Category Archives: Communication

Brevity

I’ll let everyone know up front that this article is going to be somewhat brief, or at least shorter than the average article that I usually post.

It is probably no secret that while I think I may understand and appreciate the concepts and the thought that goes into creating a project and process oriented business (I have a PMP certification to this point), I also recognize that there is the potential for significant overhead and non-productive work to be attracted to this type of business structure. It is easy to say that you have got to take the good with the bad (as the beginning of the famous anonymous quote goes), but I am not so sure that is the case. Project and process structures were created in order to generate efficiencies in business. But who, if not ourselves, is responsible for making sure our projects and processes remain as efficient as possible?

This brings me to my topic: Is it just me, or more accurately, is it just my imagination or have all of business’s documents and presentations been getting longer, more detailed, more complex, and less functionally useful or justifiable?

A process at is simplest is defined as: “a series of actions or steps that are taken to achieve a particular goal”. I couldn’t make that up. It came straight out of the dictionary that way. The idea here being that it is possible to break down a complex work requirement (goal) into a series of simpler tasks and functions. This breaking down process is called “work decomposition”. I didn’t make this one up either. Although somewhat paraphrased, it comes directly from the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBoK) handbook.

So the idea of taking the complex and breaking it down into a series of simpler, repeatable steps is the goal of a process. This is a good thing.

So what has this got to do with the burgeoning size of documents and presentations you might ask. I think it has a lot to do with it.

As we continue to try and bring finer and finer granularity to the work requirement, we find ourselves documenting and presenting on ever more specific and smaller topics associated with the overall process and goal. Instead of presenting on sales, we now are discussing the various sales and support team engagement processes and when they come into play in the overall sales process. We don’t necessarily look at orders, but all those functions associated with the order process. Now each team will create documentation and presentations on their specific roles, when they engage and who they hand off to when they are done.

I can remember being asked to review a thirty-one-page document (not presentation, an actual Word document) regarding one of these team’s engagement process. That is correct. Thirty-One pages.

I do not begrudge anyone their function or role, but I am concerned that if it is felt that thirty-one pages are required to try and define one’s role in the greater scheme of a sales process, then it may be just possible that we have reached the point of decreasing returns on the value of the incremental process documentation investment.

The add-on effect of this process granularity can now also be seen in volume of slides and presentations that are now also being generated.

There was a time (long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away) when overhead slides and overhead projectors were somewhat expensive and cumbersome items. This had the knock-on effect of limiting the size of presentations. Now with the proliferation of personal computers, bandwidth to connect them and the sharing of desk-tops each new image now represents only a slightly greater utilization of an ever more abundant resource. If you think you need more slides, go for it. As the great Yogi Berra once said: “The limitations are limitless”.

It now seems that fifty slide presentations are no longer the exception, but instead have become the norm.

The net here is that we seem to be producing ever greater amounts of documentation, be it written word or image / presentation based, about ever smaller and more specific topics.

It is said that work will expand to fill available time (C. Northcote Parkinson, in one of my favorite books: “Parkinson’s Law”) and that demand will expand to meet available supply. It now seems that the expansion of our ability to share information has also come with the desire and ability to share ever more of that specific information. Now it appears that the volume of what we share has increased in accordance with our ability to share it. Technology has enabled us to share more, in finer and finer detail, to the point where it seems that we may have lost our bearings as to what level of detail represents a useful or appropriate content materiality.

In the African plain faster cheetahs are able to chase down the slower gazelles. That left only the faster gazelles to reproduce the next, faster generation of gazelles. This in turn meant that the slower cheetahs were then not be able to chase them down and did not survive. That left only the still faster cheetahs to reproduce the following even faster generation of cheetahs. On and on it has been going, with both species currently topping out at speeds of approximately seventy miles an hour during the chase. There is a question as to where this evolutionary cycle will lead.

Previous generations of business structures and communication technologies seemed to have had an effect on limiting the number, topic and volume of documents and presentations created and communicated. As the speed and capacity of each succeeding generation of business structure and its communications capability has increased, so it seems has the number, topics and volume of documents and presentations that it has created.

Who can be sure what the future holds for business organizational structures. It is however expected that our ability to connect, share and communicate will continue to expand. This would lead me to the somewhat gloomy supposition and expectation that with this expanded communication capability we should expect to continue to see an expansion in the number and volume of documents and presentations created and shared to fill it.

I think that sooner or later the limitations imposed by each individual’s available time will have to kick in and start to curtail their ability to read or process this information deluge. I would hope that we would then see the pendulum start to swing back toward brevity and the informational value associated with the document or presentation, not its volume.

I have always valued the clear and concise. Fifty-page presentations and thirty-page process guides are usually neither. We seem to be in an age where we create them because we can, not because we need them. We need to get back to sharing the information we need, not all the information we have.

I told you I would be brief, or at least shorter than usual.

The Sound of Silence

I have talked about speaking up in business several times. Conversely I have also cited the American humorist Will Rogers on several occasions for his immortal line “Never miss a good chance to shut up.” Unfortunately while I may cite Will Rogers, I rarely follow his advice as I have created issues far more often by speaking up than I have by remaining quiet. You would think I would learn. I think those of you who know me are not surprised that I haven’t.

I’ll paraphrase another American comedian Ron Wood, and say that while I may have the right to remain silent, I rarely seem to have the ability to remain silent. But I’ll continue to work on it.

In business for the greater part we are all knowledge workers. That means that we provide and deliver our value to the organization in the form of our abilities to recognize and process information in the pursuit of the organization’s goals. Equally important is what is done with the information once it has been processed. Having information and not communicating it in an organization is almost as useless as not having the information at all. What good is having a solution if you don’t communicate it? So, our value is not just the knowledge we have but also our desire and ability to communicate to and with others.

Not everyone thinks, or processes information the same way. This is actually a very good thing for all involved.

Unless you are my wife. It seems to significantly frustrate her that I think so differently from her. She doesn’t understand how I can be so wrong so often when it comes to communicating with her. I guess I will continue to work on that too.

A healthy organization should have a healthy diversity of input from the team members. There should be an ongoing dialog on almost all topics as new issues are worked and old ones revisited for potential improvements. As the speed of business continues to increase and the time and distance associated with business decrease, it is probably safe to say that the conditions that were in place when a decision was made have changed.

The point here is that an ongoing dialog on a wide range of topics is important to the health and success of any team. Argument and examination by their very nature end up generating stronger solutions through addressing potential weaknesses to proposed solutions. But how far can or should a leader allow this dialog to go? When does continued discussion actually start to become dissension in the ranks?

Depending on the commitment of the team members and the trust of the team leader, I think the simple answer here is that ongoing discussion, even regarding previously “closed” topics should never be viewed as dissension. The reason is simple.

If you silence a differing opinion on one topic, you may have unknowingly also silenced that opinion on any of several other topics. No one likes to be told to shut up. Will Rogers was talking about our own self control, not the imposed control of others. If one is told to be quiet often enough on certain topics, they may of their own volition start to extend their reticence to other unintentional topics. And since no one is right all the time, there may in fact come a time when there will be a need for the knowledge that the differing opinion represents to generate the issue solution, and it may not be forthcoming.

A healthy organization has a strong amount of dialog going on between the members themselves and between the members and the leader. As ideas are generated and alternatives considered the discourse should increase. This again points out the difficult transition that would be leaders must make: that of moving from the position of generating and defending ideas to one of encouraging and acting on the ideas of others.

Most managers attain their position because they were able to generate and defend good solutions to multiple issues. This engenders a type behavior. However once they are in a leadership role it is no longer the sole behavior that they must demonstrate. Their new role must evolve into a utilization and growth of others to generate and defend good solutions. Hence the needs for the ongoing give and take between the leader and the team members.

But what happens if the manager doesn’t change? What becomes of the team dynamic if the person who was rewarded for generating good ideas continues to insist on generating all the good ideas?

The first indication that this managerial centralization of solution ideas is occurring is when the team communication starts to become reduced. Instead of a continuous stream of new proposals and iterations on older issues, there is less and less that is put forth. If the manager is going to generate the solution anyway, why not remain silent and wait for it.

As I noted earlier, no one likes to be told to be quiet. Whether it is directly in the form of publicly shooting down the proposals, or tacitly in the form of quietly just disregarding their input, no one likes to see or feel that their intellectual work is being disregarded, or continuously superseded by someone else intellectual work. If it happens often enough, team members will have a tendency to just shut down. They may work out the issues, but they just won’t bring forth the proposals and solutions if they don’t feel they will at least be honestly analyzed for function and purpose.

They in effect go silent and just wait to be told what to do. Either that or they have a tendency to leave for other organizations.

I’ve discussed the difference between compliance and commitment in the past. Commitment comes from team members feeling that their input and ideas are valued. That doesn’t mean that their ideas must always be selected. It means that they should be discussed. Rarely is an individual’s entire proposal invalidated. There are always pieces of it that can and should be incorporated into the final solution.

As leaders, the discussion and selection process associated with functional strategies and solution implementation is delicate. Selecting and supporting the stronger aspects of the team’s work while acknowledging and remanding back the less applicable aspects for further work can be a tightrope like balance. Be too harsh a critic and risk alienating the team. Not be demanding enough and risk allowing less than optimal ideas and work into the process.

When faced with this type of conundrum it is easy to see why the default response may be to drive harder. It is also easier now to see why so many organizations seem to be getting quieter. If the manager believes that the best person to rely on is themselves, then why does there need to be a dialog.

Issue identification, goal and strategy setting, and problem resolution should not be quiet activities. They are the basis of all business progress. The noted past conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra Erich Leinsdorf once said when discussing the music that he believed in friction and that without it there could be no progress.

Here was a leader (orchestra conductor) who had to lead as many as one hundred and twenty different team members (musicians), each with an instrument with a discrete voice, in the playing of some of the most complex symphonies in history. Each musician needed to play and contribute, but within the structure set by the conductor in the creation of the end product. In his time that organization was credited with some of its finest performances.

It is often thought that the conductor simply tells the musicians what to play and how to play it. Leinsdorf is credited with changing the process so that when he wanted something, he didn’t just demand it. He asked for it, and explained why he wanted it. The results and the performance reviews spoke to the success of his approach.

As business moves more and more to virtual types of office arrangements, and meetings become more like phone calls, the office continues to become a quieter and quieter environment. Managers can mistakenly interpret this phenomenon as the tacit agreement with their plans and policies. I think in most instances it is not.

I think the new office arrangements and business dynamics have only served to exacerbate some of these management tendencies. Regardless, there seems to be a large number of organizations that like in the old western movies, it can be said that things are quiet, almost too quiet. And the sound that silence makes should speak volumes as to where the ideas and solutions (as well as the future leaders) are, or in most cases are not coming from.

It All Counts

After over seven years and more than three hundred articles, I took a little time off from blogging. I needed a break. It wasn’t much of a break. I think it was on the order of a few weeks. It was interesting in that the longer the break went the more I felt the need to get back to writing. I guess that wouldn’t be so bad if I felt I was a better writer.

Be that as it may, I will not allow my lack of talent to stop me from enjoying something. I prove this fact every time I try to play music. So I am back. I have a few new topics already in mind, but I think I will take my time in getting to them. What I will delve into today is going to be the new age joy and scourge of so many of us: Social Media.

My son is a senior in high school, and I believe him to be one of a vanishingly few individuals in North America (if not the civilized world) who does not participate in any social media. He has grown up during the age of social media. Still, he doesn’t have a Facebook account, or a Twitter feed, or any other of a number of social media sources. This pleases my wife since he is blissfully unaware of all the pictures, comments and proclamations she posts about him as he matriculates through life. He doesn’t tweet, friend, post, snap or chat with anyone. What is most surprising to me is that he seems genuinely happy about it too. Go figure.

When I have asked him about it he has blithely responded that he doesn’t see any benefit in participating in social media and if the truth be told he views it as a more of a problem then a benefit when it comes to communicating.

A long, long time ago in a black and white (television) galaxy far, far away, a guy named Art Linkletter had a television show named “Kids Say the Darndest Things”. My son just proved him right.

In this day and age of ubiquitous social media and the ability for anyone to access, generate and present any comment, image, content or position into cyberspace at any time, people seem to have forgotten a very important principle: Other people (not just the ones the content is intended for) can see and read these things. We would like to think that as we are well into the twenty first century that we all enjoy the benefits of freedom of speech and expression. To a large part we do. Except for when we don’t.

Abraham Lincoln said “With great freedom comes great responsibility.” He was as right then as he is now (except if he said it now he would have probably posted it on Facebook and LinkedIn and gotten a ton of “Likes” and “Shares”). What this means today is that just because we have the ability and even the forum to post or say anything we like, it doesn’t mean we should post or say anything we like.

I like picking on meteorologists because to me there are so few occupations where you can be wrong so often and still be regarded as a good meteorologist. I would have said great meteorologist, but that sounded too much like an oxymoron to me. Could there really be something called a great meteorologist?

A great baseball player actually hits the ball and gets on base about thirty percent of the time. This is called a three hundred batting average. Baseball players are praised for succeeding thirty percent of the time, while failing seventy percent of the time. I don’t know what the equivalent batting average is for a good meteorologist is, but I don’t think it is quite as high as a good baseball batting average.

In any event, the topic I am using as an example involves the dismissal of a meteorologist some time ago. This meteorologist wasn’t fired for their inaccurate predictions of the weather. I actually think most people rather expect meteorologists to get the weather prediction wrong. This meteorologist was fired for expressing their own personal opinion on the public forum called the internet.

It seems a group of people took issue with what the meteorologist posted and started to use their own internet based forums to complain. As the groundswell grew, this person’s professional fate was sealed. Job performance had nothing to do with it.

Please notice that I have not said anything about the content or the context of the purported comments. They were not illegal or threatening in any way. I am definitely not saying I agree with them in any way, shape or form. What I am saying is that they were perceived by various groups as being contrary to what those groups viewed as an acceptable position or comment. They took issue with them and as an ever widening group began to complain to the television station about what this meteorologist had posted.

A point I am making here is that it is now a very real and proven possibility that you can in fact lose your job based on what you post in social media or on the internet. The meteorologist in question is not an isolated instance of this type of professional reaction to personal comments. What might be possibly acceptable in the context of a private conversation may not be acceptable in the public realm of social media. What may be heard on the radio may not be acceptable for an individual on the internet.

Think about that for a minute. Some people can be paid for saying shocking things in public and others can be fired for doing the same thing.

Another point to be aware of is that with the quality of today’s search engines, the internet never forgets. Once a comment or post is released into cyberspace, it more than likely remains there forever. It doesn’t matter if it is deleted or erased. It can be exhumed over and over again. Where do you think I get most of my quotes and attributions?

What do you want to be remembered for?

Those embarrassing pictures taken at some party? Yup, they’re out there. That off the cuff, off color comment that you just had to post? It’s there too. That snarky response to someone else’s post? Who could forget that? I think you get the point.

I think those of us in business organizations, as well as just about everyone else I guess, need to remember that once we put something out there, that anyone including our associates, employers and customers have the ability to see it. And just as we are becoming more social media and internet savvy, so are they.

It is not uncommon for would be employers to research candidates via the web for their social media “fingerprints”. What better way to learn about people than to read what they have to say and do in these unrestricted very public forums? I would suspect that every company’s customers are probably doing the same searches as well.

I enjoy social media, and blogging. I actually try to use it as a constructive capability, if you can call this blog a constructive outlet. I’ll leave that to you to decide. I have tried to not lose sight of the fact that not everyone will agree with the positions that I may take. That is a more than acceptable condition as it is the discourse that results from these differences of views and opinions that keeps my interest in the forum. But I always try to understand others points of view before reacting with a potential off the cuff or inflammatory remark.

I think that it has yet to be decided what the outcome of my son’s lack of social media involvement will bring. Will his friends accept that he is “different” in that he doesn’t care to be on social media? Will he have to bow to peer pressure and get on social media if he wants to be able to communicate with his peer group? Will potential future employers be concerned when they do an internet search on him as a potential employment candidate and don’t find years worth of comments and posts?

Or is he possibly just ahead of the curve in recognizing that at least for him, he chooses to define the way he uses the internet as it relates to him?

I’ll have to think about that for a while. In the mean time, I think that as social media continues to garner more and more attention both within the real world and cyberspace, we need to be cognizant of the fact that regardless of what we put out there, it stays there for all to see, and it all counts.

Collaboration

There once was a time when my kids thought I knew everything. I did not try to dissuade them from this idea. My wife however has never for an instant thought this way. In any event there came a time when my kids entered a stage of life where they no longer believed that I knew everything. I think there was a question in their minds as to whether or not I knew anything, let alone everything. This time in their lives was what is commonly referred to as being a “teenager”.

Fortunately they began to grow out of this stage. Curiously as they got a little older they also grudgingly began to admit that maybe, possibly I did know something. While they would never again believe that I knew everything, they would concede that since I may have “been there and done that” I could be relied on to provide them input when they had a question, and maybe at least I knew something. They were then free to either utilize or disregard the input I provided them. Surprisingly for them, and my wife apparently, my input proved to be relatively valid and they actually used it to their benefit more often than not.

They had learned to collaborate.

They had learned that despite the fact that they no longer believed that I either knew everything or knew nothing, they were interested in my input on their topic of interest. The most important thing that they had learned was that they didn’t know everything either. No one does. This is a lesson that I hope stays with them throughout their lives.

I find it interesting that not everyone seems to believe in collaboration. This may be as a result of the genesis of the word itself which has resulted in two somewhat conflicting definitions for it – one with a positive connotation and one with a decidedly negative one:

noun: collaboration; plural noun: collaborations
1. The action of working with someone to produce or create something.
“He wrote on art and architecture in collaboration with John Betjeman”
o Something produced or created by collaboration.
“His recent opera was a collaboration with Lessing”
2. Traitorous cooperation with an enemy.
“He faces charges of collaboration”

“The action of working with someone to produce or create something”. I have often said that I don’t have all the good ideas. I have also often said that my wife whole heartedly agrees with this statement. I think I have some good ones, but I don’t have all of them. This fact also applies to business.

As leaders we may be expected to have experience and judgment based on our “been there done that” past. We shouldn’t be expected to have all the ideas required to run a business. As leaders we should be expected to use our experience and judgment to recognize and act on the good ideas of others. This is where that collaboration thing comes in.

Leaders must work with their teams, not expect their teams to just work for them. They must encourage the interchange of ideas, not expect the team to just follow orders. Leaders need to encourage and expect the challenge from their team in order “to produce or create something”.

Almost all businesses that I know of have a hierarchical organization structure. Simply put that means that someone is the manager and others report to him or her. In most instances the manager will be held responsible and accountable for the performance of the team. And many managers do not like to be held responsible for decisions and directions that are not their own. They seem to ascribe to that “Traitorous cooperation with the enemy” definition of collaboration.

Without a collaborative environment, only the manager will be able to make decisions and provide input. The input and value of the members of the team will be severely curtailed. The result will be a weaker overall performance which is probably the one thing the manager who is responsible for performance doesn’t want.

A good example of this poor performance hierarchical structure can be seen in the performance of Korean Airlines during the later part of the last century. Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers: The Story of Success” touched on the cultural issues associated with a hierarchical structure and the catastrophic results that ensued when it was applied to flying a modern jet.

I have actually flown KAL several times in the past. I am pleased that I didn’t get a chance to read this story until well afterwards. In the past KAL had a pretty poor safety record. They’ve gotten better in recent years, but going back to the last part of the last century, they weren’t very good. Korean Air had more plane crashes than almost any other airline in the world for the period at the end of the 1990s.

Korean hierarchical culture is thought to be one of the primary causes of this issue. Korean society is very hierarchical and respectful, and a lot of the accidents have simply come down to copilots not wanting to question the decisions of captains, given that they would basically be “insulting” them. It was a cultural phenomena where the members of the team did not question the direction or decisions of the superior member of the team.

There was in fact a crash in Guam where it was recorded that the copilot actually recognized the failure that the pilot had made and still did not question or act on the information.

Think about that. Jets crashed because members of the team flying the jet wouldn’t, or couldn’t question the decisions of the captain.

Modern jets are designed to be flown by two peers that collaborate in flight. There is still a “pilot” and a “copilot” and the responsibilities accorded those relative hierarchical positions, but they work together to fly the jet. Modern jets are too complex to be flown by a single individual, but that was the cultural phenomenon for KAL. To their credit KAL have recognized this issue and taken many steps to assure that the issue is avoided. They now require a collaborative culture in the cockpit if you are to fly one of their jets.

Modern business is also reasonably complex undertaking. It is also not unreasonable to think that it would be difficult for a single individual to pilot a complex organization alone in today’s market. There are too many variables and factors impinging on an organization to expect one person to be able to know how to deal with them all.

It may sometimes be difficult for the leader of an organization to ask for input or accept suggestions from the team. It is not a sign of weakness or lack of understanding. More so it is the sign of acknowledging that the team is comprised of talented members who are knowledgeable, may be closer to the issues at hand and therefore the potential solutions that are needed.

Individuals may have ideas, but in business it is teams that create solutions. As I noted earlier, no one individual can be counted on for all the good ideas. It takes a diverse team to come up with good ideas and a leader who can and will collaborate and is willing and able to recognize those good ideas and act on them. Asking for inputs and reviews builds both a stronger team and a stronger solution, which as we noted earlier should always be the leader’s goal.

I am pleased that my kids have learned these lessons about collaboration in such a way that when they grow up they could safely be expected to fly Korean Airlines jets or lead a business organization. Now if I could just get my wife to acknowledge some of my more obviously good ideas.

Verbal Volume and Value

The “conversation” is a key aspect in business. That statement should elicit a collective “Duh!” from all those that read this. I think I am going to go a little bit deeper here. With all the electronic communications, email, Instant Messaging, Texting, etc. I think we may have lost some of our ability to have a viable and valuable conversation. Certainly it appears that some of the rules for conversations have changed, or perhaps better said they are now being ignored.

And it is not just conversations that I am going to address. It can be conferences, consultations, deliberations, dialogs, dissertations, disputes, discourses, meetings and reviews. You name it. Any place or time where people verbally exchange ideas is going to be the topic here.

That was some pretty nifty work with a Thesaurus, don’t you think?

The interesting point about electronic communications is that everyone is essentially equal. We all get to use the same electrons and bits and bytes in our electronic communications. We can all use CAPITAL LETTERS when we want to yell or make a point. It is almost impossible to interrupt anyone in an electronically communicated discussion. We can all use as many words as we want or like when positing our comments to each other. We can all ignore what someone else has written and blithely go on about our agenda in the electronic conversation as if the other participants had not said a thing of value. There are however some basic rules such as name calling and cursing are probably not viewed as entirely acceptable to name a couple, for electronic communication conduct, but by and large everyone gets to play as long as they play nicely, share, bring their own crayons and don’t color outside the lines, too much.

In short it is a pretty fair forum for discussion. However it is not real time and it is relatively slow.

Now let’s go to the real time, high speed, human to human, interactive discussion, verbal version of communications. It’s called a conversation or maybe even a discussion. The electronic discussion rules definitely don’t apply here. At least I don’t think they do. And sometimes this seems to have put me at an apparent disadvantage when it comes to dealing with those people who seem to think that it is okay to use the verbal equivalent of of some of the electronics conversation rules of conduct.

There are those that will use the verbal equivalent of underlining, bold or CAPITAL LETTERS, ie. Yelling or raising their voice in the discussion to make their point at almost any time. There are also those that will employ the verbal equivalent of not reading the other participants messages before sending their own. This is usually demonstrated by their interrupting when they have something to say while someone else is already talking. And then there are those that will engage in the verbal equivalent of trying to monopolize all of the available electrons, bits and bytes for communications. The idea here being that if they never stop talking you do not have the opportunity to present your positions, ideas or arguments and you lose by forfeit.

What is also interesting to me is that it is not three different kinds of people that employ these types of conversational domination. It is usually just one kind of person that employs these three conversational tactics.

It is also an incredible bore.

I am by no means the best of conversationalists. I do try to have relevant information and input, and I am not afraid to disagree on points of content. I will almost always try to wait for someone to stop or pause before I try to take up my side of the conversation. I also work pretty hard at not yelling as I have found that it usually doesn’t improve the effectiveness of the content I am trying to communicate.

What has me concerned is the apparent number of people who DO NOT feel the same way about verbal communications as I do.

It seems all too often that there are those that are applying their electronic communications protocols to their verbal communications interactions. They will interrupt. They will speak louder so that they can talk over the top of your discussion points. They will attempt to overwhelm the conversation just in the sheer volume of verbiage that they will put forth, effectively limiting the available time for your input.

It’s either that or they are just effectively being rude.

I was recently in a discussion where one of the participants was employing all of the aforementioned tactics for dominating the conversation. They wouldn’t listen. They would interrupt. They ran on and on and wouldn’t allow the opportunity for anyone else to provide input.

I was at one point both impressed and awed by that capability. Not so much the content, which was by my reckoning just management type blather, but the ability to inhale in such a way as to not interrupt their ability to keep talking. I surmised that they had either mastered the ability to inhale through their ears while still talking, or alternatively had an extra internal air bladder organ of some sort (similar to the air bladder that is used by someone who is playing the bagpipes) where they would use it to keep talking while they inhaled.

The point I guess I am trying to get to here is that trying to dominate a conversation really does no one any good, and it will probably just make people write strange things about you (in their Blogs and other places). Having a predisposed agenda or solution in reality negates the value of a discussion. It is reasonable to have a position that you want to either put forth of alternatively defend, but interrupting, talking over, or just outright ignoring other parties to the discussion removes everyone from the discussion.

It becomes less than a discussion or a discourse. Possibly more like a diatribe.

Turning up the volume of what you have to say (being louder than everyone else) doesn’t make your opinion better or position stronger. Increasing the volume of what you are saying (saying far more than anyone else) doesn’t make what you are saying any more convincing. Value comes from the resolving of differences, not the subverting or overwhelming of everyone else’s opinion.

A small hint here. If you are in a discussion and you recognize that not many other people are talking, there is a good chance that you are being “that person”.

There is an old quote (there is always an old quote for just about everything). Epictetus, the ancient Greek philosopher said:

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

It is probably a good rule to follow if you want to have a healthy and mutually valuable discussion.

Intelligent Pause

I seem to discuss communications a lot. That is probably because communications are central to all aspects of business. I am going to continue in that vein here, although possibly in a direction that may not be expected. I think that it may be time for us to start practicing and working on our talking skills to each other.

The other day I was talking with a friend. It was a bit of a free form discussion. The unscripted type where you are doing one of the most dangerous things on the planet: talking and thinking at the same time. Even though it seems I have no shortage of opinions, I also try to make a concerted effort to listen as well. In this instance I actually spent a little time listening to myself, as well as my friend during our discourse. What I heard out of my own mouth concerned me.

It appears that I had gotten a little lazy when it came to talking.

I caught myself using too many “crutch” words when talking. I think, you know, it’s like, those seriously annoying words, those obvious verbal “tics” that we are all guilty of, actually. I started listening even closer to the way my friend was speaking, and he was doing it too. He had his own pet phrases and words that he liked to use as well. It seemed that when he was unsure of what he wanted to say he would fall back to one of these words or phrases to get himself started.

I got to thinking about my own use of my crutch words and phrases as well and came up with the same conclusion. When I have an idea that I want to express, the most difficult aspect for me in expressing it is the same most difficult aspect of any other endeavor, that of getting it started. I had fallen into the habit of using one of these comfort phrases or crutch words to get my speaking process going.

A little self-analysis like this can go a long way. Having become aware of my own tendencies in this area has also made me aware of it in others. I started to not only listen to what others were saying, but how they were saying it as well. I think most of us, but not all of us have this comfort phrase tendency to some level.


The most common comfort phrases that I have picked up are (I am sure there are many others, but these are some of the most common that leap to the forefront, at least in my mind):

• “uh…”, “ah…”, “hmm…” Nothing says I don’t know what to say better than one of these words.
• “Like” – It’s like this, or like that… How can so many things be like something else? Why don’t you just tell me about it, not something that is “like” it?
• “You know” – It’s like you know, or just, you know… If I know, then you don’t need to tell me. If I don’t know, you don’t need to ask me. I think we all know what I mean here.
• “Obviously” – one of my personal favorites. If it’s so obvious, then don’t make a mockery of your audience’s intelligence by bringing it up. If it’s obvious to you it’s probably obvious to them. If it’s not, it sounds like you are talking down to them.
• “Actually” – It’s actually this, or you know actually… Let’s get this straight. I am probably going to assume whatever you are telling me is “actual” unless you tell me otherwise. There is no need to emphasize its actuality.

I mentioned that many but not all people used these speaking process kick starting phrases. I started to pay especially close attention to those people who did not have any noticeable tendency toward using favorite words or phrases. I wanted to understand what they said and how they sounded. It was very interesting.

They didn’t say anything particularly smarter or deeper that anyone else. They didn’t speak noticeably faster or slower than anyone else. They just didn’t sound as repetitive. They sounded (gulp) more intelligent. This was especially disconcerting as one of the primary groups that avoid these verbal tics is the politicians. I don’t know if we all could go on if I had to cede greater intelligence to them.

Contrary to popular opinion, it is very difficult to get ahead in business without some reasonable level of intelligence. It is a pretty good assumption that most business executives to one level or another are pretty smart. However some “sound” smarter than others. How do they do it?

They don’t use crutch words or have as many of those verbal “tics”.

Instead, they pause. And how to people sound when they periodically pause when they are speaking during a conversation? The general consensus that they sound intelligent.

Don’t believe me? We are now in the middle of what is known as the off-year primary political election cycle. This is the time of year when all of our media, news, and communications are polluted with messages from this year’s crop of ultra-sincere sounding political hacks, or their news agency supporters, trying to convince us that they are the true representatives of the people, and their opponents are in fact prevaricating, bloviating morons.

What these messages all have in common is that they are devoid of all verbal crutches. Listen not to what these people say, but to how they say it. They all sound sincere and intelligent. Regardless of the veracity or outlandishness of the claims that they are making on their own behalf, or against their opponents. Despite any semblance of anything resembling substance, they all sound believable and intelligent.

It is probably not fair to compare politicians to executives. Really. No, I mean really.

However, the executives that do not use the standard catch-phrases sound better and more believable when the talk. Instead of starting off a sentence with some favorite or comfortable word or phrase, they seem to pause instead.

I think this sort of talking activity has been well documented. The idea is to listen for your own comfort phrases and then consciously trying to eliminate them from your speaking and talking styles. The process is to pause when you are about use one of your favorite pet phrases or words, and instead of using those words, pick up with the thought you would convey after those words.

This is what I mean by the intelligent pause. You don’t have to eliminate the crutch. You just don’t verbalize it. It is there in your head, where it will probably always be, you just don’t verbalize it.

I think we all probably know people that either consciously or unconsciously do this. They are the ones that seem to be thinking before they say anything. They appear to be weighing the value of their words before they speak them. Their opinions seem to be more readily sought out or valued.

It has been a frustrating process for me as I try to re-kick the catch-phrase habit. I had not realized how ingrained they had become. But I am working on it. There are several of my friends who might comment that the best way for me to appear more intelligent would be for me to extend my own efforts at an intelligent pause out indefinitely to the point where I just shut up. Unfortunately this just won’t do. I do however suggest that we all try to listen to how we say things as mush what we are saying.

Like, you know, it obviously might actually help us communicate good..er.

Learn to Talk Good

I remember having a conversation with one of our newer hires in a past assignment. I should say that I remember trying to have a conversation with one of our newer hires in a past assignment. He obviously didn’t know who I was, and I didn’t tell him. I thought I would just strike up a conversation and get to know him, and at the same time communicate what an outgoing and friendly organization we tried to have. I should have known better.

The first thing I had to do was to try and pry his nose out of his smart phone long enough to make eye contact with me. While he did look up long enough to acknowledge that I did exist, that I was standing there next to him and that I was not in fact one of the undead zombies that he was so fond of eradicating in oh so many colorful and exciting ways, I didn’t get much more than that. No verbal greeting. No nod of recognition. It seemed that just my motion of walking up to him had caught his eye and momentarily distracted him from whatever he was doing on his smart phone. He immediately went right back to it.

Undaunted, I said hello and questioned if he was in fact the new hire that we had just brought on.

I could see the gears turning. I could see the internal battle raging. He was obviously hell bent on whatever application he was using on the smart phone and I was annoying / distracting him from it by my insistence on engaging him in some sort of social interaction. It took him a while to frame a response, without looking up.

While he went through his internal preparations, I asked him if he would like me to text him the question, if that would make responding to me any easier.

This got his attention. He looked up to see if I was being serious, if I was angry, or if he could ignore me and blow me off. I kept a straight face and to his credit he finally looked up and acknowledged me. Since it was obvious at this point that he did not know who I was (I think I was his supervisor’s, manager’s boss at that time) and again to his credit he did not choose to demonstrate what I perceived as his distain at my interrupting his communing with his smart phone. Smart boy.

Since he now recognized that I was not going to go away easily, or due to his ignoring me, he tacitly agreed to slightly more than 2 seconds of prolonged eye contact and acknowledgement before his next text message came in and distracted him. He immediately re-immersed himself in his phone and began to type furiously with his thumbs at a speed that could only have been attained after many, many hours of practice. I was amazed.

As he was typing I said that he should go ahead and respond to that text message as I would be pleased to watch and wait.

Now he knew something was up. After he had finished his prolonged message he again looked up at me to see what sort of expression I had while uttering such blasphemy regarding the priority of his smart phone connectedness. I kept my face carefully neutral. I then smiled.

At this point he now recognized that, horror of horrors, he was going to have to engage me in a real time interaction. I could tell that he recognized his predicament because he had exactly the same look on his face that my son did when my son realized what he had just stepped in because he had forgotten to clean up after the dogs in the back yard before he started mowing.

It was at this point that my smart phone started ringing. I let it ring. I could see that he was having a hard time with my nonchalance regarding the immediacy of my smart phone communication. He asked if I was going to answer that. I think he was hoping I would and that would be his opportunity to flee.

I said no and made a point of reaching in my pocket and turning the phone off. I think that single act caused the preponderance of blood to drain from his head. He seemed to grow quite pale. It seemed I wanted to talk with him and he was going to have to respond. We were going to have a conversation.

I am familiar with “text-speak”. I actually do text quite often. I just don’t converse in it real time. I prefer to speak English, although I do understand Spanish, and even took a little Russian in college. I am not quite sure what language he spoke.

What I did gather from him was that everything according to him was “like” something else. It was “like” this, or when he was surprised it was “like” wow. Things were also “seriously” one way or “seriously” another. There were also times when it appeared that he was tongue tied as he tried to locate the real-time emoticon that he could provide me that would convey the depth of his feeling or commitment in the conversation.

I think that all this time he thought that I was going to harsh his mellow.

What he didn’t realize was that in accepting that he was going to have to talk to me he had actually stumbled upon the best way to achieve what he wanted in the first place; which was to find a polite way to drive me away. I don’t think I am overly literate, but this guy drove me nuts.

About five minutes into the conversation I was looking for either the “off” button or the ejection seat switch. It was as though my children’s texts had been animated and had come to life in front of me. There were no complete thoughts or sentences that were conveyed. All standard grammatical concepts now seemed to be merely the slightest of suggestions. In short he was verbally illiterate.

I am sure that he hoped to, and quite possibly even thought that he had made a good impression on me. I believe I might have misled him down that road when at the first courteous opportunity I thanked him for talking so good with me. He smiled and immediately dove nose first back into his smart phone and beat a hasty retreat to my office.

I am concerned that we all may talk so good in business in the future.

Eschew Obfuscation

The topic for this post was suggested to me by a good friend over in Europe, Codrin. I don’t know why I hadn’t leveraged his input for my own continuous improvement in the past. He indicated that there was a synergy of our ideas where I could take advantage of some low hanging fruit and get some quick wins. Since he considered himself a stakeholder and influencer in my blogging process he thought I should outsource some of my ideation process whereby a consensus for topic creation could be leveraged. This could in turn create a new best practice and benchmark for future cross functional team blog topic empowerment.

Goodness, this could be worse than even I suspected.

This is going to be something of an interesting analysis as far as topics goes. Some of you may look at that introduction and say that there is nothing wrong with it. The rest of you will probably have had the needle on your Business Jargon Overdose meter pegged at the “red line”, and quite possibly could have broken the meter all together. Whenever I find myself in a business jargon overdose state I find that the best cure for me is to go listen to music (usually either alternative rock or jazz, depending on my frustration level) until my fists unclench. As this condition seems to be occurring with ever greater regularity I seem to have acquired a significant music library.

For the purposes of the remainder of this discussion I will use the terms Business Jargon and Business Slang (BS) interchangeably. Being a product of the business technology acronym generation I find myself being a little more comfortable and potentially more accurate, in referring to the latest business technology generated buzz words by the acronym “BS” rather than by their jargon related acronym counterpart.

Business, especially the high technology business used to be ruled by the use of the acronym. There were financial based acronyms such as ROI (Return on Investment) or NPV (Net Present Value) and there were technology based acronyms such as CPU and RAM and PROM and the like (I know I have dated myself through the selection of technology acronyms. As I have said many times, I am somewhat “old school” in orientation.) The point here is that these acronyms meant something. They were shortened names for actual formulas and physical devices. They represented real things and as such had a real value.

When we fast forward to the business of today we seem to have replaced our quantitative value acronyms with the much more malleable business jargon, lingo and slang of today. As such it seems that the value of our business communication has also decreased in accordance with the utilization of these BS terms. I’ll pick on a few of my favorites.

Synergy. Really? I understand the concept where the combination of multiple elements creates an end state that is greater than the sum of the individual elements. I got it. I think everyone else gets it too. However, we were all taught early on in our school careers that one plus one does not in fact equal three. To hear people talk today it seems that all we need to do to improve our business, increase our profits, reduce costs or cure baldness is combine some disparate people, jobs and functions and we will miraculously get more out of it than we put in. Not every combination creates synergy. Some things do, others don’t. As an example, I like beer and I like ice cream. I don’t think I will create synergy and get something I like even better if I combine beer and ice cream.

Wait a minute. That one might actually work.

Cross Functional. Come on. This one along with consensus, empower and transformative combine to make any written communication appear both longer and more important. Mostly just longer. It seems it is almost impossible to see only one of these words used in its literal form in any form of communication. That would be the metaphysical equivalent of hearing the sound of one hand clapping. What we now seem to end up with is: “We need to empower a cross functional team to reach consensus on our transformative plans.”

Can’t we just say that we need to get together to figure out what to do next?

Customer Centric / Focused / Voice / Satisfaction: Incredible. The last time I looked just about every business on the planet was in business to sell some sort of goods, products or services to a customer. Now the definition of whom or what a customer is can vary from business to business, but the concept of providing a customer something of value and in return the customer giving you money is the basic precept of business. Everything that the business does needs to be focused at providing the customer something and getting them to give you their money. There is a definition for people in businesses that are not directly involved with either providing the customer their desired “something” or getting the customer to give you money. These people are called “overhead”. They are also the ones most prone to using these types of customer related phrases.

Anyone who uses the phrase “customer centric” is usually not.

Paradigm Shift: I don’t even know what to say here. This one seems to be utilized along with such ideological jewels as Best Practices, Benchmarking and Continuous Improvement. Everyone from Charles Darwin in the Origin of Species (things evolve and change, to paraphrase) to Woody Allen in Annie Hall (things, like sharks keep moving forward or die, again a paraphrase) has said that things change. Things that were once done one way are now done another. This is the essence of the meaning of a “paradigm shift”. Nothing ever stays the same. We might like it to, but it won’t. If we just get used to this fact perhaps we can do away with these repetitively redundant descriptions for change.

Robert Heinlein said: “We live and learn, or we don’t live long.” I guess this applies to businesses as well.

As difficult as it may be to believe I have actually been accused of not being either politically correct or a team player. It could be because I don’t normally seek a transformative transparency in looking to create consensus. I don’t think that we probably need to incentivize employee stakeholders and influencers when we are looking at the value add of any presentation or proposal. It seems that my problem may actually be that I do not know how to fully leverage the cloud, fully take advantage of virtualization or deliver anything as a service.

On the other hand it could be that I don’t believe in utilizing the current iteration of Business Slang that is being passed as intelligent and useful business communication.

I think we need to remove the BS (Business Slang) from the business vernacular, and get back to simple ideas of making things, selling things and delivering things when we communicate with each other. It will help get things done.

In other words, let’s eschew obfuscation.

Presenting….


There are many types of communication in the modern organization. This of course would be in addition to the ubiquitous use of personal and social media such as texting, tweeting and facebooking. Some forms of organizational communication seem to be falling out of favor, such as actually phoning someone and talking to them, and some seem to be on the rise, such as Instant Messaging. However, for formal business communications there are basically two methods, the written memo as generated by some desktop based word processing program, and the presentation chart as generated by some desktop commercial presentation program. I am going to talk about the presentation method of communication. Not the creation of it. The presenting of it.



I have written in the past about charts. I have written about the increasing complexity of charts. When commercial presentation programs first came out they contained little more than the ability to draw some rudimentary objects such as geometric figures and arrows, and the ability to “draw” some text on the chart. It was great. You could now put some images with some words.




I have written about the increasing number of charts in presentations. When commercial presentation programs first came out overhead foils were relatively expensive and had to be generated specifically for overhead presentations. This limited both the complexity and number of charts that were in any given presentation. Ah for the good old days when presentations were short, simple and sweet.




Regardless of how long current business presentations have grown; regardless of how complex current business presentation slides have become; someday, somewhere you are going to be asked to actually present your presentation to a live executive audience, in person. With the increased cost of business travel, the proliferation of networked presentation sharing programs, and with the quality of desktop screens, the in person presentation is becoming a rarer and rarer internal to the organizational event, but it still does occur. Presentations to customers are still a mainstay of the sales function. If you want to be able to deliver a successful presentation, either internally to the organization or to customers, you need to know a few rules about presenting.




Even though I’ll be addressing the in person presentation scenario, much of what I’ll talk about is equally applicable to the on-line presentation as well, only on-line will be easier, since almost everyone will be multi-tasking anyway and won’t be giving you their full attention as they would if you were there in person. Besides, everyone knows how to talk on the telephone. We have all been doing that since the first time we picked up a phone and said “Hi grandma!” when we were two years old.




Presenting in person is something of an art. There are those that can do it without much thought or effort, and seem to be able to hold an audience absolutely spellbound, regardless of the information they are presenting. There are those who despite studied preparation and flawless slide content succeed only in convincing everyone present, once they regain consciousness from being bored almost to the comatose level that some people should never again be allowed to present anything.
 



There are a few presentation rules to abide by in order to avoid being considered the presentation making equivalent to the much sought after cure for insomnia. They are:




Be dynamic. Don’t stand in one place. Don’t hide behind the dais or the lectern. Move around the presentation area. You don’t need to run in circles or do jumping jacks, but you do need to have a little mobility in order to force the audience to periodically shift their attention point. This will help to keep them from staring at one spot and starting to “zone out”. As strange as it may seem I have found that even moving around my office if I am presenting on the phone helps as with this as well. Perhaps this method is good for both the presenter and the audience.




Make eye contact. Not just with the most senior member of the audience, or the person that the presentation is for, but with each individual in the room. You need to make a connection and acknowledge their presence if you want them to acknowledge yours. You are not giving an acceptance speech where you need to list everyone by name, but looking each them in the eye at various times in the presentation will help them feel that you are talking to them and not talking at them.



Don’t read your slides. Don’t read your slide notes. Don’t read anything. There is a really good chance that everyone in the business audience will know how to read. They will be able to read your slides without your help. Trust me on this. If you are just going to read your slides to people, they will very quickly realize that you are not much value add to the presentation. Be familiar enough with the topic and content that you don’t have to read it.




We are in the short attention span, multi-tasking world. You need to learn how to get your point across on each slide in forty seconds to one minute. If you can’t boil down the slide information into that kind of time frame you will rapidly start to lose audience attention. The pace that you move the presentation along will be a key to maintaining audience attention.




Ask yourself questions. What is the primary piece of information you are trying to convey with each slide? Why is it important? What do you want the audience to do with it, if anything? Meandering and unfocused presentations are a painful audience experience. Too many presenters try to demonstrate how smart they are by trying to provide too much and too detailed information. Trust me. You’re presenting to executives.  There is no doubt who the smartest person in the room is. If they were the smart ones, they would be presenting to you. Your job is to communicate what they need to know, not everything that you know.



Stop and answer the questions when they are asked. Don’t tell people to hold their questions till the end. If you make people hold their questions till the end, they will forget them, not be able to ask them, and they will feel strangely unfulfilled at the end of you presentation. Answer the questions succinctly. A question is not an invitation for another dissertation. If you don’t know the answer, tell them:


“That is a good question. I don’t have the answer to it, but I will find the answer and get back to you with it”



And move on. Don’t dwell on it and don’t try to bluff through it. People will be able to tell, and you want to maintain and retain your credibility.



Presenting is easy. Presenting well is much more difficult. It takes effort, preparation and knowledge of both the topic and the audience. A friend once told me early in my career that when you present you need to be brilliant and to be brief. He then looked at me and smiled and said in my case he would settle for me just being brief. I think wiser words I have never heard.

Boredom


Boredom, the very thought of it makes me cringe. It also makes me yawn. You know what they say;



         “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”




I got in some of the deepest trouble that I could get in when I was a kid just because I got bored. When you don’t have anything to do, doing just about anything seems like a good idea, regardless of how bad an idea it really is. This concept has really been brought home to me when I have watched the things that my kids are prone to do when they are bored.



But that’s not the type of boredom I am going to discuss here.




In physics there is a concept called Entropy. It is a crucial concept associated with the second law of thermodynamics. It governs which processes can spontaneously occur and which can’t. In layman’s terms entropy is the universe’s tendency to maximum disorder. As an example, a box of marbles that is overturned on the floor will tend to disperse across the floor (disorder), rather than stay stacked up on top of each other in the form of a box (order). All actions and functions increase the entropy or disorder of the universe, from a physics point of view.




Are you bored yet?




When I was in graduate school, I used to think that in business the accounting equivalent to entropy was boredom. That means that anything that anybody ever did in accounting added to the boredom of the universe. There were several accounting majors who didn’t seem to see the humor in this entropy – boredom comparison, but this was to be expected since they were already in accounting and had obviously already undergone a borg-like assimilation.




This is not the type of boredom that I am going to discuss here either.




My inspiration for this discussion of boredom comes from of all places a book I recently read: “The Adventures of Augie March”, by Saul Bellow. In case you are not familiar with it, it is number 81 on the Modern Library’s editor’s list of the top 100 novels of the twentieth century. It also has nothing to do with business. I find that I read many different books that have nothing to do with business directly, but that regardless of that, provide me with some insights that do help me with business. This is one of those instances.



In this book, Augie March says:




         “Boredom starts with useless effort.”



Now this is coming from a character that actually goes to the mountain desert of Mexico to train bald eagles to hunt giant iguanas. I couldn’t make that up. I am not that good a writer. Saul Bellow made that up. He is that good a writer. He has many awards to prove it.



Now I don’t know if Augie did that because he was bored, or did that to avoid becoming bored. I guess it doesn’t matter.




We have all at one time or another felt like we have been compelled to perform some task or do some work that we felt was useless. It is normally called busy work, or scut work, or any number of other names. It all comes down to we felt as if we were doing something that did not add value, that wasted both out talents and our efforts. It may have actually had a value, we just might not have been aware of it at the time. However, I think we all know when we are doing something useful, and when we are not.




The point I would make here is that if we as leaders have gone through the boredom associated with useless effort, are there people in our organizations and on our teams that are feeling the same way about their assignments? Assignments that may initially have seemed logical and useful by the leaders when they were requested, that may no longer seem that way to the team members responsible for fulfilling the requirements now.



In other words, are you sure that everyone in the organization feels that no part of the work they are doing in their opinion is useless? If you are not sure, then how do you find out? I have gotten my best results and responses to this question by asking it of team members in real-time exchanges, either face to face or over the phone. Sending an email or asking them to fill out a survey or questionnaire means you really don’t care.




That sort of behavior will only increase their boredom by requiring them to respond to another useless email or survey.




There is only benefit to be gained from this approach to communications with team members. At the worst you may have to explain what the value is (if there indeed is any value) in the work you have assigned them. They may not like what they have to do, but they will at least understand that it is not useless effort. At the best you may find that you have incremental capacity on the team because they were in fact engaged in efforts with minimal value. That useless effort can be stopped and the resulting functional capacity can be applied to more valuable projects and efforts.




No one wants to be bored due to the lack of things to do. I think in today’s business environment we can safely say that this is not a high probability issue. I also think that no one wants to be bored because they have to do accounting. That’s why we have accountants. Let them be bored. And no one wants to be bored because they feel they are engaged in a useless effort. If the effort has value there is benefit in explaining it and further aligning the team. If it turns out that there is no value in it, I am sure that there are a myriad of other things with definable value that the business needs to get done with that newly available resource.