Communicating Up and Sideways

A good leader should communicate in the language of his or her subordinates. A good leader should be the one to adjust dialect and language. This is well accepted wisdom. The problem is that “should” is a rather meaningless word. “Should” doesn’t require, nor does it instruct. “Should” implies obligation, but doesn’t imply action or consequence of not taking action.

Expecting a superior or colleague to speak in your language only ensures that you “should” be able to communicate, not that you will. Relying on “should” is a lot like relying on luck. You give up control when you rely on luck or “should.” It’s fine if you don’t care, but not if you do.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that effective communication is a vital part of surviving and advancing in the business world. Without it, no one knows what you do or what your worth is to them.

In this context, “shouldn’t” is an appropriate word. The usage here is that the argument is common enough knowledge that it’s reasonable to assume that a reasonable person would agree. It doesn’t imply, nor need to imply any action or consequence.

This isn’t an article about “managing your boss. I’ve seen enough of those, and have always thought them rather presumptuous. “Managing your boss” is really more manipulation and exploitation than it is about managing, and I’m not at all a fan of manipulation. What you can do, and will benefit from, though, is to manage the communications with your boss and co-workers.

It’s great if you have a boss that knows how to communicate well. Not everyone does, and even for those that do, it can be pretty helpful to share the job of effectively communicating.

One of the easiest illustrations is in the contrast between a visual person and a numbers person. The numbers person needs to see metrics in spreadsheet or table form. The visual person needs the same information in chart and graph format. Trying to get one to accept the other often results in little or no actual communication and lots of frustration.

If your boss is a visual person, and you hand in a table with all of the data, plus rows and columns of only distantly related numbers, they will have a hard time with it. Their brain wants to be able see structures at a glance. Instead, you’ve given them a jumbled mess of indistinguishable black and white hieroglyphs.

On the other side, if you give your numbers-person boss a nice bar chart, they will see a bunch of fluffy colors that do little more than obscure the details. They need to see not only the numbers they’re interested, but also the data behind the numbers.

But shouldn’t a good leader be the one adjusting language, you ask? Again, I’ll compare the word “shouldn’t” in this context to luck.

Good leaders do adjust their language, and listen carefully. They are putting in the effort, and what you are trying to say is (presumably) important. Why would you not do as much as you can to complement their effort. Good leaders have also hired you, in part, for your communications skills. Assuming the leader will do the majority of the work is doing them a disservice and is a failure to live up to your commitment as an employee.

The same holds when dealing with colleagues you don’t report to. It may seem like you’re partly doing their job if you adjust your communication to fit their style, but if your message is important enough to give, it’s important enough to justify the extra work toward clarity for your recipient. Ideally both parties are doing it so that misses by one will be more likely to be covered by the other.

A good example would be in the use of acronyms and jargon with (or as) a new coworker. Communications problems happen quite often when one person has a background from a large, tightly structured company, and the other is from a smaller, more cowboy like, company.

Jane joins a small start-up company from a large multi-national corporation. Her former company spent a lot of time studying lean manufacturing, the Toyota Production System, and other process improvement systems. Bob at the small company doesn’t have the same language.

Jane is aghast when she suggests “Poka-yoking” a process and Bob doesn’t understand her. She drops her jaw and wonders what kind of a mess she got herself into when she took the job. She’s surrounded by bozos that don’t know the most basic of business processes.

Poka-yoke is a term used in the Toyota Production System. (Wikipedia entry here) It sounds like a rather exotic process, but it just means to make a product or system mistake proof. If a plug would damage a piece of equipment when plugged in backwards, key the plug so it can’t be plugged in backwards. Just design in some mistake proofing. It’s as simple as that.

In this scenario, it turns out that Bob is a brilliant user experience designer and considers mistake proofing to be just about the most important aspect of a design. Jane and Bob are on the same page; they both strongly believe in mistake proofing products. However, since Jane didn’t take into consideration the possibility that Bob might not have been exposed to that one specific set of business terms, she feels he must be incompetent. Both Jane and Bob would be well served to accommodate the language of the other.

I’ve found, over my career, that there are an astounding number of terminology differences between different corporate cultures. There are terms that have different meaning altogether, and there are different terms used to describe the same thing. Even the basics like “margin” can be used differently in different organizations.

Jargon and acronyms are okay, as long as you never assume that the person you’re communicating with has the same jargon dictionary in their head as you do.

Cromemco, where are you?

Seattle Computer Products placed a quarter page black and white advertisement for RAM chips on page 224 of the September 1979 BYTE Magazine. The ad promoted type 4044 chips: 4K by 1 [bits], 18-pin, 5 Volt, 5% supply. 250 nanosecond chips sold for $7.50 in quantities of 1 to 31. You could buy the slower 450 nanosecond chips for a dollar less apiece. These were the same chips used in their “premium quality” RAM boards.

For every Andrew Carnegie or Bill Gates, there is an Alvah Roebuck, a story of a miss of almost unimaginable proportions. Richard Sears and Mr. Roebuck started a small business selling, at first, surplus pocket watches and eventually virtually anything needed by the fast expanding nation of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Sears kept at it while Roebuck left to do more important things. Many years later, Mr. Sears’ former business partner finished his life nearly penniless and working in the mailroom of the company he co-founded. Sears went on to become Americana.

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Maggie

In 1975, the federal government passed the Magnuson-Moss Act. Ask the next 100 people you see, what this law is and why it made the explosive growth of the computer industry possible, and you will likely get somewhere between 98 and 100 blank stares.

WarrenGMagnusonBack in the 1960’s and 70’s, IBM sold mainframe computers, and sold a lot of them. IBM also sold service, accessories and upgrades for those systems. What IBM did not do was allow anyone else to poke around in those machines – even after the sale. IBM did not allow the machine purchasers to add in accessories from other manufacturers. IBM kept it all and kept it all as trade secret. Hence, when, in 1981, IBM introduced its take on the personal computer, the world marveled at its open architecture. The IBM PC was open. Anyone could, and did, build and sell accessories and replacement parts. IBM copied the Apple II in that respect. The infant industry had already learned from the success of Apple II, that open is best.

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What’s it like to be a real writer? And how do you become one?

What’s it like to be a real writer? By many definitions, I’d have to say “I don’t know.” I don’t have a published book. I’ve written a pair of screenplays, but no one has read them, nor are they particularly worth reading. I don’t write every day, like “real writers” say they do. I’m not disciplined in my approach, I’m not formally trained as a writer, and I don’t make my living solely (or even mostly) via the written word.

By who’s definition?

But, the reality is that I do know what it’s like to be a real writer; just not a theoretical “ideal” writer. I’ve been published, in print and online, for a decade. I’ve been paid for some it, and not for other parts. I’ve had my own paid column on three different occasions. I’ve written volumes of content for my day job. I think that gives me the justification to say that I’m a “real writer.” Continue reading “What’s it like to be a real writer? And how do you become one?”

Decisions, Decisions…

We all make decisions. It’s a part of life, and more specifically, a part of our jobs. We make so many, that you’d think we’d all be pretty good at decision making by now.

Unfortunately, that’s often not the case; even for confident people. Well, actually, most of us are pretty good at making those decisions, but we like to refuse to accept that we are good at it. Our brains play tricks and convince us that we might mess things up, get fired, not be accepted, be put down, be rebuked, or be presented any number of an endless string of negative reactions.

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How to succeed in marketing without really trying

If you’re old enough, you might remember the 1967 movie, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” Well… you don’t really need to be old enough. The movie’s before my time and I’ve watched it.

vertical_marketsIn the movie, window washer J. Pierpont Finch, reads a book titled the same as the movie, and takes it to heart. Shortly after starting to read the book, he talks his way into a mailroom job. Within hours, he’s manipulated and bumbled his way upstairs and eventually lands a coveted corner office without, as the title suggests, really trying. At least, he didn’t really try working for his success. He did try a lot of manipulation, fast talking, and subversion.

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