To Reinvent the Business, Can Your Leaders Have the Right Conversations?

by Evan Smith, Featured Contributor

In November of 2012, HP announced a write down of more than $8B amounting to approximately 80% of the purchase price it paid for Autonomy, the “big data” software-search company acquired in 2011. Autonomy was supposed to help HP reinvent itself – from a last-generation, traditional technology company to one with a new, fast-moving, and cloud-relevant brand. HP wanted this reinvention very much – and paid very dearly for Autonomy as a primary lever in that vision.

The write down – and public charges of fraud and public admissions of soul-searching – have been front and center in the news (New York Times, HP’s former CEO blaming board; Autonomy rebuttal; other news). Any large transaction is complex, with lots of data to digest, many stakeholders, and an array of interests. The breathtaking evaporation of value in this deal is leading to charges of wrongdoing, insinuations of incompetence and blatant self-interest, and other unflattering portrayals by respective parties.

But beyond the forensics of “whodunit” in this case, the effectiveness of HP’s board and executive leadership should be of particular interest for HP’s employees and shareholders in thinking about this work of business reinvention, and of strategy – and all of the important and supporting data-gathering, scenario formulation, and decision-making processes required. In the run-up to doing the Autonomy deal, the stories cited above suggest some dissenting voices, and arguments/data in support of positions which ultimately did not carry the day. HP’s former CEO says now that the board’s support was unanimous. HP’s team and board approved the deal, placing a huge bet – and paid a rich premium for Autonomy at the time. Was this fraud and misrepresentation on the part of Autonomy, as the press is exploring? Was it a failure of due-diligence at HP? Did HP not dig deep enough into the factors that supported acquiring Autonomy, and at such a rich premium? Was this a blind-faith, swing-for-the-fences bet on HP’s part?


Was this a moment when – in a demanding, time-bounded, decisive moment, HP’s board and executive team did not have the capabilities to rise to the demands of the occasion? Was this team ready to create and sustain the kinds of real, deep, rapid, and exploratory dialog needed to effectively evaluate this high-risk deal; ready to deal with the challenges of potentially disconfirming data; and prepared to consider an array of alternative possible scenarios for investing and capturing value?

How might HP’s board and executive leadership have undertaken to create and sustain a deep, rich dialog that fully acknowledged and valued ALL the data, perspectives, and feedback – and how might they have generated a larger or different set of alternatives?  If the board had been able to collectively share a better sense of possibility, and of risk; and had truly been able to create and consider some alternatives to the decision they ultimately made – how much value might they have saved?

Beyond HP and Autonomy

Is your leadership team facing make-or-break decisions about your future, and how do you assess their capabilities in the pressure-cooker of time-bounded decision-making? How should you assess your executive team’s abilities under demands to make high-stakes decisions? Here are a few factors to consider:

What is Past Practice? How much prior practice has the team had in well-rounded, balanced participation, and exploratory, inquiry-focused dialog?

What Diverse Conversational Styles Can the Team Support? How multidimensional are your team’s conversational patterns, practices, and style? How much time does your team spend in exploratory discussions together – compared to highly structured meetings driven by central control and bulleted PowerPoint agendas?

How Does the Team Deal with Dissent?
– What is the team’s history of response to dissenting or disconfirming data and to alternate points of view? Can the team (and the members on it) fully hear, absorb, and process different stories, types of inputs, and alternate hypotheses – or do divergent alternative perspectives become marginalized, bypassed, ignored, or misrepresented: too threatening, perhaps, for the team to explore? Does the team demonstrate sufficient collective attention and patience to really hear the whole story?

– How does the team deal with the tension of conflicting or alternative viewpoints? Is there a rush to resolve the tension – so that all can feel “aligned” and more comfortable? Does the tension dissolve into unproductive conflict? OR, does the team have the tenacity and patience to stay with the tension, until it has fully processed the value and the “energy” that the tension can offer?

What are Levels of Trust on the Team? What are the objective (outside the team) and subjective (executive self-reported) levels of trust and transparency that the team demonstrates – and what do members withhold?

What are Individual Capabilities and Capacities? To what extent can individual members of the team contemplate and reflect on their own rational and emotional responses to given circumstances – and share these with each other?

At the core of any successful change effort in dynamic circumstances, with potentially confusing and contradictory information the coin of the realm, senior teams need extraordinarily well developed, emotionally mature, and information-rich patterns of conversation. These capabilities, behaviors, and patterns require nurturing, practice, and experience; and they are not “individually-owned”, but built by the team as a whole with shared experience in dialog – like a foundation, built brick-by-brick, one learning experience at a time.

What are the capabilities, behaviors, and patterns of senior team conversation and decision-making that you see in your organization? Which help support decision speed and/or quality in the work you’re undertaking – and which impede these outcomes?


Evan Smith
Evan Smith
EVAN is a select member of our "BizProphets" Thought Leadership Panel, a principal with Metamorphosis Management Group, a Director with Carriage Hill, and carries operating roles in several other companies. He trained as an industrial engineer who took deep dives into the social sciences, exploring the essence of what makes people "tick" - and has been helping leaders to deliver business growth and other measurable results through successful organizational and individual change for more than 20 years. Consulting clients have included major pharmaceutical, medical devices, financial services, chemical, automotive, technology, energy, and professional services companies, among others – and startup/ mid-market growth ventures. He’s based near New York City.

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