The rapid changes that take place in modern society demand that more people know more about more things. And that they learn it much faster than ever before.
As a result, we should communicate with each other more fre-quently and about a wider variety of things. And the amount, speed, and varieties of communication grow greater every day. As we communicate more, it’s also essential that we communicate better, because more people are affected by and have to know about changes, new ideas, and developments.
That is not to say that people today are necessarily more intelligent or better educated than previous generations. But you and I are exposed to much more information than our parents were. And in order to do our jobs and grow, we have to be able to communicate effectively. That means both taking in and giving out information. That means sharing ideas and information with fellow workers who need it to do their job. That means being accurate when we inform others. And prompt in sharing that information when timeliness is important.
We should make a distinction between information flow and decision making based on that information. That’s because we have to have an environment in which information can be openly and easily shared with those who need it to do their job. We have to be able to communicate information with different kinds of people in various situations. But we do not want to set up conflicting actions.
We need to be able to go to the person in the organization who has the information we need, regardless of either per-son’s rank. And, unless that information is confidential or can’t be disclosed for legitimate reasons, the information should be shared. We have to be perfectly free to ask for in-formation that we need to perform our job or to be as effec-tive as possible in our work team. Not only that, we should understand that if we are to bring forth our best we should energetically seek to know and understand more. And, of course, it also follows that we should be forthcoming when others request information from us. Only in this way can an idea stay alive and have a chance to grow.
However, that does not mean that anyone can make a decision or take any action she or he may think appropriate based on that information. There is a difference between information channels and decision channels. The first is informal, unstructured and knowledge-oriented. It sparks ideas and suggestions. The second is formal, more structured and action-oriented. It triggers decisions and authorizes actions. Thus everyone can move smoothly ahead together.
Good ideas often have difficulty surviving in troubled or-ganizations. In those settings, the atmosphere is such that people are not encouraged to bring forward their ideas.
“We already know all the answers,” is the attitude; Actu-ally, in organizations that are having problems, the opposite is often true. There are two important things wrong about thinking that “We already know all the answers.”
First, no one knows all the answers.
Second, frequently those people who think they know the right answers don’t even know enough to ask the right questions.
Moreover, in unhealthy organizations, people are often afraid of new ideas and new information — afraid that it will change their role, their power.
Compare that with a successful organization, where new ideas represent opportunities for everyone to grow. Here, the philosophy is instead:
We’ll take good ideas wherever we can get them. A good idea doesn’t care where it came from.
A common feature of a healthy company is that people are well aware that they don’t know all the answers. Good managers, particularly, know that each employee is far more knowledgeable than the bosses ever could be about the details of their jobs. These managers know that if their work group is going to improve its performance, it will take more than just hard work. It will take a constant infusion of fresh input from the people who are actually closest to the task.
And it will take the freedom to ask the “dumb” question.
The Freedom to Ask the Dumb Question
“What would happen if the earth really isn’t flat and you sailed west from Spain…”
“What would happen if you could cultivate a yeast mold like the kind that grows on bread and you could inject it in people with certain kinds of infections and…”
Many great advances have come about only because someone was not afraid to ask “the dumb” question.
Many years ago , Martin Allen looked at a display of George Washington’s tools at the Smithsonian Institution. It occurred to him that there had been very little change in drafting equipment in two centuries. So he asked a dumb question: “Why not teach a computer what it needs to know to help engineers do product design?”
His “dumb” idea was that he could use technology to improve on techniques that designers had apparently been doing quite well with for centuries. His objective was to free designers from the centuries-old but laborious task of modifying their visual displays on their drawing board or a hard model. Instead they could actually manipulate a visual display. This would greatly shorten developmental cycles, reduce costs, and bring new products out faster. A lot of people thought this was a stupid idea. After all, engineering had been done the same way for ages, hadn’t it?
But from this “dumb” question was born the technology of computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing, or CAD/CAM.
Big Ideas Come in All Sizes
What’s important is that we value every idea — there are no small ideas.
And that’s where a subtle but important part of communication comes in. I’m talking about creating the kind of environment in which ideas can sprout and flourish. Ideas are fragile. Especially breakthrough ideas. Many brilliant ideas undoubtedly sounded ridiculous the first time someone else heard them. There is no such thing as a bad time or place to have a good idea. Not if you have the gift of curiosity.
The Gift of Curiosity
Can you imagine getting an idea that spawns an entire industry while you’re brushing your dog’s coat?
George de Mestral was intrigued about something which countless people had grumbled about and never paid much attention to. He noticed how stubborn the burrs were when he tried to brush them out of his dog’s coat. So, he looked at them through a microscope. What he saw was hundreds of tiny hooks. And what was born was the idea for the Velcro fastener
What should be encouraged at a company is a climate in which fresh ideas can get a thoughtful hearing. And, if they have merit, can flourish;
It isn’t always possible to implement a seemingly exciting new process or to make adjustments in work ways that find all parties “winning. ” But it is a lot more likely to happen in an atmosphere of open communication and shared commit-ment to common goals.
There are many organizations — far too many — in which employees would not come forward because they had been discouraged from doing so in the past. Because they would fear their ideas would be rejected out of hand. Be¬cause they would know their management is not receptive to any ideas except their own.
In some cases, employees don’t communicate their ideas out of a concern that to do so would mean “end-running my boss… going outside of authorized communication lines… muddying the waters by not going through proper channels. ”
Those are very legitimate concerns. Once an organiza¬tion reaches a certain size, it’s important that it establish pro-cedures and systems for getting decisions communicated. As a company grows, there are more people and more func-tions, and there has to be a set of procedures and a discipline for conducting business and making decisions.
But we must not let systems and procedures become an end in themselves. When that happens, it hurts our ability to adapt and to make necessary changes.
So, what we should expect of managers is to maintain the delicate balance we need between the entrepreneurial ’’free spirit” approach and the discipline needed to bring good ideas to market.
Clear Communication (Information vs. Decision)
I have found many times that when information is not shared directly, one on one, it changes after it leaves the originator. Ideas get filtered. The clarity of the original thought goes out of focus. The power is lost. Or, where there should be cooperation, instead there is an element of politics.
And there goes the enthusiasm of the person with the idea.
An organization that encourages widespread one-on-one communication and keeps that enthusiasm for new ideas alive is a vibrant, enjoyable organization.
But I learned several years ago that you do have to be careful about communicating clearly whether you are asking for information only or whether you are asking for action to carry out a decision.
At the time, before we started J.P. Industries, I was chief technical officer of another company. While walking around the factory floor, I was curious about the location of a large and impressive machine that had just been installed. It was not my area of expertise or responsibility and I just wondered why it was located where it was. So I asked the foreman of the operation, “Why is that machine set up here, instead of, say, over there?”
He went to great pains to explain what a big and expensive project it had been to install that machine there. He actually told me far more than I cared to know. But his explanation made sense and, my curiosity satisfied, I thanked him and left.
Two weeks later, I visited that location again. I was surprised to notice that the machine I had inquired about the last time was no longer there — it had been moved to another location. I spotted the foreman and asked him about it. “Well, you didn’t want it set up where it was,” he said. “So we moved it.”
Now, I had not thought for a moment that I was giving directions to that foreman. I had merely wondered out loud about something. I had been seeking information. He had provided it.
But I had also mistakenly communicated something else in the process. I had somehow given the impression I was directing action — that I wanted a machine moved, at con-siderable effort and expense. And I often have wished that the foreman had asked me the “dumb” question: Why did I want that done?
Since then, I have always kept in mind the element of unintended communication. It is the responsibility of the person doing the talking to be very sure that his or her intended message is coming through, but more than that, that other messages are not unintentionally coming through.
It’s one thing to seek or gather information in order to understand something better. It’s another to make and communicate a decision. We have to know how to do both. And we have to be careful that we and others are clear on what we’re doing.
Another important aspect of communication is the responsibility of an individual member of a group to come forward with information important to the successful operation of the group.
We live in a complex and sophisticated society in which there are far more opportunities for things to go wrong than there are on a hog farm. As robots and sophisticated machines do more and more of our physical labor, it be-comes increasingly important that each of us bring forth not only our personal best efforts, but also the information that will help others to do their jobs. The result will be to preserve the health of the entire organization of which we are a part.
Effective communication is essential to achieving our full potential and enjoying our work life to the fullest. We need to have the information we require to do our jobs. And we need to share information if we are to be as successful as we want to be.