Tag Archives: communication

Seek to Improve How You Learn, Don’t Just Accept That You Can’t Do Better

photo of several people around a table smiling with red plastic pieces on the table.

Red Squares exercize at the 2 1/2 Deming Seminar in Hong Kong (2014).

As a speaker or coach or teacher it is wise to learn what impacts how people absorb information and learn. Factoring those ideas into how you communicate (one on one, coaching, training, presenting…) is wise.

Learning about how people learn and remember is important to allow you to communite well. And most people seem to understand this. But they also seem to have no shame in not improving their performance in relation to these common weaknesses.

I have never understood why so many people talk about weaknesses in how people learn (people only remember “10% of what they hear, 20% of what they read, and 80% of what they see and do”; you must repeat something 7,9,12… times before most people will remember it; people will retain more if they are given concrete examples relevant to them; people will remember more if they speak or write than if they just passively listen; a good visual will make an idea presented much more likely to be remembered…) but never seem to seek to improve their weaknesses in these areas.

Yes, it is harder for us to retain new information when we just hear about it or if good information is presented poorly. But if you do a much better job of learning and succeed in retaining what you hear or see (even if often people fail to do this well) you will be better off.

Yet what I see is people spouting these statistics, not as a way of learning what they need to improve themselves but as a way of explaining that it is inevitable and they won’t do any better (or even bother to attempt to do so). It just isn’t true that you can’t do better. You can train yourself to learn more than most people when the material is presented in a less than perfect manner by learning how we commonly fail to learn and making efforts to do better yourself.

Sure, learn these common traits to know how you need to take them into account when communicating with others. But also examine yourself and see if you have the same weaknesses and improve in those areas you are weak. Also you can learn from them how to be more successful in retaining good ideas (write them down, think about applying them in your context, make a note to actually apply them at work tomorrow or next week…). You can blame whoever was communicating the ideas to you for failing to present it as well as they should but that won’t help you learn more.

Also companies would be wise to put more effort into helping people learn better. I see lots of focus on how presenters should do better, but very little on how people can improve their capacity to listen and learn. Yes, those presenting should continually seek to improve and be aware of their customers (those they are communicating with). Those that are learning should also seek to improve their ability to learn, even if the way material is presented isn’t optimal.

By the way, you might also want to question much of the claims of what people remember: Mythical Retention Data & The Corrupted Cone.

Related: Effective Communication is ExplicitCommunicating ChangeHow Could They Know? They could learn about the job they were paid to do.
A Powerful Tool for Learning: The Capacity Matrix

Making Your Case to Senior Executives

This month Dr. Suresh Gettala writes about the Talking To the C-Suite About Quality in the monthly ASQ Influential Voices post.

My take is a bit different than Dr. Gettala (and most others) in that I believe CEOs are so wedded to short term financial measures that if you are speaking to them you need to both appeal to this bias while also fighting to move the organization away from being led by such a bias. That task isn’t easy, the financial bounty heaped on CEOs makes it very difficult for them to think of the long term and about the normal customer experience.

In order to “make the sale” the advice is pretty simple, short term financial measures are what will work (most of the time). Clear data that shows cost savings or increased sales are what they want to see. Of course, we have all seen how easy it is to manipulate data to make a case for whatever you are arguing for. If you are making the case that other powerful people (in the room) want to be made and the CEO wants to hear those claims will be easily accepted most of the time.

If you are challenging the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion (HiPPO) (and/or their supporters) you will have great difficulty getting your data listened to no matter how compelling it is. Knowing this going into your meeting is critically important.

If you can’t find a very clear case to be made for your position, strongly supported by difficult to refute data you may well want to just go along with the desires of those with power. I tend to fight for what I think is right, no matter if my chances of success are low, but this isn’t really a wise strategy.

The Starry Night at the MET with a teacher standing and students sitting

The Starry Night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. Photo by John Hunter; see more NYC photos.

I do try to focus on building the organization into one that will support my belief in a customer focused organization build on a foundation of respect for people striving to continually improve results through experimentation but this is a challenge. And trying to talk to the c-suite about quality when they are not ready to adopt that model of management doesn’t do much good.

Though admittedly I am not a good salesperson, I succeed by making things work better not by spinning good stories about how things could be better. Good salespeople will have more success with the challenge of getting a skeptical crowd to accept change, but senior executives normally are not easy to sell on new ideas. My strategy is to build my reputation by achieving results using good management practices. That builds the case for using the management ideas I believe in and listening to what I say (based on past results instead of my charisma or communication skill).

My advice is to grow your circle of influence and build the capability of the organization to adopt a customer focused continual improvement management system. Once that is done, speaking to the c-suite is easy. Before that is done, speaking to them is still easy, unless you want them to change their short term financial focus.

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Process Thinking: Process Email Addresses

This is just a simple tip. When providing email address think about what the purpose is. If it is to contact a specific person then an individual’s email address makes sense. But if you are really emailing the software testing manager then it may well make sense to provide people the email address software_testing_manager@

Essentially, I think it is often sensible to break out email addresses for specific functions or processes. Then the email address can just be routed to whoever is suppose to handle those emails. And as your responsibilities shift a bit, those you no longer do can be shifted to someone else and you start getting your new emails. Another nice (I think so anyway) side affect is your various roles are made more concrete. Often it seems who really is responsible is unclear, if you have 5 email address that Jane handled before she left it will be obvious if only 4 of them have been reassigned that 1 has not. Granted such a thing should be obvious without this email tip-off but given how many organizations really operate failing to assign all of someone’s responsibilities to someone when they leave is more common than you would hope.

It is also nice because, if their is a reason it is helpful, those emails can automatically go to as many people as desired. Also if the manager goes on vacation for 2 weeks, the emails can be sent also to the person filling in for them until they return.

Another benefit is a manager, or whoever, can take a quick dip into the email traffic to get a sense of what is being requested. Another benefit (depending on the way it is implemented) can be to have all the software_testing_manager@ emails and responses associated with that email so if you are given that responsibility you can view historical response.

If our knowledge management (wikis, or whatever) solutions were great this would be less important (though still probably valuable) but often the email history may have the best record of our organization knowledge on a topic. When it is spread about in a bunch of individuals mail boxes it is often essentially lost.

It is a small think but this bit of process thinking I have found helpful.

Related: Management By IT Crowd BossesSoftware Supporting Processes Not the Other Way AroundEncourage Improvement Action by EveryoneDelighting Customers

Double Loop Learning Presentation by Benjamin Mitchell

Benjamin Mitchell – Using the Mutual Learning Model to achieve Double Loop Learning from Agileminds.

Benjamin Mitchell presents ideas using Chris Argyris thinking on double-loop learning. “Double-loop learning occurs when error is detected and corrected in ways that involve the modification of an organization’s underlying norms, policies and objectives.”

Single loop learning is basically to just try again using the same understanding, thinking and tactics. It is understood that the results were not what was desired so we will try again, but the supporting system is not seen as the reason results were not the desired results. Double loop learning is when the result leads to questioning the system and attempting to adjust the system and make changes and experiment to learn to be able to create systems that get better results.

Argyris: people will blame others and the system when their actions seem to differ from their espoused proper actions. (I see this as similar to the idea of revealed preference versus stated preference: revealed actions versus stated actions – John)

Related: People are Often IrrationalDouble Loop Learning in Organizations
by Chris Argyris
Theory of knowledgeRethinking or Moving Beyond Deming Often Just Means Applying More of What Dr. Deming Actually Said

Visual Management with Brown M&Ms

When you hear about rock musicians having a clause in their contract that they must have a bowl of M&Ms in their dressing room with all the brown M&Ms removed you could be excused for thinking: what will these crazy celebrities do next. Well it might just be those crazy celebrities are using visual management (granted I think there could be better methods [a bit more mistake proofing where the real problems would be manifest] but it is an interesting idea). Basically if they didn’t have the bowl of M&Ms, or if the brown M&Ms were not removed, they could distrust the thoroughness of the contractors. And they would check to see what other, actually important, contractual requirements were not followed.

Righting The Wrongs: Van Halen and M&Ms

The staff at venues in large cities were used to technically-complex shows like Van Halen’s. The band played in venues like New York’s Madison Square Garden or Atlanta’s The Omni without incident. But the band kept noticing errors (sometimes significant errors) in the stage setup in smaller cities. The band needed a way to know that their contract had been read fully. And this is where the “no brown M&Ms” came in. The band put a clause smack dab in the middle of the technical jargon of other riders: “Article 126: There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation”. That way, the band could simply enter the arena and look for a bowl of M&Ms in the backstage area. No brown M&Ms? Someone read the contract fully, so there were probably no major mistakes with the equipment. A bowl of M&Ms with the brown candies? No bowl of M&Ms at all? Stop everyone and check every single thing, because someone didn’t bother to read the contract. Roth himself said:

“So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl . . . well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.”

Related: The Importance of Making Problems VisibleVisual Work InstructionsGood Process Improvement PracticesGreat Visual Instruction Example

Don’t Treat People Like You Want to be Treated

I have never understood the logic behind the idea that you should treat people like you want to be treated. I know I am different; I don’t want what lots of other people seem to want. If I treat them how I want to be treated, they are not happy.

I understand the sentiment behind the statement. I think it is much more effectively stated as: treat people how they want to be treated. An understanding of psychology will provide you with the understanding that people are different and want to be treated differently, while wanting to feel that they are valued and respected. Some people will like a boisterous extroverted environment and others will want to be able to have some time to concentrate and think by themselves. Some people will want to avoid confrontation at almost any costs others will want to deal openly and directly with issues confronting the organization. And most people will be somewhere in between the alternatives.

I don’t want to be thanked for trivial matters. But I have seen lots of people do like this. I do like to be challenged on what I claim and debate the merits of the idea (if I can learn I am wrong, it is much better to do it early and change – instead of waiting for some problem to develop). I notice a lot of others don’t like this at all. I don’t like to be interrupted when I am trying to concentrate. I know lots of others don’t understand this. And when they are treating others as they want to be treated the thought that others are trying to concentrate doesn’t cross their minds. They are not intentionally trying to be disruptive. They are trying to include others as they would like to be included. I find it annoying when we celebrate some minor success while much more serious problems are left unaddressed. I realize most others don’t have this problem.

I like to see data and evidence to back up claims and to explore what the data strongly shows and what conclusions are more tenuous. I know many just get bored by numbers and don’t want to see endless charts and figures. I like to be challenged and asked difficult questions in meetings. I know lots of people do not like this. I would like to ask other people difficult questions (but don’t – if I went with the treat people like you want to be treated idea I would ask). I like change that is part of a sensible strategy of improvement (that measures results to avoid change for that isn’t improvement, which I don’t like). However, I understand many people are uncomfortable with change. I despise sitting in meetings without agendas or a clear purpose that wander and don’t seem to accomplish anything. Others seem un-bothered by this (though I know in this feeling I am with the majority).

I think a key to managing people is to take time to think about the individuals involved, what your intention is, and then to act in a way that is tailored to how that person wants to be treated. Some people will want to be recognized publicly. Some people may want to discuss in private how they could do even better. Some people may like to be given the opportunity to lead a meeting. Others would rather be given the opportunity to create a new design for the intranet. Others may like the opportunity to train new staff on some aspect of their job. Some people may want opportunities to move up the corporate ladder. Others would rather have some time off to pursue other interests.

You should treat people how they want to be treated, not how you want to be treated.
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Communicating with the Visual Display of Data

graphs showing data sets with different looks even though some statistical characteristics are the same
Anscombe’s quartet: all four sets are identical when examined statistically, but vary considerably when graphed. Image via Wikipedia.

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Anscombe’s quartet comprises four datasets that have identical simple statistical properties, yet are revealed to be very different when inspected graphically. Each dataset consists of eleven (x,y) points. They were constructed in 1973 by the statistician F.J. Anscombe to demonstrate the importance of graphing data before analyzing it, and of the effect of outliers on the statistical properties of a dataset.

Of course we also have to be careful of drawing incorrect conclusions from visual displays.

For all four datasets:

Property Value
Mean of each x variable 9.0
Variance of each x variable 10.0
Mean of each y variable 7.5
Variance of each y variable 3.75
Correlation between each x and y variable 0.816
Linear regression line y = 3 + 0.5x

Edward Tufte uses the quartet to emphasize the importance of looking at one’s data before analyzing it in the first page of the first chapter of his book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

Related: Great ChartsSimpson’s ParadoxSeeing Patterns Where None ExistsVisible DataControl ChartsEdward Tufte’s: Beautiful Evidence

The Importance of Making Problems Visible

Great, short, presentation webcast by Jason Yip showing the importance of making problems visible. Anyone interested in software development should watch this, and it is valuable for everyone else, also. Great visuals.

Related: Future Directions for Agile ManagementAgile Software Development SlideshowLeading Lean: Missed OpportunityInformation Technology and ManagementCurious Cat Micro-financiersposts on project managementToyota Institute for Managers

Online Data Backup and Corporate Blogging

This is a good example of a sensible corporate blog post, Online Data Backup. Their blog is fairly staid and impersonal (which is not normal for blogs) but as corporations take up blogging many such blogs are coming into being. blogs began as very personal communication vehicles, but that trait is not required (though completely impersonal blogs do not really seem like blogs at all). The balance between boring, pushy marketing and providing useful information while mentioning your services is a bit tricky and something different people have varying tolerances for.

According to the National Archives & Records Administration in Washington, D.C., 93% of companies that lost their data center for 10 days or more due to a disaster filed for bankruptcy within one year of the disaster. Of those companies, 50% filed for bankruptcy immediately. A Price Waterhouse Coopers survey calculated that a single incident of data loss costs businesses an average of $10,000.

Even if you are a home user, almost one third of you have lost all of your files due to circumstances beyond your control, like a hard disk drive crash. If you then tried to get a quote from a data recovery service, you likely gasped at the price. An estimate of $2,000 or more is quite common. Why? Because desperate people pay lots of money.

We all know we should backup our data, but most of us continue to put it off for a variety of reasons. It takes too long. We hate shuffling DVDs/CDs in and out. We’re too busy scheduling root canals at our respective dentists. Even if you’re vigilant about copying your data to a second storage location, how many of you, home or business user, can say that you have an off-site backup that will protect you in case of a fire or other natural disaster? I’ll bet good money that the answer is “not many.”

I think this post is successful at walking the balance between marketing and saying something worth reading. I would imagine others would find it too marketing focused. I think one focus a corporate blog needs to take is the purpose of the blog is to provide users useful and interesting information. Within that context highlighting offerings from the company is fine, but if providing value to the blog readers is not seen as the primary focus the blog is not going to be effective.

Also be sure those writing for, and making decisions about, the blog understand the technology and accepted practices of the blogging world. Coming off as some stilted, out-of-touch, outdated organization is probably not going to help the organization. One simple example is many blogs don’t even link out to studies etc. that they reference. This is a very lame practice (one the Lenovo site seems to employ). Such practices are common among those that don’t understand the internet (which is not a group you want to be in if you are publishing a blog). Also, as a reader, be very wary of statistics without context (such as those quoted above without providing links to the full reports).

Also, the blog post makes provides a good reminder, backup is important. This is valuable reminder, because it is an important thing to do, and because it is fairly commonly a weakness. Breathing is important too, but we don’t really need to remind people, they breath without reminders.

Some good corporate blog examples: Dell InnovationAmazon S3 Failure AnalysisManagement Training ProgramToyota’s CommitmentBlogging is Good for YouVisual Instructions Example (Seagate backup drive)

Communicating Change

Response to: Sales Compensation Plan Changes

I believe the best way to communicate such changes are to explain how they tie into the long term vision of the organization. This requires that such a vision actually exists (which is often not the case). Then all strategies are communicated based on how they support and integrate with that vision. In addition that communication strategy incorporates an understanding about what weaknesses with past practices are addressed by this new strategy. And how this strategy is based upon what we have learned in strategies we have attempted recently.

That is the communication plan shows how using the PDSA improvement cycle has driven the new strategy. This has at least 2 benefits. First it forces management (well ok not quite, it forces them to frame the decision with PDSA but it encourages them to) actually use the PDSA cycle to make decisions which will result in better decisions. Which will also mean, when possible they will have piloted the change on a small scale prior to adopting it widely (avoiding major mistakes and allowing for more rapid experimentation). And secondly it reinforces that everyone should be using PDSA for those changes they are responsible for.

Most often there is no continuity or rigorous examination of past attempts in communicating change. In such situations I see no reason to be surprised that most people just see random changes by whoever is in charge that just must be survived until the next random change.

Free, Perfect and Now is a great book by a CEO at Marshall Industries that eliminated sales commissions as an integrated strategy to improve the performance of the entire organization. I think it is a great book on this topic.

Maybe I should also say that this isn’t a particularly easy way to communicate change (having to actually examine evidence prior to making decisions, then explain how new strategies support…). But I am not looking for the easiest way to communicate change but the most effective way to continually improve. Communication change is important as a supporting process within the systemic goal of continuous improvement. The easiest communication strategy is not important. The most effective methods for the entire system are. That is sub optimize the ease of communication for the benefit of the whole. If you want an easy communication strategy just send an email that says this is how we will do things from now on.

Related: Making Changes and Taking Risks in the Sales ForceCorporate Communication Through BloggingImproving CommunicationStop Demotivating Me!