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Less What More Why!

June 24, 2009

“Mr. Watson, come here, I need you”!  The famous words of Alexander Graham Bell which ushered in a new era of communication.  Do you think Thomas Watson had any idea why Mr Bell needed him, well in this case he surely did, they had just invented the telephone!  Many times in our communications, it isn’t so clear what the genesis of the message is, and the true context of the communication isn’t so obvious.  One recent Saturday, I sent my young daughter next door and told her to ask for some “brown twine” (I needed to tie a clematis vine to a post).  Well, without understanding why I needed brown twine off she went.  I wish I could have been present for that conversation next door because you see, she promptly carried back a bottle of “white wine”!   I can hear my neighbor now, “Are you sure he didn’t want white wine, there is red and white, but no brown wine”!  Had I simply explained to my daughter why I needed the brown twine, she easily could have accomplished this task on the first try.

Another simple example from my life.  I treated my son and 4 of his friends to a day of paint ball, renting them all of the equipment and buying them a “starter pack” of paintballs.  Well, they were burning through paintballs much faster than I anticipated with these semi-automatic paint ball guns (markers).    So after yet another refill, I told them to “not shoot until you see the whites of their eyes”.   Soon enough, they were back for yet another refill with seemingly little improvement in paintball conservation.  So this time I simply said, “it costs me a nickel every time each of you pulls the trigger”……ahh, the lightbulbs went on as they all realized that although this was my treat, they were needlessly costing me more money by firing with reckless abandon.   Well, as you can expect, the paintball burn rate improved dramatically from that point, they now clearly understood “the why” behind my request.

Often times in our everyday business communications (especially in superior to subordinate exchanges) we are too quick to exclude the context of the message or request.  This not only makes it more difficult to successfully accomplish a task, but it also gives the recipient the feeling of just being a worker as opposed to being a key step in the process or part of the bigger picture.  This is often referred to as being “engaged”.    A recent Gallup study cited that an engaged team delivers greater customer advocacy, improved productivity and increased profitability.  I’ve talked about the importance of empowerment, but empowerment is useless if you can’t get the team to engage.   The former CEO of GE, Jack Welch, said, “getting every employee’s mind into the game…there’s nothing more important!”.

Here’s an analogy from the football field.  Imagine if a quarterback only told the offensive line their blocking scheme without informing them of the play?  Not only would this would severely limit their ability to adjust on the fly and improvise when necessary, but it would also make them feel like they’re not really a very important part of the team.

Oftentimes organizations will try to function with a style akin to the  traditional military chain of command.  The top of the pyramid makes the decisions, the middle passes on this information and bottom executes with little room for interpretation.   These line workers end up being like the doomed soldiers, immortalized by Alfred Tennyson’s, The Charge of the Light Brigade:

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death

The men Tennyson was writing about were not born with the willingness to obey without question to their deaths.  Although they might not understand why, they react without hesitation because they’ve had countless hours of military training, teaching them to unconditionally follow orders.  Their inherent creative intellect had to be suppressed before they could go into battle.  Although this is very effective for soldiers, it just isn’t the best strategy for most other organizations.

This concept of more effective communication is closely related to my earlier post, “Don’t Forget to Share”.  The more you share information and the more effectively you communicate within your organization, the better chance you’ll have a fully engaged workforce.  The bottom line is not only should you be over communicating within your organization, you also need to be careful to ensure that everyone understands the important details behind your communications.  So let’s review, communicate early and often and be clear about the context of not just what you’re doing, but why you’re doing it!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 25, 2009 8:37 am

    Hey John, great post. I called Rich DePaolis (after reading this) and gave him the context of a cryptic e-mail I had sent him yesterday. I get running along and start making assumptions that everyone’s running beside me. I an very guilty of thinking everyone can read my mind…

  2. Dom Schaffer permalink
    June 29, 2009 4:06 pm

    Fortunately, military tactics have changed since the Crimean War in 1854 (and the Civil War, for that matter), when military training was focused following orders with little room for question or deviation. Since the evolution of a modern military decision-making process over the past 70+ years, standard military orders have two key componens: a task and purpose. The task is the “what” part of the order, and the purpose is the “why.” During my army service, for almost every operation that I was a part of, the “purpose” was the most important part. As soon as my unit began a given mission, the original order almost always had to change due to a change in the ground situation. And the same can be applied to business decisions. I’m a firm believer in giving a “task” and “purpose”, and let the individual figure out how to get the task done. Perhaps Patton said it best: “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” –Gereral George S. Patton, Jr.

    • jdygert permalink*
      July 12, 2009 9:33 pm

      Thank you for providing an Army Officer’s perspective, very informative!!

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