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Thursday, December 03, 2009

What We Have Here - Is A Failure To Communicate

(This guest post was authored by Eric Kurjan,President of Six Disciplines Ohio/Indiana. Six Disciplines brings “big company” process improvement to organizations looking to break from the status quo. For more information visit, email or call 419-348-1897)


As businesses are coming out of the economic downturn, they are starting to recognize that they need to do something different. However, that is a highly complex statement. What can you possibly do differently? Well, in most cases the list is enormous. There are plenty of things to work on.

If you followed my advice in my October article, then you are headed down the right path. There is a long way to go to get to the final destination but if you have defined that destination at least you know where you want to go. Now, how to do I get there? The first step is to communicate that information to the rest of the team. Where are we going, what will we do to get there, how will we do it and who is responsible for the various steps and actions? Those four basic tenets are the key drivers of strategy formation and more importantly the execution. But there is something more.

For some reason, asking CEOs/Presidents/Owners to share this type of information with their teams seems to be a very foreign concept. There is the unreasonable expectation that the team members/employees somehow already know where they are going and how to get there. Most folks are not great mind readers and then they end up doing whatever they think is best because as leaders we have not communicated what we need or want. As someone wise once said, “The biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place."

In fact, the larger the organization is, the greater this illusion becomes. As organizations grow, communication challenges grow as well. These challenges will grow dramatically faster than the organization headcount. To illustrate:

  • In an organization with 3 people, there are only 3 possible different interactions.
  • In an organization with 25 people (8 times as many people), there are 300 possible different interactions = 100 times increase in the complexity of communications
  • In an organization with 100 people (33 times as many people), there are 4,950 possible different interactions = 1,650 times increase in the complexity of communications

Growing organizations respond to increased complexity by creating layers (business units, divisions, departments, teams, groups, etc.). Add to this challenge -- 55% of communication really takes place through non-verbal body language (not phone, not email, not IMs, not video conferencing.)

So, we have some pretty big issues to overcome to get people on the path we want. Unfortunately, we have leaders who don’t share the company message, direction or expectations with their employees, and then couple that with the complexity of a growing organization. In the absence of leadership, employees decide their own direction. Often times the intentions are good; however, they do not always align with what management sees as important.

Gary Harpst, the founder of Six Disciplines, tells a very poignant story of “Susan”. “Susan” works for a very good commercial HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) contractor in the Midwest. She has been an excellent, loyal, hard working inside sales employee for the past seven years.

This morning she has a conversation with her leader, the manager of inside sales. He tells Susan that the numbers on the commercial business are off for the month. Their normal commercial clients are not upgrading and new construction is terrible. He tells her that she needs to get more deals in the door, somehow. Seems pretty straightforward and probably a conversation repeated in organizations all across America. Being a creative and hard working person, Susan is looking for any new business she can find. In good times, the pipeline has been plentiful with commercial deals and anytime a residential sales/service call came in she turned them away.

However, now based on the conversation she had with her manager this morning, she “decides” to take on a residential opportunity. She completes the paperwork, sends a service crew to the residence and thinks she has uncovered a new opportunity. However, she has created a nightmare. The work crew is not trained to work on residential HVAC systems, they do not carry the parts, the business model and cost structure are not compatible, and on and on. Susan’s decision is full of good intentions but her self-directed approach is fraught with issues. And it all started with a lack of clear direction and communication.

This type of disconnect is very common, and it is all about the lack of communication.

Communication also ties to overall employee performance. Yes it is true, not only do you need to tell your employees what they need to do and what you expect of them but you also need to share with them how well they are doing their jobs.

SuccessFactors surveyed 3,600+ workers at 291 companies and found, among other things,
• 51% of employees don’t know whether their performance is where it should be
• 66% say they have too little interaction with their boss
• 55% don’t get enough timely constructive criticism

BOTTOMLINE: It all comes down to communication. You should try it. Set the direction, define the actions and measure the results. The investment is small, but the rewards are huge.

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