Tag Archives: Communication

One small step – from good idea to effective action

You’ve a burning idea to improve your business, you would like to move it forward but it’s still a bit fuzzy. You are not sure how to get going or even how to describe it to others. Perhaps that’s stopping you from doing anything but it is critical that you take that first step as the classic quote says.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Here’s a suggestion on how to get things moving in a positive direction.

Rudyard Kipling’s famous quotation is a great way to start structuring your ideas.

“I keep six honest serving men: They taught me all I knew:

Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who”

At early stages you should concentrate on:

What you are trying to achieve

How things will be different

Why it is a good idea

Who you ought to involve

The most important issues are to put some structure on your idea, test its validity and generate some support – if you don’t it won’t go any further.

You can focus on the details of what precisely you are going to do and how you are going to do it later. You will probably find that the people you engage with will have different and better ideas about the details – you can’t plan the journey until you know where you are going!  They are also likely to have some good suggestions of other people to get on board.

Critical Stage

Many projects and change initiatives go wrong at this stage because the participants end up doing the wrong project [and sometimes they all end up doing different projects!], so it is vital that you explore the issues and potentials fully at an early stage. This should be an expansive stage, gathering ideas from everyone who has an angle, don’t discount anything at this stage [you can’t generate ideas and evaluate them at the same time], even the seemingly crazy ideas may lead to something really useful.

Value Differences

Surround yourself with different types of people, if they all see things in the same way and bring the same skills, knowledge and experience to the table, you are very unlikely to get any radical ideas. You need to encourage everyone to speak their mind, table their ideas and explain their understanding.

Faciliate the process

To get effective dialogue you will need someone to facilitate the process, so you need to either develop the skills or preferably bring in someone who is skilled, experienced and independent.

If you don’t get into effective dialogue at this stage, then you will find out later than what you deliver is different to what someone was expecting – even if it is possible to put it right later, it will cost a lot more.

See my earlier blog post That’s not what I thought I was getting! for more details.

Key Issues

So at this stage, three things are important:

  1. That everyone is agreed on the destination
  2. That everyone is happy that they’ve had their say
  3. That you take the first step.

Focus on

Focus your attention on three types of reaction to proposals:

  1. One group or individual is keen to have a particular feature and others don’t see the value of.
  2. Ideas which are dismissed without any effective debate
  3. Ideas which are accepted without any effective debate

The first may well mean that there is a lack of shared understanding between the groups / individuals and the others may indicate that whilst everyone is using the same words, they actually mean different things. You need to facilitate the debate and make sure that the aims and objectives of the proposal are understood by all.

If you don’t do this now, you’ll regret it later!

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Me, myself and I – understanding stakeholder perspectives

If you have read any of my earlier posts, you will know that I do my best to avoid “management speak” and jargon. I make no apologies, however, for using the term “stakeholders”. It means anyone who has an interest in, can affect or be affected by the business. I find it particularly useful to consider stakeholders in planning and implementing change programmes. Effective consideration of stakeholders and their needs, desires and motivations can go a long way to helping you sell your ideas, gain support and minimise resistance – but you have to do it carefully and put some effort in.

Standard Stakeholder Map

Standard Stakeholder Map

The figure above shows a typical “first pass” mapping of potential stakeholders – this is a useful start but may not be adequate for your needs. In many cases, you will need to break these top-level groups down into smaller subgroups. For example:

Customers: Do they all have the same needs?

Managers: Are specific individuals or functions affected in different ways?

Employees: Are all groups affected equally, are some better organised than others etc?

You will need to break the stakeholders down into smaller sub-groups and possibly consider some people on an individual basis.

Multiple perspectives

It is also worth noting that in today’s more complex environment, some people will fall into several stakeholder groups and that will affect their overall perception. For example, an employee may also be:

  • A shareholder
  • A neighbour
  • An investor – through pension funds etc.
  • A customer

    An individual's perspective

    An individual's perspective

So, their view of any proposed change can be quite complex.

Also bear in mind that the various stakeholder groups are likely to interact with each other.

Mini Case Study

I was discussing this issue with a client who is a third-generation director in a successful family run business [SME]. He said that on any given topic, he can have several different views and that the balance between these might change through the day. So he can have different thoughts about the issue as:

  1. A functional director
  2. As an owner of the business
  3. As a member of the extended family
  4. As Husband / Father in his own family
  5. Himself!

    Case Study

    Case Study

For him to be happy with any decision or change, it has to be right [or at least bearable] from each perspective! No wonder it can be so difficult to get support for your ideas!

What does this mean for you?

Thinking any idea through from stakeholder perspectives will help you to:

  • Sell your ideas by giving you a better understanding of each group / individuals
    • Needs
    • Desires
    • Motivations and
    • Fears
  • You will be in a stronger position to gain support by fine tuning your proposal
  • You will be better able to anticipate and respond to any resistance and
  • You will be much better prepared to engage in a sensible dialogue with any of the interested parties and that could lead to an even better idea!

Company Watching – 7 Ways to understand your client’s personality

We are all very used to the idea that individuals have personalities and moods that affect their demeanor, manner and behaviour. Skillful communicators can adjust their content, style and delivery to take account of these difference. But have you ever thought of applying similar thinking to the companies you deal with?

By understanding their organisational culture [personality] and climate [mood], you will be able to tailor your approach to meet their needs and maximise your chances of success.

When I visit a potential client for the first time, I try to arrive a little early; early enough for it to be likely that I will have to wait but not so early that it looks as though I got the time wrong. In those few minutes, I try to gauge something about what makes the company tick by watching what goes on.

In this short period, it is only possible to get a few initial insights into the way the company works, but any information is better than none. I try to use the following 7 topics to guide my assessment as I get to know the company and its people. As I wait, I’m normally able to pick up a few tips on the first couple of ideas.

Interaction

What is the level and style of interaction between the people you see? Is it formal or relaxed? Do they know each other’s names? If so what do they call each other? [In particular what do they call “the boss” and do they all use the same name?] Do they only talk about work or is there some social chat? etc

Rules and Procedures

The issue here isn’t whether they have rules and procedures, every business needs them, the question is whether they are proportionate to the business and the risks it faces. Are the number and method of publication of rules and procedures appropriate to the business. What is relevent to a major business operating in a highly regulated industry, is different to that required for a SME in a low risk business. Do the rules seem about right, over the top or too slack. [and are people following the publicised rules?]

What is [real] work?

Which of the organisation’s activities are considered as real work – is it just their core activity or is it broader activities, such as marketing, people management etc. Sometimes, this can be picked up from what the departments are called!

It can also be interesting to work out whether informal communication, discussions over coffee / water cooler etc are counted as work; favoured or frowned upon.

How important is time?

Is time seen as a valuable resource or as an enemy. Are deadlines real or purely indicative? Is getting things done by a particular time more important than how it is done [are rules and procedures “bent” to meet deadlines]? Does process and protocol beat the importance of time?

What is the level of acceptance and challenge

Do people accept things as they are, do what they are told and accept management’s explanations or do they challenge, raise alternatives and concerns? Would they point out that the Emperor’s new clothes were non-existent?

Do people co-operate?

What are shared areas like – do they all do their share to keep things tidy or do they leave it to others?

When asked a question do they answer exactly what is asked or seek to provide the required information?

Are people judged by their intentions and actions or the results they get?

This is fairly straightforward – do those who get the right results in inappropriate ways become better regarded than those who do the right things but don’t get the desired results.

If you keep these ideas in mind and keep your eyes and ears open, you will get to know what makes your clients tick and that will help you build better relationships with them – to benefit you both.

It may be obvious to you but …

Just a quick post based on an incident this afternoon.

I was in the Bureau de Change waiting to buy some Euros for a trip next week. A couple of people ahead of me in the queue was a woman in her sixties. She approached the desk and said “I’d like to give my grandsons £30 in Euros each” and then waited. The assistant sat and waited for a while and when it was clear that no further information was forthcoming, she said “How many grandsons have you got?”

It was a scene reminiscent of “The Graduate” where Benjamin is talking to Mrs Robinson on the phone at the hotel and she says “Isn’t there something you need to tell me?” He then goes into a bit of a monologue about how grateful he is etc. and she interrupts with “The room number Benjamin, the room number!”

Sometimes we forget to communicate important bits of information because it is obvious to us – we need to be aware that it may not be obvious to others.

Have you ever done anything similar?

What can you do to avoid similar problems?

To catch a fish – you need to go fish!

Early in my career, I worked with an outspoken, verbose and loud senior Engineer from the Southern States of the USA. He had a machine gun delivery talking at 50 to the dozen and could be hard to follow.

He always started every day with the same question.

Are we going to cut bait, hook up or go fish?

It took me a while to catch his meaning but once I did, I realised it was an excellent way to start the day – preparation is necessary but at some point you have to take action. No action – no results.

So are you ging to:

  • Cut bait
  • Hook up or
  • Go Fish

Today?

Don’t call us …

Customer care is something I have a real bee in my bonnet about and I really enjoy helping clients improve their performance. I’m always on the lookout for stories of good [and not so good] customer care. Some of them are so good / bad that I’d willingly pay for them but some businesses are just so good at shooting themselves in the foot I don’t have to.

My current bête noir is British Gas whose every contact throws up a learning point – take this recent episode as an example.

I was working in my home office last week when the house phone rang. Making my way to the kitchen, I answered to be confronted with an apologetic voice on the other end of the line; “I’m not sure why we’ve phoned you – I only answered to save you getting a silent call! Let me have a look at your file. Oh, it looks as though they want to arrange the service visit for your boiler maintenance contract – do you mind waiting whilst I connect you”. Reluctantly I agreed but after three minutes of “music”, I hung up and went back to work.

So they interrupted my work and then got me to wait! Great! This must be the greatest customer care faux pas.

Presumably, this is because their systems are set up to make it easy for their staff to get through as many calls and tasks as possible. You might ask where the customer fits into this. Surely, the systems should be set up to make life as easy as possible for the customer!

Do you think this enhanced the customer relationship?

Do you ever do anything like this to your customers?

Are your systems set up with the customer in mind or are they aimed at making your life easier?

What are you going to do about it?

You could take the first step by looking at “Give your customers a good listening to!” and the associated white paper on “The Voice of the Customer”

Maintaining crystal clear communication?

I was very interested to see that the Plain English Campaign has awarded Halfords a Crystal Mark for their plain English ‘Glossary of garage speak’. This publication is designed to remove some of the confusion and stress many customers feel when dealing with the motor trade because they don’t always understand the jargon.

Jargon can be used by groups both as a means of easing communication within the group and excluding the rest of the world. It is clear that jargon sometimes gets in the way of good communication; especially where there is a difference of knowledge and understanding amongst the participants. That’s not to say that it is intended to confuse but …

Effective communication needs to be  simple, clear and to use language which is equally understandable to everyone.

I’ve long been a supporter of the Plain English Campaign and frequently suggest their effective guides to students and clients alike to help them improve their writing.

I also understand the complaints about excessive jargon and “management speak” – such as mentioned in this BBC story [and an earlier posting] about confusing language used by local government. It is concerning for me also because my business name – Fulcrum [the pivot about which a lever turns]; is on the list of “banned words”.

However, I also subscribe to Albert Einstein’s observation that “everything should be made be a simple as possible, but no simpler” and there are occasions when jargon can express a concept much more succinctly than everyday language and times when a metaphor can make complex ideas easier to understand.

I’m passionate about clear communication and strive to use jargon only when it is absolutely necessary, is appropriate to the situation and is properly explained.

You should think about the effect the language you use has on your customers.

What can you do to reduce the use of jargon and improve quality?

What benefits could you expect if your customers had a clearer understanding of what you could do for them?

That’s not what I thought I was getting!

It’s a scene to send a chill down the spine of any project manager:

You are proudly showing off the asset you’ve worked for a couple of years to develop to the end-user, only to be greeted by “Oh! That’s not what I thought I was getting!”

How can this be?

What you’ve delivered meets the agreed specifications in every detail and still the customer is not satisfied!

It’s time to rewind to the development phase to understand what has gone wrong.

In many cases, the group which will use the asset is isolated from the project delivery team by a series of internal and external groups which are more focused on project delivery than the business itself. Even with effective procedures to define every aspect of the project, there is a danger that things will get lost in translation.

In most projects, there is a “one shot” transfer of end user requirements into the project team – OK it might happen a few times but fairly early on the input from the end user is scaled down. The project is then largely in the hands of “the techies” – engineers, architects, software developers etc. These groups are intent on delivering the best possible solution to the problem which has been defined in the project brief, User Requirements Specification or whatever you call it.

As the project proceeds, a plethora of new and more detailed documents, drawings, specifications, 3D Models, Schemas, Flow diagrams etc. is produced. These are intended to convey the requirements to other groups who are more and more expert in their element of the project. So they are formatted in ways that make sense to these groups.

Good project practice will ensure that these documents are circulated to the end-user who may even have responsibility for approval of the design. What is often forgotten is that the people involved are experts in something completely different: running factories, operating data centres, managing buildings etc. They are not experts in project management, design or construction, so there is a risk that they won’t be able to interpret the documents well enough to make informed decisions on the suitability of what is being proposed. They may also be overwhelmed by the quantity of information and miss what is important to them.

Knowing this, it should come as no surprise that from time to time what is delivered is not what was expected.

So, what can you do about this?

  1. Think about it from their perspective – what do they know about and what are they interested in?
  2. Think about the types of document are they used to seeing and aim to produce documents, mock-ups, prototype screen displays, sample reports in formats that will make sense to them, even if this means extra work. Take them to see examples of what you are proposing, they may not be able to visualise what you are proposing from the design documents.
  3. Be very careful in selecting the documents you want them to approve – don’t overburden them with detail they don’t need, aren’t interested in or don’t have the skills or knowledge to assess.
  4. Aim for a dialogue which allows a two-way flow of information throughout the project process.
  5. Most importantly, treat them as what they are – your customer, so be customer focused.

In short, put as much effort into describing the “asset” to its end users / future owners in terms they will understand as you put into describing to the implementers in terms they understand.

Business lessons from “Cablegate”

I don’t know if the word has been coined yet – so I may get the kudos of being the first to use it!

Without going into the political issues in this week’s media led furore, the behaviour of our Business Secretary certainly has some lessons for business.

Here are my three top lessons:

Be careful what you say – even in private

What you say in unguarded moments not only betrays your real thoughts but there is always a danger that it will get out into the public arena.

So what do you say in private about your:

  • Customers
  • Colleagues
  • Team
  • Suppliers
  • …?

Would you be concerned if they heard?

What does this say about what you think?

Should you be saying such things even in private?

How would they react if they knew what you thought?

Be true to your values

Your values will always come out – so be true to them. It is very stressful to act in ways which are not congruent with ones beliefs.

I’ve had personal experience of working in organisations where their values didn’t match mine; it affected my mood and performance. I felt so much better when I got out.

Be aware of your prejudices

We all have prejudices – its human nature. The critical issue is whether you are aware of them and try not to be driven by them. This has strong parallels to the first step in Emotional Intelligence – self-awareness.

So

What do you think?

Have you got any lessons from this?

Have you any useful observations / lessons from others in the public eye?

Improving Projects – Make sure everyone is doing the same project!

One of the most difficult situations for a project manager to deal with is that point in the implementation stage where one of the future users of the facility realises that what is being delivered is not what they were expecting. Usually, this means that there has been a communication error at some point in the scoping of the project or a lack of involvement of a key stakeholder.

Because problems of this type only come to light during the delivery phase, they can be particularly complex to deal with causing rework with cost and time penalties. So it is desirable to avoid them!

Causes

The causes frequently go right back to the project development stages and the processes used to move from each participant’s vague notions of what is required to a structured definition of the project scope.

Key issues include:

1.       Range of participants

2.       Process and Procedure

3.       Thinking processes

4.       Language Issues

5.       Cultural Issues

Participants

Most projects involve a wide range of actors with different skills, objectives and levels of involvement with the project and the assets to be delivered. Some are involved with its ultimate use, some with the construction or development and some with its on-going maintenance. Others may only be involved indirectly.

The end users of a project to develop a manufacturing facility:

  • Production
  • Maintenance
  • Marketing
  • QA
  • Logistics

The project team may involve:

  • Design
  • Construction
  • Project Management
  • Architect

This may be the tip of the iceberg: with corporate management and external contractors also having an input. For other types of project, the titles may be different but the complexity remains. Each group is likely to have only a partial understanding of each other’s perspective and ability to contribute.

Process Issues

Many project development frameworks envisage the development of a brief [protocol, mandate, charter etc.] which is intended to encapsulate the requirements of the sponsors and ultimate owners. This document is then used to guide the project team through the development and delivery phases.

This one hit method can cause serious problems as it may take only a slight difference in understanding to send the project team on a different trajectory to that anticipated by the sponsors.

Similarly, if there is not a mechanism to probe the objectives effectively, there is a significant danger that the project will deliver the stated needs but not the real needs. Satisfying the project objectives but not the corporate or strategic ones may result in the creation of a white elephant. This is discussed further in a paper “Integrating strategic and project management” [http://www.fulcrum-management.co.uk/html/resources.html]  and the book “Project Benefits Management” http://tinyurl.com/3cmekm .

Thinking Processes

Each group comes to the project with a different level of understanding based on their knowledge, experience, functional expertise etc. This influences both their perspective on the project and their perceived needs and wants.

This is the essence of what Peter Senge calls Mental Models [See for example http://www.infed.org/thinkers/senge.htm ]. Each of us has our own mental model which allows us to interact with and interpret the world – they are all different so failure to recognise this is a recipe for misunderstanding, futile argument and stress.

Gareth Morgan in his excellent book “Imaginization” provides a superb metaphor for how this works – he presents a drawing of a pig surrounded by a number of different observers ranging from a butcher to a small girl to a Muslim. [See slide 15 of http://www.authorstream.com/Presentation/aSGuest8691-130499-2-gareth-morgan-product-training-manuals-ppt-powerpoint/ ] they all see the same animal but it conjures up different responses for each.

One side effect of these different perspectives is that the different functional groupings each develop their own shorthand and there is a danger that they may well use the same terminology to mean quite different things.

Understanding these different perspectives is crucial to the effective development of a shared understanding of the project scope.

Language Issues

Appropriate use of language is crucial to shared understanding; unfortunately, our meaning is often distorted by what we say and how we say it. The quotation “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant”; sums it up neatly.

One of the key ideas in the field of knowledge of Neurolinguistic Programming is the concept of the metamodel. This describes how the ways in which we use language can lead to lack of precision in communication. A particular issue is the notion of “nominalisation” where we give a name to an abstract concept and talk about it as if it were real. David Kerr, discussed this recently in his blog http://www.watt-works.com/blog/nlp/useful-until-its-not-using-nlp-to-understand-what-works/

Different groups [and individuals] will use the same word for different purposes with the danger that they will superficially agree with each other whilst disagreeing at a deeper level.  An architect and a laboratory manager may have very different understandings of what is meant by “a state of the art laboratory”.

This may be compounded by national language issues for multinational teams, especially where people are working in their second [or third languages]

Cultural Issues

The way the organisation goes about its work and the behaviours it encourages or discourages may have a significant impact on the ability of the team to define the scope of the project. If the organisation encourages deference to experts and / or discourages questioning of management decisions then there is a significant risk that the proposed scope and implementation method will not be examined critically.

The more diverse the team in areas of expertise, geography and experience, the greater will be the danger of culturally led misunderstandings.

Solutions

The first step in “solving” these problems is to understand that they are likely to occur; forewarned is forearmed. Specifically, however the following actions seem to be relevant:

1.       Encourage participants to understand the background, needs and contribution of each group.

2.       Use a facilitative approach to encourage effective dialogue. This requires an air of independence, a broader set of skills and techniques such as those outlined in “The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook” and “The Dance of Change” [both P Senge et al]. The methods database of the IAF is also useful.

3.       Use approaches to encourage focused and well directed thinking such as those suggested by Edward de Bono.

4.       Be wary of agreement which seems to have been reached too easily – remember the Alfred Sloan statement to his board ‘Gentlemen, I take it that we are all in complete agreement on the decision here. Then, I propose that we postpone further discussion to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.’

5.       Put effort into ensuring that all participants are able to understand what is being proposed, don’t exclude them by using a medium they don’t understand – we will return to this in a later post.

6.       Remember the Second Law of Thermodynamics – the universe tends to chaos, effort is needed to create order. So work at it!