Archive for the ‘communication’ Category

If Steven Johnson’s new book is as good as the ad, it’ll be awfully good

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

This is a marketing trailer for Steven Johnson’s new book, “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.” But it’s also a work of art. Check it out.

Language creates reality, even in business

Monday, December 14th, 2009

One of the most fun aspects of blogging has been re-immersing myself in language. At work, language is just something you use; you don’t scrutinize it. Yet, the (mis)use of language has a lot to do with effectiveness at work or in any collaborative context.

I don’t mean jargon; rather, I’m talking about the slippery language we use when we ask for or respond to requests to do something. Kids, of course, quickly master getting their way through exploiting language loopholes: if I don’t ask my 6-year-old son in precise, unambiguous language to do something he wouldn’t otherwise do (say, make his bed), he won’t do it, and tell me it’s my fault because I wasn’t clear.

He’s onto something there. Too often, I haven’t been clear in what I request from others at work; be they subordinates, peers or other colleagues. I also interpret as a clear “yes” words that don’t, in fact, mean that. (My son is not faultless, however. Too often I’ll blow off requests with half-hearted responses, such as saying “OK,” meaning “I understand you,” instead of “yes, I will do that.”) Imagine this brief conversation:

“I need that report by Friday. Does that make sense?”


There are two fundamental problems with the above conversation. The requester has not specifically asked her colleague to hand in the report by Friday, and the colleague has not really agreed to anything. Let’s fill out the dialogue as the requester would have it – annotations in [brackets]:

“I need that report by [the end of the day] Friday [and I need you do complete it and get it to me]. Does that make sense? [Will you do that? Are there any questions before you get started?]”

“Sure. [I understand what you want and I will get it to you by close of business Friday.]“

Here’s how the colleague might fill in the blanks:

“I need that report by Friday. [If you don't have anything pressing, could you try to get it to me?]”

“Sure. [I have a lot of work already planned. If I get a free moment I'll try to work on it some. But no guarantees.]“

It’s obvious that this story won’t end happily. And it is replayed again and again, in all companies, all over the world.

If the above has piqued your curiosity, you must read this article in the new Strategy + Business magazine, covering the work of Fernando Flores (”Fernando Flores Wants To Make You An Offer“). Flores is a philosopher of communication who over the past thirty years has worked to understand and shape how people communicate to convey information or accomplish tasks.

The S+B article dwells on Flores’ personal story (former Chilean political prisoner, to successful US-based management consultant, to current member of Chile’s senate), but to me the discussion of his research and consulting work is most interesting.

Flores says, “Human beings are linguistic, social, emotional animals that co-invent a world through language.” And in his consulting practice he helped companies codify their communication to increase clarity of meaning. Central to this is the idea of offers, promises and commitments. Requests must be explicitly phrased as such, and commitments to do something are expected to be fulfilled.

As companies grow in size and scope, and communication becomes more virtual, the ability to hind behind weak requests and noncommittal responses will only increase. Therefore, the need for co-workers to become more explicit about their requests, and responders about their commitments, is urgent. It’s important for companies to recognize that, but I think each of us as individuals can get started, with our without company support.

Your company and career need you to do this. Will you? Is that a promise?

Related post:
Making and keeping commitments: a must
Making and obtaining effective promises – it’s important, and rare

Be aware of using weird business metaphors

Friday, July 24th, 2009

The word “tsunami” was used a lot in the past to describe a trend or momentum in a market.

Then a real tsunami hit in December 2004. Hundreds of thousands died and more than 1 million people lost their homes. Suddenly we didn’t throw that term around as much anymore (well, except for some people: “[Jim] Cramer…called the latest baseball tech breakthrough a ‘tsunami’ and the ’single best example of the Mobile Internet.’”)

When we speak or write, we use metaphors constantly, without realizing it. They are powerful and insidious. And many have crept into everyday use that upon scrutiny are perhaps not what we really want to say. Such as:

- serial entrepreneur. My favorite weird business metaphor. In what other context does “serial” as a modifier have a positive connotation? Serial killer. Serial rapist. Ugh. Suggestion: how about “entrepreneur” or “successful entrepreneur”?

- viral marketing. Sometimes the metaphors we develop reflect our deep unease with the subject. “Viral marketing” suggests something silent, hard to trace, and… bad for us.

- death march. I used this term a lot when I managed software projects, like, “Let’s keep on our deliverable schedule so this project doesn’t turn into a death march.” With the recent release of the book, “Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath,” it brought home again the stark difference between a casual reference to the Bataan Death March and the real thing.

- nuclear option. Do we really want to compare a political tactic with our worst nightmares of the Cold War?

[Are there other weird metaphors out there? Post them in the comments. Thanks!]

There are countless other metaphors comparing business with warfare. Now that we are more than five years into the Iraq war, people are more aware of the costs and sacrifices of actual fighting, and so these metaphors seem to be in decline. But the war will end someday, and soon thereafter, they’ll start coming back.

It’s a dead certainty.

The value of the "ack" in personal networking

Monday, November 17th, 2008

My technical background is in computer networking. I spent my twenties studying network protocols, designing queueing systems, and working on security issues. It was a great experience that is still useful today, 20 years later, now that everyone uses that Internet thing.

One principle of networking protocols is the idea of guaranteed delivery versus nonguaranteed. Basically, when you send a message over the Internet, it is broken up into tiny pieces, called packets, and sent down the line, mixed up with all sorts of other packets, and finally reassembled into a message on the other end.

With nonguaranteed delivery, the message is just sent out, and the sender doesn’t really know if it got there (believe it or not, there are good applications for this). With guaranteed delivery, by contrast, the receiver sends an acknowledgement (or “ack”) to the sender saying, in essence, “I got your message, thanks.”

The “TCP” in TCP/IP is a guaranteed delivery protocol.

I was thinking about this because I am doing less computer networking these days and more personal networking. Emailing, Twittering, spending time on the phone. And the “ack” concept works just as well here. (Another metaphor for an ack is a “handshake.” I like that one.)

Email, to me, is a nonguaranteed delivery protocol. From a technical standpoint, that’s nonsense–Simple Mail Transport Protocol (SMTP), of course, sends acknowledgements to your mail server when your message is delivered. But I’m talking about personal communication.

When you send an email, you don’t know if someone got it unless they respond. This is the “ack.” For much email, lack of acknowledgement is fine. But for others, acks can be very important to maintaining and enhancing your relationships. For example:

  • If someone refers a prospect to you, you should first acknowledge that you got the referral (thanking them is also good!), and you should send another ack when you get or don’t get the business. The referrer is curious to know, and also wants to see if you follow through on referrals.

  • If you ask someone a question, and they respond via email, a short ack is good. “Thanks, that helps.” They know then that you took the time to read the response and (hopefully) make use of it.
  • If someone asks you a question on email, and you don’t have time to answer, you should acknowledge you received it and when you think you might be able to respond. That way the sender doesn’t sit waiting for your response to arrive.

There are probably lots of other good times to send an ack. Please post your own ideas in the comments. Thanks, and I’ll try to acknowledge all the contributions :-)

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A silly but fun use of Twitter

Friday, November 14th, 2008

Many people say, “What on earth is Twitter good for?” and there are lots of answers. One in particular: it’s really great for providing a real-time status of a bad Mexican wrestler-monster movie that you watch while you eat dinner at the bar. See below (note to those unfamiliar with Twitter: the first post is at the bottom; the last is at the top). Enjoy!

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Getting out the stories of Burmese prisoners–an heroic feat

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

George Packer’s Interesting Times blog from The New Yorker yesterday discussed Human Rights Watch’s honoring of a Burmese hero, Bo Kyi. Mr. Kyi had been held as a prisoner by the Burmese government, enduring the brutalities of that unique brand of confinement. Upon his release, Mr. Kyi moved across the border to Thailand and founded an organization, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma, the mission of which includes “report[ing] on the military regime’s oppression of political prisoners who are presently detained in various prisons.”

My Kyi’s remarks on accepting his award were powerful, and are excerpted in Packer’s post. I found this passage particularly striking:

We have a way to communicate with the prisoners and get their stories out. I cannot tell you how we do this. I do not want the Burmese regime to find out. But I can tell you that these stories fill the pages of our reports and those of Human Rights Watch.

The media use these stories. So do political leaders around the world. Over time, the stories of these prisoners generate pressure on the international community to take a stand.

Burmese dissidents are outgunned and outmanned. But they have ideas and stories on their side. Who doubts they will win someday?

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"Sesame Street simple" communication with a story

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

My first reaction to this Bob Sutton post–”Sesame Street Simple: A.G. Lafley’s Leadership Philosophy“–was a slight recoil. Perhaps because I thought we had tapped out on learning from A.G. Lafley (can’t we let the man run his company in peace?). But also because my natural communication style is not “Sesame Street simple.” Unsure of that? Read this blog for a while.

But, after letting it sit a few weeks, I’m starting to get what Sutton is saying. He’s onto something important about communicating with and influencing large numbers of people:

…although executives who talk about many ideas and complex ideas will be viewed as smarter — wiser and more effective executives pick just a few simple messages and repeat them over and over again until people throughout the organization internalize them and use them to guide action. Constantly changing messages lead to the “flavor of the month problem” where people don’t act on the current message because they have learned that, if they wait a few months (or days) the message will change (managers in such organizations become very skilled at talking as if they are acting on the flavor of the month, but not actually doing the thing that senior executives are pushing at the moment.) And making things overly complicated may make the senior executives seem smart and feel smart , but if a message is too complicated to understand, it is also means that the implications for action are impossible to understand as well.

Managers “talking as if they are acting…but not actually doing” recalls the damaging “false urgency” that inflicts many companies, as John Kotter discusses in his new book.

There’s a way to do “Sesame Street simple” in a way that provides powerful insight and direction. Telling a story. Stories can be understood by everyone. They can be retold and honed for a particular group (”what’s our ‘the consumer is boss‘ story?”). They can convey complex lessons and spawn deep discussions about meaning.

That’s a “Sesame Street simple” approach even I can understand.

(Photo: Hokey Pokey Elmo from Toys R Us)

Related Posts:
On John Kotter’s “A Sense of Urgency”
More on “A Sense of Urgency”
A.G. Lafley: “The Consumer Is Boss”

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How to ask your clients uncomfortable questions

Monday, October 27th, 2008

We know when selling that we need to probe our clients’ needs, ask sensitive questions, or, on occasion, ask for favors. To some people, this comes naturally. The rest of us can rely on this advice from Ford Harding about how to pose some of these tricky questions to clients–questions that can be uncomfortable to ask, but essential to expanding a network and growing a business.

A teaser:

Purpose: To be seated next to possible client at party
Words: I have wanted to get to know [name] for a long time. Would you consider seating us near each other at dinner?

Read Ford’s entire post.

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Corporate change #5 – role of consultants in "bringing the outside in"

Thursday, September 25th, 2008

In earlier segments of this thread, we discussed how “bringing the outside in” is imperative for companies to keep aware and humble enough to avoid complacency and drive their organizations forward successfully. By contrast, companies in which the context inside the company drowns out voices from the outside tend to attribute their successes to their internal competencies, blame their failures on outside entities, and stagnate their way to failure.

I was talking to an old customer earlier in the month about working to help companies learn about the world outside. “Exactly!” he said. “Companies need people like you to come in and help them learn about what customers think.”

To a point, yes. Having an outside perspective that is less invested in the company’s culture or politics is valuable. But not at the expense of a broad, internal effort to understand and make sense of the outside world.

Referring to the business complexity literature we’ve touched on a few times in this blog, the world outside is a complex, messy place. It’s constantly changing. So old information, and limited sources, are not very useful. To gain the best, most supple understanding of the outside, a company needs lots of eyes and ears, a diverse group gathering and interpreting information, and creating stories about it. Consultants should be among that group, but not the only or the most credible source for outside information.

Management’s job is to enable that story-creation, create systems for capturing and making sense of it, and above all to honor and use it to create strategy, spur innovation, and otherwise enable Kotter’s “sense of urgency.”

That’s a job that even McKinsey might hesitate to take on.

Prior posts in this series:
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

Reading list:
Gary Hamel, “The Future of Management”
John Kotter, “A Sense of Urgency”
Charlene Li & Josh Bernoff, “Groundswell”
Dave Snowden & Mary Boone, “A Leader’s Guide to Decisionmaking,” Harvard Business Review, November 2007.

Related post:
Complex business problems need diagnosis

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Corporate Change #4 – don’t leave engaging with the outside to marketing/PR

Friday, September 19th, 2008

In the prior post in this series, I talked about galvanizing the will to change through “bringing the outside in”–learning what customers, the press, influencers–really anyone–thinks about the company, its products, its marketplace, industry, etc.

To which a reasonable person might ask: “Isn’t that my marketing department’s job?” Especially with newer tools like blogs, wikis, Twitter, etc., marketing is taking the lead in engaging with the “groundswell.”

While marketing has a significant role to play, they cannot own this function, any more than finance can own any decision that has to do with dollars and cents–it’s too big, too comprehensive and too important to be limited to one group. Here are several reasons why:

Marketing is obsessed with brands & messages. Brands and messages are relentlessly positive–who buys a negative message? But learning comes from both positive and negative stories. There are threats as well as opportunities. Marketing is asked to convey messages, not to understand the world in all its messiness and complexity.

PR is asked to get positive stories out there, and to counter negative perceptions–not to learn or to inform the company. True dialogue involves listening–even when the conversation is negative or you don’t agree with it–and trying to find lessons in that. Perception is reality, and PR tries to change perception–what we’re talking about here is, by contrast, understanding reality.

The view of both is too limited.
Different parts of the organization have different things to learn from the outside. Operations needs to learn new ways of working. Product management needs to understand how customers actually use products. HR needs to know how the workforce is evolving. Groupthink is also less likely when a diverse group of people is examining the world–with more likelihood that sound actions, and commitment to achieve them, will result.

Comcast’s experiment with Twitter-based customer service (see example here of “Groundswell” co-author Charlene Li Tweeting for help and Comcast responding) works because the Comcast guy is trying to solve a customer problem, not deliver a message. If Charlene ends up feeling better about Comcast, it is a side effect, not the intent, of the action. The tech is also in a position to learn deeply about this customer situation and, I’m certain, to disseminate the learning to colleagues.

Imagine this fictional Twitter dialogue if Charlene had to engage with marketing instead of with a real tech (I’ve reversed it for readability. In real Twitter, the newest message is on top):

charleneli: @comcastmktg My connection keeps going in and out, happens every few months. Comcast Cust service has no idea why. Any way to escalate?

comcastmktg: @charleneli That’s hard to believe. Comcast has the highest network reliability in the industry.

charleneli: @comcastmktg Yeah, fine. Can you help me with my question?

comcastmktg @charleneli Of course. One more thing. Did you know we have twice as many HD channels as DirecTV?

charleneli: @comcastmktg What? Who are you? Can you get me to someone who can help me?

comcastmktg @charleneli Right away. Please email and you’ll get a response within 24-48 hours. Have you heard about our community service initiatives?

charleneli: @comcastmktg Aaargh!

Coming next: what is the role of consultants (written by an actual consultant!) in bringing the outside in?

Prior posts in this series:
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 5
Reading list:
Gary Hamel, “The Future of Management”
John Kotter, “A Sense of Urgency”
Charlene Li & Josh Bernoff, “Groundswell”

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