talk – Why Crucial Conversations are the heart of ITSM adoption”

  1. Thank you Earl for this blog. As you said, communication is the key – and emotions are just human. My experience is never to go in such a meeting without having agreed with the most important stakeholder. I do not want to have surprises in formal meetings like: “that never works”. So identify your stakehoders, pre-discuss your results and find a consensus. The formal meetings for decisions will then just be a promenade (…)

    1. Martin, thank you for the feedback!

      You raise an very important point. The Japanese call this concept “Nemawashi” ( Just as you described, the Japanese team members will take the idea/change around to the individual stakeholders, thoroughly discuss it, and attempt to gain support well before the main meeting is held. At the main meeting, the idea is then presented for formal agreement. If the team member knows going into the meeting they do not have support, the idea is not brought up for discussion.

      You are correct that nearest neighbor communication needs to occur with all the stakeholders and that is a prime point for crucial conversations to occur.

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