Everyone has been amazed by observing a simple piece of data mutilated during its transfer from one person to another during a discussion. Similarly everyone, from time to time, experiences the exasperation of not being able to achieve a transfer of data to some other person - the experience of simply 'not connecting', of seemingly speaking another language. These extremes illustrate the difficulty of accurately transferring data between people.
The purpose of the article is to outline various 'micro-level' techniques that can be used to obtain complete and accurate communication to knowledge worker groups and individuals. These techniques are also some of the micro-level steps that are needed to make teams work - to make them deliver on the team performance promise. The reasons for trying to communicate well are outlined and the many factors impacting communication briefly listed.
Knowledge Workers - individuals and their information - are any business's most important asset. They are also the asset with the greatest potential for more efficient utilization. I believe the factor that can most effectively improve the utilization of individuals is improved communication - communication that is made more effective by being complete, accurate, and by being exciting because of its personal relevance to the individuals involved. A conscious focus on improved communication in a business generates significant advantages by increasing creativity, efficiency and competitiveness in all the business's activities and by reducing the rate at which it generates problems (i.e. unexpected events on a planned path).
The examples outlined in the summary ignore the dangers presented by repeated, less-obvious errors in conversations between individuals and within groups. Whilst most people readily understand the need for care in information transfer, few people actually systematically compensate for the likelihood of error - other than by awaiting the passage of the lengthy process of developing personal familiarity with others. There are situations in which specialized tools are used specifically to obtain accurate, detailed, data transfer - for example in litigation, in the usage of a Universal Modelling Language (UML) in object-orientated software design and in the use of modelling languages in integrated circuit design. My purpose here is to outline the simple, low level, 'micro' techniques that I have successfully used to mine and distribute information from groups of knowledge workers, establish shared understanding amongst them and, most importantly, create the circumstances for focussed creativity in discussion, during which information is first shared and then transformed into focused knowledge and hence action for the business.
It seems paradoxical that discussion is both the most effective forum for communication, a highly effective forum for innovation - and also a major arena for errors in data transfer. For further expansion on this point see
"Central to Effective Communication: The Vital Discussion".
Factors Impacting Accurate Data Transfer
Many factors can influence the accuracy of data transfer. Some are:
Personal unfamiliarity of individuals with each other
Individual stress - schedule, performance, credibility, role of players...
Individual fatigue, excitement, boredom, motivation and interest
Individual language skill strengths and weaknesses
Individual emotional factors - impacts of past errors, underlying lack of respect of other
Individual characteristics - self confidence, comfort with knowledge, attitudes to those with responsibility, experience, age, gender and cultural factors, level of personal security, previous history with other team members ...
Previous group history
Differing sub-group objectives, functional specializations, background disciplines
plus - many of the individual factors listed have corresponding group characteristics
Impersonal Factors - for example:
Data complexity, ambiguity, comparability
Media and environmental limitations
I summarize below my approach to effective communication. The approach is targeted primarily at the one-to-one and one-to-group level's. (Groups up to about fifty people, with varying skills and focuses.) Note, however, that when I refer to "one-on-one's" I mean conversations between a pair of individuals that occur in the presence of the critical members of a team or group. I have a marked resistance to 'private' "one-on-one's" relating to topics that may impact the whole team or group, because it is very difficult to subsequently effectively 'replay' critical conversations in a front of a group. Why is this 'replay' important ? I believe many people are more highly motivated by understanding why things are to be done the way they are. People like to have a real understanding of their role, in context - why it is that they are being asked to struggle, to achieve a difficult objective. Critical, private 'one-on-one's' prevent understanding of the reasons for objectives and how they were developed. Note that simply telling people an objective has the effect of stopping them thinking about the objective; telling requires uncritical acceptance. Critique, review, examination justification are a critical part of getting people involved; of 'releasing' the creativity that are paid to deliver !
Basic Personal Communication Techniques
- Responding to questions thoroughly; exhausting each individuals need for justification of the work at hand, to ensure they fully understand the context; testing the transfer of data by requesting data "playbacks" in the context of both each individuals responsibility and the bigger picture - the 'Practical Business Vision' (a topic described and discussed at www.pateo.com).
One-on-One Discussion Objectives
- Honesty - I tell the truth as I perceive it; if I perceive I cannot supply complete information for reasons of confidentiality, I say that and outline the reasons
- Explaining the reasons for questions; putting questions in context - technical, business, schedule...
- Asking all the questions - positive, negative and neutral - even when they have not been posed. (e.g. Is the speed greater than X ? Is the speed less than Y? Is the speed between X and Y.)
- Matching and managing personal assertiveness - to avoid giving the wrong message
- Asking less than well defined questions; Asking open ended questions
- Waiting for "fill-ins" - voluntary completions of incomplete information
- Searching for and exploring inconsistencies, uncertainties, ambiguities
- Constant comparisons of new data with previous data
- Using non-verbal (gesture, expressions etc) communication to qualify data credibility
- Circling around the point of the question, to allow individuals to complete with their data
- Coming back to issues from other directions - re-examining data
- Allowing, encouraging, exploring, narrowing, understanding disagreement
- Looking for shared parallels with (and between) individuals previous experience and with other technology, products and situations
- Looking for overlaps and gaps; trying to create continuums
- Learning the social environment - groupings - to help qualify data supplied by group members
- Changing venues, changing circumstances, people mixes to induce new ideas, creativity
- Identifying, exploring attitude changes with different peoples presence in meetings
- Exploring and understanding individual and group perceptions of people, organizations, customers, technology, the company, the business - toward issues
- Having data (problem descriptions, problem evidence..) restated by having it prepared, explained and presented in different media - verbal, written, drawn (e.g. pencil, whiteboard) and in front of different audiences
- Requesting individuals to "teach me" (and others) at various levels - introduction, tutorial, point detail, historical introduction, technology background, usage in the business, limitations, opportunities, risk evaluations, competitive, market perception
- Compensating for various forms of individuals personal confidence and communication deficiencies
- Extracting data from hard to understand situations by holding chosen variables fixed and exploring; then re-iterating with other variables fixed
- Making deliberate errors - and observing individual and group reactions
- Learning, understanding individual and group arrogance, humility toward others, the organization, the customer, the technology
My objectives in using the techniques outlined above are:
(1) Getting the individual to understand what is needed - maxima-minima, high risk, low risk, understanding and assessing risk, accepting responsibility, feeling responsibility, transferring responsibility, performance objectives, time objectives, calibration of subjective data
Intra-Team - Team Meeting Situation
(2) Verifying that the individual does understand: what is expected of him/her, teams objectives
(3) Motivational - removing roadblocks, broadening understanding, building confidence, explaining, justifying
(4) Problem solution - asking questions, changing the media, rotating the problem, discussing the issues, using parallels, bringing in neutral people...
(5) Confidence calibration: Evaluating my confidence in the individual - and vice versa
(6) Understanding relationships between individuals, disciplines, functions, individual prejudices
(7) Calibrating (perceptions, roles, data transfer techniques, background, motivational levels, confidence, competence...) the individual to me and to others
(8) Investigating attitudes to self and others, to ensure that information is not being with held because of confidence and perception factors
(9) Assisting with estimating strategies, risk evaluations, guesstimates, technical data transfer and capture - by providing tools, parallels, analogies
(10) Pushing back - and moving back - in situations with disagreement; pursuing disagreement to the point where the key 'nub' of the disagreement is extracted and agreed by the players
(11) Elucidating, understanding, clarifying, broadcasting, verifying assumptions - to all team members
(12) Individual recognition of contributions to communication, one-on-one and publicly
(13) Handling the 'difficult' individual - clarifying expectations and understanding; creating situations in which such individuals can perform satisfactorily or be found not to be contributing
(14) Watching for the impacts of ambiguity on individuals - exploring the widely varying reactions
(15) Using cultural keywords and watching reaction
(16) Pursuing points exhaustively and watching reaction - confidence, security, anxiety, boredom, disengagement, understanding
(17) Understanding teams relationships to technical leaders, business leaders, peer groups, markets, customers, suppliers
(18) Handling 'quiet', low profile people very carefully - providing special opportunities for ideas to be discussed
(19) Setting-up situations encouraging creativity, new ideas, allowing people 'off the leash' - brainstorming, removing barriers...
(20) Understanding, exploring, adjusting the limitations individuals consider they are placed under by the technology, product, resources, organization
(21) Exploring individuals perspectives on issues thoroughly; realigning where necessary and possible
(22) Nurturing, protecting, encouraging all ideas as a route to relevant ideas
(23) Developing tools for promoting creativity, particularly "Necessity Statements", as discussed elsewhere on this website.
Many of the objectives identified above apply. The following are specific to team meetings
(1) Publicly defining individual/team boundaries, responsibilities, defining conditions for responsibility acceptance and transfer, teaching risk evaluation techniques
(2) Observing, stimulating, correcting communication intra- and inter- team communications
(3) Publicly defining objectives, status, problems and problem resolution, receiving and verifying status reports, recording team progress. Ensuring that all team members are present at critical meetings to ensure sharing of data. Stimulating public playback of individual team members tasks, with emphasis on overlaps and interfaces with other disciplines.
(4) Public discussion of individuals problems to attract assistance from others
(5) Setting objectives, selling objectives, gaining objective acceptance-buyoffs, verifying objective acceptance
(6) Group motivational stimulation, support, contribution recognition (team and individual) congratulatory, fun, sharing
(7) Team communication processes: New Product Start-up, Spoof Design, Progress-Status meetings, Milestone achievement, Risk Evaluations, Handling and Visiting Customers,
(8) Promoting and managing concurrency via communication (product definition in parallel with product development in parallel with other function etc) - as means of speeding delivery
(9) Handling and explaining different individual focus's, culture, languages, team members lack of mutual trust
(10) Explaining and teaching - the "rules" of one-on-one interactions and intra-team interactions; explaining what communications methods work and why; explaining why meetings etc are conducted the way they are, who has to be present etc, how cross-disciplinary effects/overlaps occur; explaining the process of cross-disciplinary communications and its virtues; explaining the avoidance of one-on-ones; selling the virtues of discussion as a creative process
(11) Team leadership and communication; role and responsibility of technical and expertise 'lead' persons
(12) Promoting tolerance of ambiguity in information; investigating and exploiting ambiguity
(13) Learning social mores and roles of individuals, groups
(14) learning inter-individual and intergroup calibrations for subjective data
(15) Watching reactions to news, status, concerns expressed by others
(16) Requesting help and watching response
(17) Watching impacts of ambiguity on group
(18) Using cultural keywords and watching reaction of group
(19) Creating circumstances for brain-storming; identifying and supporting key under-contributors; nurturing ideas; training people to respect ideas and to understand the circumstances in which ideas can be generated
(20) Understanding pre-existing style of management in the team and organization; understanding the individuals and team assumptions about the management style; modifying where necessary and possible.
(21) Identifying, promoting and teaching circumstances in which creativity can occur in the group
(22) Ensuring that all potential contributors and beneficiaries are present when information is shared and turned into knowledge in the context of the ongoing project. This is because it is almost impossible to re-create the circumstances and content of a discussion at a later point in time for people who were absent.
(23) Managing the role of overly assertive and dominant individuals in meetings so that they contribute without drowning out others.
(1) Identifying, justifying, describing differing viewpoints and responsibilities
Using these Steps
(2) Mutual support required and offered
(3) Handling, creating, investigating, clarifying, understanding, calming conflict
These processes can be used by individuals leading groups; they can be taught to individuals within groups; and they can be used as check-lists when leading-coaching brainstorming sessions and problem resolution meetings. To use all of these steps with a given group of individuals takes time - and some individuals do become frustrated with listening to the micro-level discussions that are an essential part of using them. My experience has been that most individuals willingly and enthusiastically participate to help explore issues and opportunities beyond their own responsibilities; many groups rapidly and naturally become competent at using these skills, leading to ongoing efficiency improvements. Using these simple steps helps create the magic of fully functioning teams.
Occasionally I have encountered people who are so narrowly focussed on their own interests that they cannot tolerate use of these steps; my experience has been that these people are classic 'non-team-players' who represent a risk to the organization because of their inability to overlap and empathize with others. They also threaten the development of effective teams; their continued employment requires that they be compartmentalized.
This article has listed a series of communication micro-level techniques - a series of simple tools to help ensure that people talk to each other accurately, completely and in a focussed manner.
My experience in using these steps has been that they can produce remarkable results:
- seemingly impossible problems can be solved because problems can be completely defined and communicated.
- teams are strengthened by the shared experience of participating in the solution of problems.
- individuals and teams are motivated by being supplied with the data that shows the reasons for the efforts they are bringing to bear
- better technical solutions are found because more strongly shared understanding enables better trade-offs to be made between the different disciplines contributing to a product
- risks (technical, schedule, cost) are lowered because potential solutions are more thoroughly critiqued and analysed by the full and informed participation of more team members; yet individuals are prepared to take greater risks and initiatives because they can share the risks in discussion with others and they can better evaluate the justification for taking them. Overall more significant risks are taken more deliberately and with better justification and management of outcomes, often with significantly better outcomes for the business and with closer alignment with its business needs.
© Copyright 1999-2010 Andrew Herrington Pateo Consulting
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