“Communication is what the listener does.” — Marc Hortsman
A boss once that told me “I dread reading your e-mails.” I asked him why. He told me that it took him too long to read them.
I thought I was providing the detail he needed to understand what I was thinking. Or why I was making a particular recommendation or decision. I was trying to communicate clearly. Instead I was confusing him by providing too much detail and burying the key points at the bottom or even the middle of the e-mail.
I’d forgotten it wasn’t about me. It was about getting my message to him in a way that was easiest for him. In this case putting the Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) solved the problem.
For complicated issues I could still write out everything I needed to think through the problem. That’s the way I prefer to communicate and think. Then, when I was done, I’d take the last paragraph or sentance, and put it at the front of the email.
Then he could say “Got it, I don’t have to read the rest of this.” Or he could skim my supporting materials to figure out what I was trying to get across.
Usually, however, we would talk in his office. This was his preferred method of communication. He asked questions to get the clarity he needed, and go to the level of detail appropriate to him. Usually this was faster than me writing and him reading a long, drawn-out e-mail, and he was happier and better informed.
Seventh and last in a series about communication and change management.
I’ve got a lot of renovation projects started around my house. We installed hardware floors eight years ago, and still haven’t put the baseboards in. I know it was eight years because the night we put the last nail in is the night my god-daughter was born. In fact, we baby-sat her older sister while Mom & Dad (who’d been helping us) went to the hospital to deliver their latest.
The outside of the house is half painted, the garage needs new gutters, and I have the bricks but not the sand to re-lay the back patio so that it slope away from the house instead of towards it. I started that job when I took the old wooden patio out. I don’t remember how many years ago that was.
There’s lots of things we could be doing, and yet nothing seems to get done. We’ve gone from doing a little here (let’s get an estimate on finishing the tiling on the back landing) to doing a little there (oops, the playhouse needs repair! Let’s turn it into a garden shed while we’re at it – the kids are all grown up and don’t need it anymore.)
It’s demoralizing really. Lots of activity, no sense of progress. Companies and teams can suffer from the same organizational schizophrenia. When everything is important, then nothing is important, and nobody is clear about what to do next.
Fix #7 Focus
There’s a saying about how the cobbler’s children go barefoot because he’s too busy making shoes for everybody else. So I took my own advice. I stepped back to figure out what I was trying to accomplish over all. Then I picked one thing to do to get me closer to that.
Sooner or later we’re going to need to sell the house we’re in. The kids will all be moved out soon. The house is too big for just the two of us. Maybe we’ll find a little place out in the country. Or the mountains. Or maybe next to a slow-moving river in a little valley out on the prairie.
Regardless, we’re going to need to get our investment plus maybe a little extra out of it. We were never going to get there if we kept doing the same thing we are now, which is trying to come up with the perfect plan and budget.
Pick One Thing
We picked one project and we’re focused on that. We’re installing the baseboards, re-painting the wall, and moving around some furniture and pictures. Then we can get our offices set up, and get some extra closet space to make the kitchen more livable. But the baseboards are going in. We’ve spent the last two weekends working, and the progress is tangible. At the end of today the pronouncement was “Let’s keep going!
It is so easy to plan everything out to the Nth degree, and let slip the time we could actually be doing things. Time is the one thing we cannot run down to the hardware store and get more of.
Decisions are Expensive
Making decisions is expensive. Holding two competing ideas, alternatives, or options in your brain at the same time, and choosing between them, costs the brain a lot of energy. Our ability to make quality decisions degrades with each subsequent decision during the day. Save your decision making energy for when you really need it. Once you’ve made a decision, act on it!
“Do Not Do” List
Leader’s make decisions. Those decision include what not to do. And that has to be communicated as explicitly as what you are going to do. What if you made a “Not” list? List all the things that you’re not going to do? If need be, you can even make a “Later” list, as in “This might be next, but I’m not going to spend time and energy thinking about it now.”
Start With the End in Mind
Have a vision for where your company / team / organization is going. Then pick something, usually the most urgent “do now” stuff, and get it done. Something that if you focused on it for a set time would give you the best chance of getting closer to your goal. Give yourself a deadline. Remove all other distractions. Then do it until it’s done. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Focus precedes success, which generates momentum, energy, enthusiasm, and that elusive “employee engagement”.
Sixth in a series about communication and change management
We can’t manage time.
We can’t manage five minutes and turn it into six. We can’t manage information overload – if we tried our heads would explode every time we walked into a library. We don’t manage priorities, we have them.
We can decide what to focus on and how we spend our time.
Those things we choose to spend our time and attention on are more likely to be successful than those we don’t. Yet some of us seem determined to try to do everything that comes along, whether or not it aligns with our work and our lives. There may be many reasons for this behaviour. The result is often stress, failure, and shame.
You can’t create more time. You have to budget the time you we do have. Decide what you must, should, and want to do with your time. More importantly decide what you’re NOT going to do.
If your objective is to make a program or initiative fail, then you don’t need to make the sometimes difficult decisions about what other things you’re not going to spend your time and attention on. Just let it happen by default. Because you’re too busy.
Here’s the paradox. As managers we get things done through other people. Managing people take a lot of time and effort. Maybe even more than managing ourselves. Which can be a pain. If people did what they were supposed to, being a leader would be a lot easier.
One of things that can’t get ignored by default are the human relationship aspects of your job. I think it should be near the top, in fact. You can’t ignore the people part, building trust, and then get mad when the projects executed by those people fail.
There’s no point in being so busy that you don’t check in on a project, program, or initiative only to find out in the last two weeks of a three month effort that you’re two months away from finishing it. Now you’re going to be spending the next two weeks pulling that particular set of chestnuts out of the fire. While you ignore your other work. Tell me again why we’re so busy?
Fix #6 Have a Rhythm
Clear responsibilities, hysterical transparency, and regular reviews drive accountability. Getting things done doesn’t mean doing everything yourself. Getting things done means planning and delegating the work, keeping track of progress on a regular basis, and reporting on that progress.
Consider maintaining a”relationship” with the projects you’re accountable for, as well as the people you work with. Regular, habitual check-ins, meetings, or status updates are the best means of keeping a project on track.
Establish a rhythm lets you stay up-to-speed on what’s happening with all the work and your team. Ideally once a week. Once a day if that’s appropriate for a critical, complex, or large project.
If your check-ins are once a week, and the work is more than two weeks in duration, then break the work into two week chunks. With tangible, deliverable results at the end of each. This could be a report, a presentation, a manufactured good, a software release, a construction milestone, a signed contract, etc. Something real.
Two weeks is a nice way to break up the time. In the first week something should be started, and in the second they should have finished. Now you can verify progress. There is a report, a presentation, or other work product the shows progress. Not started? Okay – what’s the hold up? Finished now? Good – where’s the deliverable?
This is one example of how to design a project to provide the clear responsibilities and transparency.
You can deliberately build in the rhythm that allows you to manage, direct, and oversee the work. Or you can spend more time later cleaning up the mess. Your choice.
Fifth in a series about communication and change management
I love words. As a child when I discovered books, that became my world. It’s where I escaped to. I write daily. I journal. I have plans to write a book. I love the smell of books. I have a library that I measure in hundreds of linear feet. Some books go back to the late 18th century.
It’s a lovely place. Coffee on, music in my ears, typewriter keyboard under my hands. Or a new book on my e-reader. When I learn or process I usually do it through words. Words are beautiful. Words are powerful. Words are magical.
Yet I’m closing myself off from most of the world. Not everybody has a sensual association with the written word like I do. Saying that out loud it seems that might be a good thing. My point is, not everybody processes the world through words. There are five senses, not just eyes scanning shapes laid out linearly.
Words are a visual media, yes, but there are also photographs, drawings, and pictures. Movies, models, and sculptures. There are many visual media, and many different ways to understand the world. The best writing (and speaking), in fact, invokes the visual in concrete and tangible ways.
Fix #5 Appeal to All Five Senses
Learn to tell compelling stories. Tell them in different ways. Consider all the senses. Persuasive, moving arguments invoke all five senses and more. They invoke memory and emotion. We act because of how they make us feel.
I saw one of the worst examples of killing all enthusiasm for a great idea at an after-dinner presentation last week, in which a simple story from the audience rescued the evening.
The presentation was on workforce management. The slides that accompanied the presentation looked like a random collection of numbers and letters thrown at the page. The presenter read from the slides. It was horrible.
I felt sorry for the poor guy. He was trying to jazz things up by having a little drawing of a flow-chart or something in the bottom corner once in a while. Ironic really. Yet it was a simple metaphor from the audience that brought his concept to life:
There are two kinds of shoppers at the hardware store on a Saturday morning. The first kind has a list, knows what she needs to complete the entire project, and gets in and out just the once. She spend the rest of the day executing the project, finishes early, and has a beer on the patio at the end of the day.
The second kind makes a trip to the hardware store every time they figure out they’re missing another piece or tool. This was me last summer when my outside faucet sprung a leak inside the house – six trips to the hardware store before I had the drywall back on the ceiling!
There. One simple visual metaphor and the jargon-filled, esoteric project management concept is distilled and made clear. Now the details (and project managers love details) have a skeleton to hang from. Oversimplified? Perhaps. Understandable? Yes.
Fourth in a series about communication and change management.
I love email. It’s fast, it’s easy, its’ cheap. It also provides us a record of what was said. Sometimes it’s important to have a record. Also I don’t have to ask people how their day’s going, or remember their kids kids’ names. But maybe that’s just me.
So what’s the problem with email? Words themselves make up only as much as 40% and maybe as little as 7% of communication. Words themselves are only a small part of what’s being communicated. So for trivial or strictly objective communication (“Where are we having lunch?”, “Please send me the numbers for the third quarter.”) email works just fine. After that, the chance of mis-communication goes up.
The more complicated the message, the greater the chance for mis-communication. The more emotionally laden the communication (“I think you have an attitude problem.”) the greater the likelihood of misunderstanding. The more people involved, or the less time people have worked together, the greater the opportunity for misinterpretation. Add all those together and the chance of added drama, resentment, and wasted effort is almost certain.
My experience, both as a manager and as a facilitator, is that mis-communication is really easy. You have to work really hard to *not* mis-communicate. Yet we often choose on one of the worst ways to talk to others about complicated, potentially emotional issues with people we don’t really know that well – email.
Fix #4 Talk to a Human
Talk face-to-face. Wash , rinse, repeat.
Mark Hortsman has an amusing saying (I paraphrase): “I’m glad to hear you want to work with people. All the jobs with trees and dogs are taken.” As managers and leaders we manage and lead people, not email. If our jobs were to manage email I wouldn’t have to write this blog post.
Keeping a record isn’t going to engage and influence people to change behaviour or create enthusiasm. Repeated human interaction, building relationships and trust, is the only thing that does.
Phone calls are better than emails for engaging human beings. Video-conferences better than phone calls. In person meetings better than video-conferences. One-on-one, face-to-face meetings are better still. Regular, repeated contact.
If you need a record of agreement, write it afterwards. First pick up the phone, walk down the hall, learn to speak publicly. Tell stories, have a vision, be passionate. Email is efficient but it’s ineffective. If you’re a manager of human beings, learn to manage human beings. If you’re a manager of trees or dogs, carry on.
Third in a series about communication and change management
“Fact, just the facts ma’am.”
Great if you’re investigating a murder. Insufficient if you’re inspiring action or driving change. It is a mistake to believe that any solely rational, logical, or well-constructed argument will persuade people to set aside their own perceived best interest in favour of doing what’s right or doing what’s correct.
Many people will listen to a rational arguement, analysis, or well-constructed thesis and wonder what you’re up to. What do you really want? What are you trying to hide? Even executives – especially executives – know that any one set of numbers and facts can be tortured to confess whatever is needed to support both sides of the same arguement Most of us make decisions based on gut, and rationalize that decision with facts and analysis afterwards.
I’m not saying you don’t need to be skeptical, or that you don’t need to do that analysis. As Stephen Lynch once said, “You can run your business with discipline, or you can run it with regret.” But rational arguement is not going to overcome behavioural inertia in others.
You are going to need more than just the facts.
Fix #3 Appeal to Their Hearts Too
Martin Luther King didn’t say “I have a plan.”
He said “I have a dream.”
Stories, vision, passion, vulnerability. These are what persuade. Concrete, tangible, visual goals are what drive action.
Yes, your plan has to be based in reality. Businesses have to make money to live. But the purpose of a business cannot and should not be just to make money. Your body needs to make red blood cells in order to live, but that’s not your life’s purpose. A doctor gets paid well, but doctors don’t exist to make money.
Businesses need a higher purpose too. Maybe you’re not going to solve world hunger, but you should have a vision beyond just X percentage growth, or Y dollars revenue. Have the guts to stand for something. Something that inspires people to leap out of bed in the morning and eagerly embrace their work.
Amazon’s goal is to provide “Every book, ever printed, in any language, all available in less than 60 seconds.” Henry Ford wanted to “Democratize the automobile.” Google wants to “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Not every purpose is going to appeal to every person, but you want it to appeal to the people that are working for you.
Hopefully your change is tied to the higher purpose of the company. An emotional, human connection that impels the actions, and energy needed to overcome inertia and drive change deeply and quickly in your team or company.
Or you could write another policy change. Your choice.
The second article in a series about communication and change management.
Mistake #2 *I* Know What You Need To Know
When we’re excited about a new project or initiative, our brains light up. It’s a cool feeling. We want to tell people all about it. We want to tell them everything they need to know so they’ll be excited as us. Now. Right now.
Please take a deep breath. Change freaks people out. Please think about who is affected and how. Try to think about it from their perspective. We all have a finite but varied capacity to handle it. Everybody can deal, but only so much at a time.
Yet we must constantly change to adapt and thrive in a changing world. It’s a conundrum. How do we connect with people, instead of alienating them under an avalanche of confusing avalanche data and buzzwords?
Fix #2 Tell Them What *They* Want To Know
Every message needs a purpose. Every communication needs one and only one intent. What’s the one thing that your audience wants to know? Not what do you want them to know, what do *they* want to know? Ask yourself, if you were this audience, what questions would you ask?
This shift of perspective is very powerful. People, for the most part, don’t care about you and your brilliant ideas. Sorry. Despite best intentions we’re self-centered creatures.
Let’s use that to our advantage. If you talk to their needs, and what you’re proposition means to them (not you, not the company, to them), they’re more likely to hear what you have to say. If you answer their questions, they’re more likely to listen.
Bonus points for tying this to a “higher purpose” that speaks to their heart. I know for some this sounds corny, but if you speak with sincerity about the vision for the company, this is very powerful.
First in a series about communication and change management
Mistake #1 They Know What I Know
You and your team have create a brilliant plan during that conference, workshop, planning session, meeting, brain-storming, or tiger-team. It is so blindingly obvious (to you and everybody that was in the room) what needs to be done. You’re inspired and energized. Momentum and success are sure to follow.
Yet think about the time your boss came back from a conference or a retreat full of vim and vigour, thoughts of incentivizations dancing in her head. How well does that usually work out? You try to carry out your brilliant plan, it falls flat. Bitterness and disappointment soon follow.
Other people cannot read your mind. They do not know what you know. They have not experienced what you experienced. They were not at the retreat with you. Your plan, initiative, or strategic shift may be brilliant, but it needs to be as inspiring for the people on whom we’re foisting change as it is for us.
Which is a shame, when may just need a little explaining and inspirational communication .
Say you’ve decided to roll out a performance review process. Please don’t, and I’ve seen this done – really, tell your managers: “Do performance reviews. Follow this process [hands over slide deck], use these forms [hands over forms], have it done by this date.” It will fail.
Fix #1 Over-Communicate
Back in my Air Cadet days, they forced us to practice “public speaking”. One of the simpler tools in our tool box was: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them.” This pattern works for change management too.
That new employee performance review process? Your first communication might be just for managers who will be performing the reviews. Announcing the initiative, explaining the process, and inviting them to a training session. Tell them what you’re going to tell them…
Consider repeating this first step for different audiences. Your first communication to non-managers might be an all-hands e-mail announcing the initiative, explaining the process, and inviting people to an in-person information session (like a lunch-and-learn) where they can ask questions.
Now your managers are ready for the questions that will come from their direct reports (which inevitably won’t be asked when you’re at the front of the room), because you’ve already told them what you’re going to tell them…
After the review process is complete, you might consider having a “hot wash”, inviting feedback, and compare how the process was supposed to be carried out and against what actually happened. Share this analysis. Tell them what you told them…
When You Don’t Over-Communicate
When people don’t know what’s going on and why, they make stuff up. And not the good stuff with fluffy bunnies and unicorns farting rainbows. The bad stuff. Worst case scenario stuff. Corrosive speculation and rumour-mongering follows.
Over-communication will save you time, energy, and grief in the long run. It’s worth the effort.
My wife and I were at a Chinese New Year’s dinner at the beginning of February. It was a wonderful dinner with dragon dancers, drummers, musicians, photo ops with politicians, and a fantastic menu.
At one point, over the noise of the crowd and music, I tried to ask her if she wanted another drink. I pulled out the drink tickets and pointed towards her empty rum and coke. I mimed “yes” and “no” by nodding shaking my head.
She nodded yes, but there was something about her facial expression that made me pause. So I bent closer to hear what she was saying. “Yes, but later please.”
“So no then.”, I stated in my best patronizing, task-oriented voice.
This was a very simple, almost intimate, communication with a woman I’ve known for over thirty years, and we mis-communicated. Then I thought about the managers and executives whom I work with every week. Executives who are trying to make significant long-term changes to their businesses and organizations with less forethought and planning. Changes like introducing corporate performance measures and evaluations, talent reviews, strategic priorities.
Then they wonder why making those initiatives are such a struggle or just plain fail. Which costs them and the company time, money, emotional aggravation, and goodwill among their customers, employees, and shareholders.
The lesson for me, I think, has been that I need to do a better job of helping my clients plan and execute their communications. Some of them get it and don’t need my help. Some of them need more than a little help.
In the coming days and weeks I’ll be enumerating some of the most common mistakes I see. I’ve come up with eight so far, and I’m sure you’ll let me know of others. In the meantime, I invite you to think about how you communicate. I bet you aren’t as clear and concise as you think you might be…
The point of giving feedback is to encourage the behaviour you want to see repeated, or something you’d like change in the future. Try not to dwell on the past.
Especially when giving corrective feedback. Unless you’re just trying to make somebody feel bad. Otherwise ask them what can be learned, and what they’d do differently next time. Staying future focused gives them a much better chance of doing things differently next time, rather than thinking about and then repeating their past mistakes.
And if you have to give corrective feedback, let them come up with the solution / correction / change. It’s much more powerful if they own it, even if it isn’t exactly what you’d do in the same situation. Even if you think their solution is less effective than yours. Their poor solution enthusiastically implemented is better than your better solution dictated.