The thread that I try to weave through most what I do (including my writing in this space) is that communication can be strategic on the smallest (micro) levels. By strategic, I mean trying to get the most for the least. By communication, I mean storytelling through writing, talking or meeting with people. Sample supply-chain related stories (aka – agendas) include: sharing the upside of the switch to centralized purchasing, understanding why a process is not working in practice, or encouraging diverse groups to share all their information.
Some ears may be deaf to these storylines, but there are three things that I think can help you be more strategic in telling your story (even to the metaphorical hard of hearing).
Three enablers of strategic storylines
1 – Seed the idea
Communication works on networks social, informal, or otherwise. People may pay more attention to things that are being discussed. Favourable discussion can lead to: “everyone is talking about how good this is, so it must be good.”
Deferring judgment, I bring you the social media example of the “tweet sheet,” which is, under one definition, a list of “key messages” that you send to your friends so they can independently “tweet” your messages to their networks and beyond.
Judgmental note: I was gobsmacked when I heard this. Isn’t social media supposed to be this bastion of authenticity? Everyone has an agenda!
The ethical discussion is beyond the scope of this column. Seeding ideas is one way to tell a story. You may be able to plant seeds in ways that fit with your way of operating.
2 – Use what’s there
Again, I draw from a marketing discipline. A consultant relayed the story of working with a producer of breakfast cereal: “One of the things that kept coming up was the stat that a cereal box is read X number of times. Finally someone decided to capitalize on that real estate!” Similar rational sits behind using the cleverly placed ads on bathroom walls.
Where are people looking already? Does the company newsletter attract eyes? Is there a place where people tend to wait (e.g. outside a particular directors office)?
Again, be wary of the line between “clever and subtle” and “overt and cheesy.” Best to keep well on the former side.
3 – Question the change
I was in a discussion last month that questioned the entire premise of “buy-in.” The logic being that, looking back at theories of motivation, people won’t do what they don’t want to do. (I was in a discussion yesterday where a client had recently realized that “power” was the answer.)
Asking the “what if” question of yourself gives you what you need to go forward. So, what if we can’t centralize all purchasing? What if we can’t get reliable information from sales? The steepness of the downside may illustrate how much effort you put into this.
My secret hope is that everyone makes their case well, and the result is actions and directions that serve the best interests of all involved. (My “best” includes a good dose of sustainability.) I will get you my “tweet sheet” and cereal box decals, if you want to help get this message out. Of course, we all realize that much of this could be (1) happening already, and (2) impossible to achieve. More of 1 will put me out of business, and I haven’t “bought into” 2 just yet.
THIS ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE MAY NEWSLETTER ON supplychaincanada.org
The theme of telling “the truth” vs. telling “your story” recurs in the world of business communication. (The question of the existence of “the truth” opens a philosophical conversation best kept to coffee houses and whiskey bars… We want practice, please!) One specific application of business communication is in trying to find a job. A dripping irony is that “the truth” probably won’t get you a job.
“Hi there. I am really good at analyzing business data to improve supply chain performance. I get bored pretty easily if I am not challenged. I have a low tolerance for arbitrary rules, and I hate to be rushed to make a decision when I know I need to do more analysis.”
However, as the storyteller of your skills and abilities, you carry a responsibility to align your story with your truth. A colleague of mine shared some insight from one of his field contacts:
“The context and the technical expertise is the easiest type of knowledge to share with a new hire. Give me someone who has a desire and ability to learn, and can work with others in a team environment. That is the kind of person that I want to hire.”
Apparently, there are challenges in filling this particular bill. Even if those are the requirements, I guarantee you won’t see a job description that says only:
“Wanted: someone who can learn our systems reasonably quickly, and work with our people reasonably well. Good benefits. Pay commensurate with experience.”
JOB EXPERIENCE, EDUCATION, SKILLS and ABILITIES are parts of your storyline (and maybe even headings on your resume), however the underlying questions you face are: Can you do this job? And, if you can do it, do you want to do it for us? Deeper questions include, “have your overstated your qualifications and abilities?” and, especially if you a shifting careers, “do you have a realistic appraisal of your value (in this new marketplace)?”
You may be able to defer the answers to these questions almost indefinitely. I will suggest that for all concerned, truthful answers to these create the most value for employee and employer. Everyone expects a degree of story, especially in the written communications (Cover letters, C.V., resumes, etc.). The interview process, especially the latter rounds, provides an opportunity for both sides to explore and share a bit of truth. On both sides of the equation, it is dangerous for the story to stray too far from it!
One thread that I believe runs through the content on this site is “things that help or hinder productive conversations.” (Go ahead and substitute “collaborations” as the direct object of that last sentence.) I provide this in response to recent feedback that my writing was “all over the place.” In my defense, these “things that hinder” are literally “all over the place.” Conflict is my muse.
An article from the Economist this month discusses banning hands-on cellphone activity in the U.S.; similar contentious legislation is coming to Ontario. The Economist article begins by wondering why the U.S. has high instances of driving-related fatalities, and goes on to suggest that driver distraction is a significant factor. The hypothesis seems to be, if it is bad now, it will get worse because everyone is trying to do too many things at once (e.g. multi-tasking) and young people are particularly susceptible to the lures of squeezing in a text message while merging into the fast lane.
Here is where the fun begins because people start looking for solutions.
- We should ban something for drivers: hands-on phones, all phones, all talking, loud music, music with words, anything verbal, etc.
- Cars/phones should be made safer: add sensors that flash when you get to close to something; wireless signal should be cut off during certain weather and road conditions; voice recognition texting, etc.
During this debate, you will hear other responses, but many will fit into those two buckets. Both, I suggest, miss the key point of the problem. It is not a legislation or technology problem. This is a human problem: A driver’s amount of attention is finite. The amount of attention required to drive safely varies and can change quickly.
Drivers often have help managing their attention: a talkative passenger will quiet down when the driver gets cut off. Also, the driver turns the stereo down/off when there is particularly bad downpour, or simply stops paying attention to the podcast as he/she begins looking for a parking space. The problem with cellphone conversations (hands-free or otherwise) is that the other party can’t see changing demands on the driver’s attention. The driver is on their own to say “It started raining really hard; can I call you back?,” which demands even more attention, and makes the immediate problem even worse.
There are many times when a driver has ample extra attention, maybe even too much. E-mail/text messages may be perfectly safe waiting for predictably long left turns; and loud music (or even phone conversations) can be just the thing to keep a bored driver alert enough to reach a distant destination.
I am not sure what the solution is to “driving while distracted.” There may be laws and technological advances. I will hope that a good chunk is left to personal responsibility to maintain a minimum attention reserve. I do think that the conversation/collaboration toward a solution will be “helped/less hindered” if people are focussed on the same problem.
The realm of perceptions is full of blurry lines. Where does “young and energetic” turn into “cocky?” On the flip side sits “wise” versus “old and out of touch.” I always feel old writing about what “young people” can do to improve their effectiveness in engaging different stakeholder groups, especially through technology. Engaging through technology is pertinent to anyone in business.
This week in column in the Financial Post (“Is it time to kill the company newsletter?” Sept 22, 2009), Carolyn Ray suggests that a generation gap exists between old-tech Boomers and all-tech Millennials in the adoption of social media tools within organizations. One of the big challenges is that managers do not engage in dialogue. I will suggest the significant responsibility to foster dialogue sits with the younger side of the conversation.
I am not sure that the younger set “gets” the importance of courtesy and diplomacy that their older colleagues and managers place on written communications, especially in the absence of a strong relationship to buffer direct criticism. I had an example of such behaviour in one of my classes. Early one semester, a student wrote me a quipped attack on a core theory and used Mariah Carey as a case in point. We had a “dialogue” with short exchanges, and I know that I allowed the back-and-forth to continue longer than a Senior Exec would have (Teaching in a business school is not the same as running things!). I am not sure the student appreciated the impression created, which was largely negative.
Much of the discussion around generational differences points to how younger people behave differently (or business is different) and we older people have to get used to it. I agree with that to an extent; we are all time starved and technology like smartphones, o2 broadband and netbooks can provide very quick communication. That said, a bit of old-fashioned respect and courtesy can help such communication to be more effective.
For respect and courtesy to come across in e-mail, the writer can add such things as “Dear so-and-so” and “Sincerely,” although I will suggest it is more about taking the time to think through what you want to say. Writing can embolden. This is great if an idea emerges that would not come up in a large meeting. The effect is less for half-baked suggestions and criticisms.
Collaboration in the workplace is essential. Managers and leaders who do not engage in the dialogue will find themselves dangerously outside it. The success of workplace collaboration, and the success of the organizations, can come from savvy youngsters who woo the change with old-fashioned manners, and the courageous oldsters who are open to dialogue, no matter what the medium.
The last day of public school reminded me of my youth when late in the school year, my grade 7 English teacher, Mr. Williams, gave us a quiz on a series of short stories he had assigned to read. The front page was a combination of short answer, fill in the blank, and true/false questions. On the back, there was on line on which we were to record “the number, between 0 and 6, of stories that you actually read.”
Does self evaluation get any better than that? I can’t remember what I wrote or his reaction, but I remember pondering whether to gamble in looking “studious, yet forgetful” or being “honest and, perhaps, lucky.”
Look for a letter to the editor that I submitted on two articles in today’s National Post commenting on peer evaluations in university. The issue being, is it progress to use a software that allows peer grading for short written assignments? Dangerous move toward blind leading the blind, or novel way to bring technology and dialogue into new millennium academia?
I will share the actual submission, if printed, but the gist of my argument is that most post-secondary education should be about discussion to gather support for an argument, and practice in presenting arguments effectively. This view reflects my bias in working in a business school, and away from the “black and white” numbers side of things (although you learn to use numbers in such a way to support your intentions).
The article writers on opposite sides of the issue both do a poor job in supporting their case. The software vendor quickly refers readers to the vendor site for objective support for the value of the software. You have to do better than “if you don’t believe me, then look at this thing that I wrote.” Where is your third-party endorsement?! The teaching assistants make a noble attempt to evoke an analogy, which I find very effective. Their problem is the hyperbole (it’s like peer-delivered medicine) followed by a quick “All joking aside…”
When operating out of the realm where you have no “benefit of the doubt,” that kind of support won’t cut it!
I spent the morning working with a client to “bullet proof” a proposed project direction that she will presenting over the phone to a task force. We were meticulous about the clarity of ideas and the relevant support to back them up. Since the group meets every 6 to 8 weeks, getting buy-in next meeting could mean accelerating the project schedule by two months. Not bad for 90 minutes of prep work: for the numbers people, it is almost a 1000-fold return on minutes spent. I will suggest it is worth spending the time, and worth getting help.
I have written before about my involvement with the facilitation practice of Management Advisory Services, a volunteer consulting organization. (Visit the link for more information. To my paying clients: Let’s just say, you don’t qualify for these services, OK?) Similar to my other consulting work, in this volunteer role I help groups to either distill ideas or to effectively share their ideas… and sometimes both. The question at the heart of all of it is: Where is the value? Who sees it? Who needs help seeing what is there?
Over the past couple of weeks, I worked with a client who, not surprisingly, operates in a multiple stakeholder environment, where value comes from tapping into people’s time and energy, as much as, from funding and donations. To this agency’s credit, they were able to gather an impressive cross-section of perspectives to share and discuss ideas. (Homemade food was likely part of their recipe for success!) Ideas flew back and forth, and at least one occasion each of the two evenings, one of the “tougher” stakeholders occupied the floor momentarily.
The rosy collaborative vibe took a temporary back seat, and I know that at least a few people realized the importance of the critical/challenging insight. Those who were really listening could see the road map of the challenges in dealing with that particular constituency. Nobody likes a pothole, but it is certainly nicer to be able to see them clearly! The real danger in these situations is succumbing (like any human could) to “turning off” people who have turned you off.
To once again beat the drum on the power of effective conflict, last week I had a great conversation with a colleague who has similar passions to mine, though different orientations and approaches. Despite what our fellow patrons in the adjacent booth (@ The Abbott on Yonge Street) may have thought, we were not fighting! As tempting as it is to counter and explain yourself, good stuff comes from taking in the critique of others, which I think I was able to do. From my side, I left the conversation enriched (Again, the Ploughman’s Lunch may have had something to do with that!) and better prepared to move my ideas forward.
I would also assert that strong working relationships increase the chances of producing that value; they provide a foundation that won’t get shaky as easily. And, if you ask me, those relationships are going to need at least some face-time to materialize.
In work that I do with clients, the situations with the lowest return on time/energy (ROTE) consistently involve communications with those who don’t “get it.” “Getting it” and “not getting it” creates very strong in/out-group perceptions. “It” can take a number of different forms, and usually, I am on the outside looking in. I will hear, for example:
- THEY don’t get that a for-profit model can fit in health care.
- THEY don’t get that Canada is a different market from the U.S.
- THEY don’t get that they are losing the chance at more business down the road by being so contentious now.
My job is to help them to help the other side to “get it.” It can work, but not all the time. Recently, I fear, I was the one who was likely being accused of not “getting it,” which, honestly, is new for me. I actually pride myself on being able to see both sides of things, in most instances. As I understand, and tell my clients, when you are involved, things become less visible. On top of that, it can be completely unclear who is right.
For example, imagine those who did not want to give the automotive Big Three any U.S. Government funds.
For them, the situation is clear:
The Big Three (THEY) don’t get that the model is broken and more money is only prolonging their ultimate demise.
For those supporting a loan/bailout, it is equally clear:
The U.S. Gov (THEY) don’t get that we just need a bridge loan. Weather this storm, and we are set up for long-term success.
One of those positions is right, but only time will tell.
My recent challenge is bringing my “soft-skills” orientation into a “tech-savvy” environment in a discussion about creating value in information sharing and collaborating. Quite predictably, one of us is “not getting” that if and how people use any tool–not to mention the relationship between the parties–will dictate a large degree of effectiveness. Perhaps the other of us is “not getting” that in the future, personal relationships, perceptions and things like “the benefit of the doubt” have little or no role in the workplace.
One of those positions is right, but only time will tell.
Last week Indira Naidoo Harris was a guest host for the CBC Radio One program The Current, and spoke with Lanny Davis, former special legal counsel to Bill Clinton. “Conversation” may be the wrong word for the exchange; “interview” also seems to miss the mark. The topic of the exchange was Hillary Clinton’s appropriateness for the position of United States of America Secretary of State under president-elect Barack Obama.
Some “conversations” are difficult; many more difficult than they have to be. This exchange was clearly both, as pointed out by the National Post in print and online. Mr. Davis gave not an inch, and immediately began the “interview” by calling out the “innuendo” of the Harris’s introduction. He then demanded “facts” to support the allegations. Apparently, he would have settled for just one, but none were forthcoming. It was a strange moment when Harris tried to move on by empathizing as to “difficulties” that Davis must be having with the “issues.” It sounds like a suggested phrase from self-help book on “Active Listening.” Davis was not to be appeased: “give me the facts.”
It is good to hear an exchange where one side gives the other no benefit of the doubt, because, from my perspective, a number of these conversations don’t happen because of the promised contentiousness. This type of conflict, however, is the reality of pushing against resistance in the form of someone who will attack everything you say. This can be especially true if the exchange has an audience. It is not about how you deliver your message; it comes down to what you are saying. (But imagine if they had been e-mailing each other!)
These conversations are good practice for reaching out of our in-groups. I would suggest that often we rely on another’s trust (or disengagement from the situation) to get away with not supporting our position sufficiently, if at all. Pushback is good practice, and demonstrates engagement. I would hope that Ms. Harris learned from the exchange.
I don’t suggest that the answer is to prep for every interaction like you are speaking to the Fifth Estate, or The Current for that matter. Some situations, such as a job interview, can add a degree of healthy “defense” that drives us to spend some time fact checking in order to have our support at the ready. It doesn’t have to be contentious, but conflict can call out some ideas that may be unchallenged but can’t be well supported.
School is back in for lots of people, including, yours truly. Among my back-to-school activities was spending a day this week in the Schulich Centre for Teaching Excellence. It lived up to its name in providing a high bar, as well as insight, tools, resources and support to clear the bar. Following the “diversity” that underpins all aspects of the school, instructors are encouraged to meet/exceed expectations in any way they see fit.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there was lots of discussion on how to handle the use of laptops (the entire facility has wireless Internet access), and presumably other communication devices in the class. Just like the real world, there is no formal policy, and the guidance from experienced faculty covered the gamut, including one instructor who said that a full out ban was the best answer. Comparable rules in the workplace are not unheard of (e.g. hand over your device to the Blackberry Check before you enter the meeting… don’t lose that ticket!).
What to do?
For those of you taking my course this semester, here is what you can expect. In the spirit of “dialogue,” we will clarify expectations on both sides, and see if we can agree upon (negotiate) some behaviours that support meeting those expectations. I have no idea if it will work but I do have a strong BATNA. I would suggest that students show up with pens and paper just in case.
For those of you not taking the course, I will keep you posted on any agreement that we reach and detail it here, if possible. I am not expecting anything groundshaking, nor do I think this approach is extremely innovative. In most settings, I think that the behaviours and norms develop, but I hope this dialogue can clarify and accelerate a healthy balance while meeting needs and expectations of all parties. I know of some organizations that are starting to encourage these same dialogues.
Maybe we are onto something here.
Stories about work/life balance and mobile communication (usually Blackberrys) are easy fodder for articles and columns on business skills, careers, etc. A recent such article (Blacking out the Blackberry from canada.com) provides one “after work solution” and one “during work solution” in its discussion of the “PDA pandemic.” Both suggestions are problematic, in my view.
Apparently the Canadian Citizenship and Immigration Department has issued a “Blackberry blackout” between 7PM and 7AM to help people detach from work and focus on family members. I guess the message could be: be productive while you are here, so you don’t need to take work home. Great idea, right?
I would say “No.” What about the people who jet out the door at 5 (to get home for dinner with their family, make a yoga class, etc.) but then log on from home later (after the kids are in bed, or after “So You Think You Can Dance,” etc.) to tidy things up that can be handled by e-mail? Smart employers will find employees who can balance themselves and provide them with the tools and flexibility to do so.
The “during work” rule used soccer (aka football) precedent of two strikes your out: employees get a yellow card warning for checking their Blackberry during a meeting; the second offense garners a red card, which brings a penalty of paying your own PDA “phone bill” for the month (likely in the neighbourhood of $500). What a great deterrent, right? Not if you think back to your Psych 101 discussion of rewards and punishment (Skinner anyone?).
In this world with information and request overload, why not be explicit about “competing” for people’s attention? If I have called a meeting (or am delivering a presentation) it should be my job to get your attendance and keep your attention. Colleagues should have the right to decline on both fronts, but more often give the former and withhold the latter. Let’s shift meetings from “necessary until proven useless” and put the onus on people to explain why others should be there. Do we really need the update? If so, why? Do we really need to get together every week to “go over” things? If so, why?
NOTE: The trick is in asking those questions (especially of superiors) without getting backs up.
If I, as the meeting instigator, have failed to get your attention, go ahead and catch up your e-mails. It’s probably the best use of your time. Maybe then you can get your work done before they turn the servers off at 7PM!
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