Listen Up! Your Most Important Presentation Tools

While in conversation, you find yourself unconsciously looking around the room, or checking your watch. Maybe while the other person is in mid-sentence, you interrupt with a thought. Are you listening? Instead, what if you were nodding your head in agreement, using the phrase "uh-huh", or the classic — making good eye contact? Are you listening now? What is it about listening that we find so important but so elusive?

Separate out the visual cues that typically suggest "listening". Visual cues are important, but they don't necessarily mean genuine listening is taking place. Think about the times you found yourself nodding in apparent agreement but had no clue what the other person was saying or didn't care.

Is listening different if you attempt to paraphrase someone's comment? To paraphrase, you hear the other person's words, privately interpret their meaning, then use your own words to convey it back to them. In either case (head-nodding or paraphrasing), what is the measure of being a good listener? Simple. The speaker feels heard. As the listener, you demonstrate that the point got through to you.

Imagine a conversation where you're apparently listening and before the other person even finishes their thought, you're privately rehearsing your reply. Person pauses for half a second and you jump in like a wild animal. I think you can slot that in the poor listening category.

What does any of this have to do with presentation skills? Just everything.

Consider for a moment that your challenge is not public speaking, but public listening. We're sold on the idea that being a good communicator means projecting ones voice, making eye contact, the list goes on. How about at the heart of presentation skills is listening, not speaking. Sort of turns the whole thing on its head. Think about it. What are the major complaints about meetings, presentations, and lectures? That we are not reaching our audience. Translation: we are not listening!

The problem is that when we publicly speak, our personal measure of success is the quality of our ideas or how well we deliver, not necessarily how it's heard. It's just a bonus if we connect with an audience. Listen up! The quality of your presentation is first and foremost how well you connect with a group, and connecting means listening; watching body language, facial expressions, extracting comments; anything that reveals how the group is feeling and what they are thinking.

How do we shift to be a better listener? Start by becoming keenly aware how difficult it is to just listen. No agenda, no quick replies, just get what the other person is saying. Consider this possibility; The people in your life who command authority when they speak are first and foremost excellent listeners, not excellent speakers. Their secret is that they speak when there is something of value to share. They don't talk for talking sake.

Here are a couple of simple exercises:

  1. The next time you're in a dialogue, observe when you are listening versus waiting to speak. Attempt to paraphrase someone's comments before providing a reply.
  2. In a meeting, plan to make NO points. Just listen. Take notes. Be prepared to summarize the key points made by the group. You may discover something profound: There is more power in genuine listening than speaking. While everyone else is fighting for the right to be heard, you're listening for the big picture. You may even end up getting asked what you think, and contribute something of value to everyone.
  3. Be more patient in dialogue. Patience is not just a virtue; it's the ticket to being an effective listener and in turn, public speaker. There you go. Now read this again and paraphrase it to someone else.

Wrapping up NACUBO 2014 — Reflections, Observations & Inspirations around Communicating Strategically

This has been a fantastic week. 

We started off with the New Business Officer's forum, helping those new to the role to get acquainted with the skills they'll need to cultivate to succeed. From there, I co-facilitated a conversation on communication with the talented Kelly Fox and Greg Lovins. Somewhere in between, we were joined by the truly incomparable Alison Levine, legendary technologist Bill Gates, and too many terrific concurrent sessions to mention. 

What strikes me yet again is the degree to which NACUBO has internalized the issues and struggles facing business officers every day, and reflects those struggles with spot-on opportunities for continued learning and engagement. This year, whether we're talking about debt or financial aid or the relative "brokenness" of our business models, one thing is clear: communication is a key skill.

We had a wonderful connection with a business officer that supports the point. Chatting at a reception about the importance of communication, this individual said, "what we do is numbers. I can do the touchy-feely stuff for about 30 minutes ... then I need data." 

True, for those of us more accustomed to working with numbers, sitting through sessions on the art and importance of communication can certainly feel "touchy-feely." But think of it this way: if you're struggling with sitting through sessions at a conference around this topic for more than 30 minutes, how does that translate to your leadership team or board room, in which you're charged with presenting beyond the numbers to non-numbers people in a way that highlights your strategy to lead important initiatives? 

Not convinced? Just take a look at NACUBO's last National Profile Report. As you review it, notice how many key profile areas might involve become a better, more articulate, more convincing communicator? Spoiler: most of them.

I've been speaking around the country on this topic for several years now so you can imagine how gratifying it is personally to see NACUBO continue to take up the mantle. Communicating strategically is a key leadership skill; how many great leaders do you know who can't communicate clearly enough to rally support for their initiatives? Remember, great managers have subordinates. Great leaders have followers. It's our job not just to manage change in our institutions, but to inspire it. 

Thanks to everyone for a wonderful week — and here's to the NACUBO Annual Meeting 2015!

— Howard

Kim Girard on coming paper: "It's Not Nagging" and redundant communication at work

It's Not Nagging: Why Persistent, Redundant Communication Works — HBS Working Knowledge

Kim Girard discussing a paper coming from professor Tsedal Neeley on why managers send the same message via multiple media to team members:

Power, it turns out, plays a big role in how managers communicate with employees when they are under pressure.

The research showed that 21 percent of project managers with no direct power over team members used redundant communication, compared to 12 percent of managers with direct authority. And 54 percent of managers without direct power combined an instant communication (via IM or a phone call) with a delayed communication (e-mail), compared to 21 percent of managers with power.

A lack of direct power is common in companies today, Neeley says, because so many people work on teams that form and disband on a project-by-project basis. Yet team leaders are still on the hook to achieve their business imperatives despite this absence of authority.

Such is certainly the case with team members working on change projects, strategic planning projects, complex transformations, and so on. Where the discussion falls short -- and where we'll be interested in following up -- is in effectiveness.

We'll take it as table stakes that those in a position of power feel less inclined to send repeated messages to those over which they have some direct authority, than those project managers who have no direct authority over their own teams. What we don't know is whether there is another better strategy than frequency in messaging to team members, to illustrate importance.

Surprisingly, in Girard's closing, she shares the following:

The results also provide a concrete strategy for managers in Neeley's Executive Education classes who are struggling with how best to communicate with workers. "This is an actual strategy—a communication persuasion strategy that they will go and try," she says.

This piece has sparked an enthusiastic discussion in the comments, including the following, which sums up many more:

A competent manager should be able to communicate urgency without coercion. A few "how's it going" visits will reinforce urgency, but more importantly, encourage open communication about impediments and alternatives.

Tasks then tend to solved collaboratively. Works wonders.

If a manager requires the methods outlined in the article to achieve goals through subordinates, he/she is an ineffective leader, to say nothing about communicator, and probably not suited for the position. Alternatively, the subordinates need to be replaced.

TED brings celebrations of wonder; Dir General of Al Jazeera celebrates the power of young voices

The TED conference is going on right now in Long Beach, CA. The theme this year is "The Rediscovery of Wonder," and given the current institution of change across the Middle East right now, it's only fitting to share this beautiful, passionate talk from earlier this week from Wadah Khanfar, Director General of Al Jazeera. Yes, it's political. But even more than politics, Khanfar celebrates the power of people -- young people, young voices -- using technology to mobilize and create change in their lives. It runs about 17 minutes and is worth every second.  

Are you leading your teams honestly? Bring the "lifestyle business" ethic to teamwork

How Female Entrepreneurs Define Success - The Entrepreneurial Mind

The good Dr. Jeff Cornwall picked up on a concept out of Erin Albert's new book, Single. Women. Entrepreneurs. I haven't read the book yet, but from the review, it sounds like it is worth picking up. The central idea of Cornwall's post is that younger entrepreneurs, led by new views of entrepreneurship from Gen X and Y women, are choosing a different sort of model as they begin to grow their businesses. From Dr. Cornwall:

"Women, especially Generations X and Y, want to make their business and personal lives and aspirations work more in harmony," Albert said. Because of this, they choose to limit the size of their businesses and not pursue outside funding from investors or loans to fuel more growth.

This approach to entrepreneurship is referred to as pursuing "a lifestyle business."

However, every business should be viewed as a lifestyle business. If you choose a business deliberately based on your goals, aspirations and values, you can create a business that is an intentional reflection of the lifestyle you'd like to live.

Ours is not an entrepreneurship blog, nor is this a post focusing on start-ups. But that last line is priceless -- it's a reminder to think about what it means to live and work intentionally. Why? Because authentic people are better communicators, better trust-builders, and deliver better, more consistent results on teams.

One of the most consistent complaints we get from leadership teams in crisis is that they don't have enough "buy-in" from team members. It's such a nebulous word, buy-in, and as it turns out, it's a couch for all the ills that come from individuals not bringing their full attention and honesty to the teams to which they belong.

Our first objective: find out what is in the way of team members participating to their fullest. Which typically leads to the first action of bringing authenticity to tough teams: cut those who don't honestly want to be involved.

Teams have personalities, and they'll model the behavior you bring to the table. If you're living and leading authentically, honestly, you'll attract those to your team who want to deliver the same.


Email Bankruptcy - How are you dealing with communication overload?

It's Time for a Vendetta Against Email - Alexandra Samuel

Yes, we get too much email. Given the sort of work we do, we're at the heart of creating a good bit of it with our clients, too. But this week, Alexandra Samuel lends her voice to the hue and cry for a change in perspective when it comes to the way we deal with the daily ding of our email notifications.

But with email volume rising to meet, and then exceed capacity (it's a good rule of life: volume always rises to exceed capacity), it's time for us to revisit the social convention that all answerable email deserves an answer.

Our take on email to date has been to find better ways to filter and process, to ensure that actions that stem from email get into the right systems. Turns out, there's another trend afoot: people are mad at their mail.

Samuel's method, to "put the cost of communication back on the sender," is a compelling reminder for all of us. In her case, if the sender doesn't receive a response to a message he or she felt was response-worthy, the sender would carry the responsibility to resend the message via a higher value channel -- letter? phone? tweet? -- reading Samuel, you might get the impression that anything would be a higher value communication channel than email.

We're not so bearish on email, but this serves as a good reminder for those of us who work with teams, and generally exist to help teams make processes work better (including communications processes).

We take a more McLuhan approach (remember "the medium is the message?") as we deal with communication. Our rule of thumb: as you think of the message you want to send, consider carefully the implications of the channel you choose to send it. Need a quick answer to a yes/no question? How about an SMS text message? Need to share a spreadsheet or PDF attachment? Perhaps email is still the workhorse for you. Need to get the recipient to think deeply about an important issue? No matter what the kids say, there is still to substitute for picking up the phone, or getting face-to-face to address important challenges.

When you model the sorts of behaviors you prefer in dealing with how you communicate with your teams, you'll be surprised at how quickly they reciprocate, and drive the value of email back up in the process.

Working-out-loud to drive out information hoarders

The new compensation: going to anti-hoarders? — Scobleizer Robert Scoble has an absolutely fascinating post on the nature of information sharing in the workplace. The upshot is this: at most companies, the systems we use condition us to become what Robert calls information hoarders -- private email systems, private document folders, etc. But in a recent interview with Yammer CEO David Sacks, Robert asked the executive "when companies would be compensating people based on the value they are pouring into the system."

What a great way to phrase that question!

It helps a bit to know that Yammer is a company that provides what amounts to an internal Twitter -- a place for employees to share their status, resources, links, and more, in real time with the rest of the organization. Salesforce has rolled out a similar tool with their Chatter service. Taking a service inside with something like Yammer or Chatter suddenly makes the potential benefit of a more public, status driven workforce make much more sense. From Robert, the upshot is right here:

So, when I go and ask whether we should compensate people based on the information they SHARE with a company, that’s a topic these new CEOs aren’t quite willing to talk openly about.

Why? It freaks the information hoarders out and makes them less likely to change to information sharers. In such a world old systems like Microsoft Sharepoint stay relevant and new systems like Yammer don’t get adopted. I’m quite convinced though that in the future at least some of big-company compensation will come from whether you have good knowledge sharing skills.

Think about the time and energy you spend transitioning when you lose long-term team members. Does your succession plan deal with all the nooks and crannies of intellectual capital your critical employees have collected in their tenure? Do you have a system that capitalizes on that knowledge for the institution at large?

Conditioning employees to practice more diligence in their approach to documenting their work on these company-public systems is one way to ensure fewer information silos, and soften the blow when key team members move on. Robert's post is absolutely worth reading in full.

Where you might be failing by trying to engage best practices for employee success

Making Sure Your Employees Succeed - Amy Gallo - Harvard Business Review

Amy Gallo contributed a fine piece to the HBR Best Practices blog today. Fine really is the word for it -- while she outlines the textbook premise on employee engagement well, I can't help but be left with a longing for at least a bit of discussion around how infrequently the textbook approaches really apply in employee development these days.

Commenter Rick Ross and I are kindred spirits. From his response:

Creating a plan - The formulaic "goal\ objective \ milestone \evaluate risk" method works in the increasingly rare environments where tasks are simple and easily measurable. More sophisticated methodologies are required in environments with higher complexity and where results that are harder to measure. Nothing will deflate motivation faster than being measured in an invalid way.

That last line says it all, and it's the overriding concept I think we are well-served to remember. We deal with great complexity at work, which requires a degree of intellectual dexterity as we try to define the measures of our success. So, what could serve to make a measurement invalid? A) When it doesn't make intuitive sense to the one being measured and, B) When the one being measured had no part in the definition of the metric.

Integrating new processes ends up being a more organic process than we ever expect, and certainly more organic than the textbooks predict. Working with staff to build a planning process that provides clear direction -- and maintains flexibility and adaptability over time -- is key to making change stick in the long run.


Are you still a good leader when backed into a corner?

Authentic Leadership Can Be Bad Leadership - Deborah Gruenfeld and Lauren Zander - Harvard Business Review

In a terrific piece this morning at, Deborah Gruenfeld and Lauren Zander lay out the case for authenticity in leadership, and where "hiding behind the authenticity excuse" can go awry. From the post:

In practice, we've observed that placing value on being authentic has become an excuse for bad behavior among executives. It's important to realize that what makes you you is not just the good stuff — your values, aspirations and dreams; the qualities others love most. For most people, what comes naturally can also get pretty nasty. When you are overly critical, non-communicative, crass, judgmental, or rigid, you are probably at your most real — but you are not at your best. In fact, it is often these most authentic parts of a leader that need the most management.

Why is this so important to our work? Because any change initiative, any Lean or shared services integration project, anything that challenges the way people work brings out our most authentic selves. It's this authentic self that is backed into a corner, wary of change, and protective of what we know and understand. When we're backed into a corner responding by emotion, we're unable to process the most difficult tasks which, ultimately, might be the best for us and our organizations.

As leaders, being able to reflect critically on our own behavior when we feel challenged, and being able to listen to others as they describe who they perceive us to be without defense or justification, can be the foundation for far greater change to come. But it takes hard work and an open mind to get there.

Jackie Gilbert, Jeff Cornwall take on honor in negotiation, offer insight into team behavior

Eight ways to save face for someone else | Organized for Efficiency

Jackie Gilbert is a professor of management at Middle Tennessee State University. This weekend she posted her thoughts on the importance of saving face for others in negotiations with some good tips that serve to remind us all how we're perceived in negotiation. It's a good post and worth a quick read.

From Gilbert's post:

Although in theory we appear to espouse the values of mutual respect and democratic management, how often are these values forgotten when we are faced with an annoying situation? Our desire then to embellish our ego, to trounce an opponent, or to vindicate ourselves at another’s expense may take precedent over conducting ourselves with a sense of decorum. In these moments of self-righteousness indignation, we seem to forget the Golden Rule, or as Tony Alessandra so eloquently coined the term, the Platinum Rule® – treating others as they wish to be treated.

The good Jeff Cornwall picked up her lead in a terrifically interesting direction: entrepreneurial bullying.

Sometimes entrepreneurs just can't help themselves. They get so wrapped up things like making the business model work and growing their ventures that they can lose perspective on their actions. They may talk about the importance of acting ethically and building a positive culture, but the pressures of the entrepreneurial journey can lead to behaviors that do not match their words and their intentions.

When we focus on our individual needs first and only, we loose sight of potential horizons still clouded to us. This becomes critically important in process, system, or departmental integration projects; as soon as you open the door to bringing service centers together you're begging for critical examination of what's good, what's bad -- what to keep, what to trash. This involves judgement, and people hate to be judged.

That's where Cornwall's insights ring so true. When you're asking people passionate about processes they've created to give up those processes for something different, the success of implementation becomes deeply rooted in how you collectively arrive at that decision.

Stop Doing and Start Helping!

There is nothing more arrogant than walking into an organization, assessing a people or process issue and believing you can single-handedly create a permanent solution. The failure in most organizational projects is the presumption made about the giver and receiver relationship, the giver being those helping with the change and the receiver, those inheriting the change. The three most important presumptions are:

  1. The receiver is asking for the specific advice given
  2. The receiver is open to the advice, diagnosis or solution offered
  3. The giver understands enough of the problem to give this advice

These may seem like fair presumptions but more often than not, advice is given on incomplete information and both sides do not have a shared view of the problem. The problem doesn't get fixed, the recipient doesn't own the solution and the blame game for a less than satisfactory solution takes center stage. Sound familiar?

The Missing Piece

The first thing to recognize is the difference between advice and help.

When I consult with a surgeon, I'm looking for advice, a diagnosis and for that person to take care of the problem. Accountants, lawyers, doctors, architects - these roles are structured around evaluating a situation, applying expertise and doing the work. The person is the means to the solution.

Building a high-performing workforce is different. True success comes down to behavior change.  Positive attitude, teamwork, trust, practice - these skills are the cornerstones of an effective workforce. You can't talk someone into having a good attitude, exhibiting teamwork or being willing to make mistakes as a way to develop skills - they must want it themselves and be willing to do what it takes to get there.

But it's so much easier to just give advice and then walk away, you say.

Projects involving people that end up being perceived as unsuccessful stem from an overemphasis of trying to solve their "problem" versus looking for ways to help them help themselves.  At the heart of making positive change stick is asking this question:

"If diagnosing and advising only perpetuates a dependency and lack of self-reliance, how can you help the group take greater responsibility for their problems and solutions?" Focus on ways to get the groups to practice and immerse themselves in the behaviors that will build their confidence to do the work on their own.  Stop doing it for them.

Yes, being an expert is useful but don't confuse expertise with being helpful. Expertise doesn't changes behavior. To get people acclimated to a new way of doing something, you must ask deeper questions about how they learn, retain information and are able to repeat this behavior on their own. Whether you're the sponsor, manager, consultant or colleague, step back and find ways to allow individuals and groups to do for themselves, versus being so quick to solve their problem. Only then will they be able to run with the ball in a self-reliant way.

A great book that deconstructs the "helping relationship" is Edgar Schein's book "Process Consultation Revisited - Building the Helping Relationship". This book single-handedly helped me reshape how to think about consulting and make sure the responsibility for change lies with those needing to live with the change.

Stop calling it collaboration!

If you’re helping a group work together, collaboration is not what you’re looking for.  It’s the behaviors that make up collaboration you want to focus on, most noticeably – coordination.  Coordination can be measured and quantified (who does what, by when and how the work is performed), while collaboration is the spirit these behaviors.  It’s the difference between a vision and a goal.   A vision is where you want to end up while a goal is how you get there.   When someone spouts “let’s collaborate”, trust your instinct and ask them “what do you mean by this?”  You’ll quickly discover there is another layer of meaning that gets to the behaviors you’re trying to influence.

There’s nothing wrong with terms not used in everyday language (otherwise called jargon), except when no one, even the speaker knows what they mean.   Point out these elephants in the room.  It will help everyone get to the intent behind the words spoken.

Raising the Bar on Buy-In!

Asking for "buy-in" to your latest initiative will get you passive indifference at best.  Maybe indifference is what you're looking for - light years improvement from outward dissatisfaction or hostility.  But if what you really want is to motivate stakeholders (senior management, administrators, researchers, faculty or staff) to your idea, buy-in often only produces a willingness to not go against the initiative.  Most likely you're looking for champions or enthusiastic support.  Saying to a group "we're looking for your buy-in" communicates you want to inform, not involve. The way to get enthusiastic support is if you bring them into the circle by asking for help, feedback, ideas and participation.  Yes, some stakeholders may ask difficult questions.  But don't fool yourself into thinking that by keeping them at arm's length with periodic updates that you've got their support. 

Too often the bar is set too low around what we can ask or expect of others. For a group to be jazzed about an idea, you've got to get them involved in the change, not just inform them what's coming.

To learn more about how to do this, feel free to contact me.  I'll be happy to share some of our strategies.
Howard Teibel
617 448-3634 mobile

If It's Not Broke...

There is a certain relief in change, even though it be from bad to worse! As I have often found traveling in a stagecoach, that it is often a comfort to shift one's position, and be bruised in a new place. ~Washington Irving As part of a larger strategic effort to improve operational performance across your organization, centralizing business functions can be a very useful change. The rationale behind these projects is that by reducing redundancy, the quality of the work can be improved, processes can be made more efficient and cost savings can be realized.

If only it be this easy. Like many initiatives that include structural and people change, solving one problem creates another. Imagine an army of people sitting in their metaphorical chairs for years at a time, comfortable with what they know and their position in the organization. Centralizing work changes all the rules.

Three guiding principles will help when embarking on centralizing work projects:

1. Getting management on the same page

The best way to create positive momentum on these projects is to have leadership speaking with one voice. Once new roles are defined and the model is tested (ex: a Business Center becomes operational) it is critical for staff to know that management will hold people accountable to their new roles. Without a consistent voice from management and regular reminders of people's roles, staff will push on the boundaries of their shifting responsibilities, making it much more difficult for everyone to adjust to the new model.

2. Building trust by being inclusive

The process your staff will go through getting accustomed to new roles and responsibilities takes time and requires patience from everyone involved. Management should set up check points where people can weigh in how the new process is working. Asking for feedback and genuinely listening to their ideas and concerns will go a long way to helping build trust. The more people feel they have a voice, the more they will take ownership in the change.

3. Attitude is everything

Two primary groups are affected by this change - those who will be inheriting the work of others and those giving up pieces of their job. Although this can be stressful, at some point people need to make a choice - they're either part of the solution or part of the problem. This doesn't mean accepting an unworkable process, rather for all players to ask themselves what they can do to help the new process succeed.

By applying these three principles - Leadership speaking with one voice, management listening to staff ideas and concerns and most importantly everyone asking themselves how they can be part of the solution - this is how you get through initiatives that involve changing roles, responsibilities and reporting lines.

Communicating Bad News

Breaking down communication barriers is no easy task, and it opens the classic question of what comes first, the chicken or the egg? Management is waiting to hear what’s really going on while staff is waiting to hear it’s ok to communicate breakdowns or bad news. (This, by the way, is not the same as complaining, which is communicating bad news with no commitment to action.) Organizations are often left with the “blame game” being played out over every missed deadline or poorly rolled out deliverable.  Here's what management needs to realize - your staff will not take the step of communicating bad news unless you explicitly demand it of them. For staff - you may never get explicit permission from management to stop filtering bad news.  The good and bad news?   Regardless of your role, the ball is in your court.

BPMA Write-up

I spoke at the Boston Product Management Association meeting when this note popped up in my Google alerts: BPMA Meeting Roundup for April-June. The central idea of the talk is pretty simple: miscommunication untreated fosters mistrust. I think of it as an illness; one that starts as a cold, but transforms over time into a cancer. It's much easier to treat when addressed quickly and openly.

These meetings are usually stocked with great speakers. I'm thrilled to be included in this list. If you're a BPMA member, make sure to look for the presentation itself in the discussion forums on the BPMA website. Next time, I'll make sure the notification is up before I actually do the talk!

Welcome to The Trust Blog

As a function of the redesign, I struggled mightily with a few things.

  1. How to characterize change as both a constant struggle to overcome organizational adversity, and at the same time to communicate that I am a great optimist and advocate that such obstacles can be overcome.
  2. How to show that I believe strongly that the best change projects are not always just about incorporating the new, but putting the same old pieces of the organization together in new, innovative ways.
  3. Should I put a blog on the site?
I think we answered the first two questions. The third will have to come in partnership with you. 


I realized that so much of what I do, so many of the stories of change that I come across each day, highlight the companies that are "doing things right" now. They've made a commitment to how they focus their people, process, and technology initiatives, and through wonderful feats of ingenuity they have managed great change while reducing the pain that can come with it. In large part, they have done so by increasing the levels of trust and communication between teams, across layers of management, and have delivered results thanks to their efforts.


These are stories that more people, more teams, and more businesses need to hear. 


And so, I welcome you to The Trust Blog. I'll be posting my stories of trust, teams, and change, and posting links I believe are of value in your change initiatives. In return, I hope you'll find this a space where you can share your own stories and interact with me, and your peers, through insightful and observant comments and trackbacks.


Thank you for your patience through our redesign efforts, and thanks in advance for your participation on the site. I look forward to hearing your stories of change management success!

Is anybody really listening?

...does anybody really care? Does this sound a little too close to lyrics from a 70's song? But I digress.

Last month we focused on the risk factors that contribute to project success or failure; Vision & Goals, Planning & Preparation, Capacity & Personnel and Buy-In. This month we'll look at the glue that keeps projects from falling apart. In the spirit of non-consultant speak, I'll simply call this "really good communication".

Communication is a funny thing. Looking back on most projects, you've either communicated too much, too little, but rarely just the right amount.

When you communicate something, three elements are present:

  1. What you intended to communicate
  2. What people heard as a result of what's said
  3. The unintended consequence of what's heard

A perfect example of "When good communication goes bad" is the following attempt to set a context for an organizational initiative:

"As a result of this financial implementation, checks will go out quicker, better reports will be available to staff and most importantly, we'll be able to simplify people's work and minimize the use of other systems to keep track of departmental budgets."

The communication appears to convey great benefit to the institution, and ties it to genuine value for those working there. But what do the people who are affected by this change hear?

"As a result of this financial implementation, we'll be working twice as hard, will no longer have control over the information we've taken years to understand and some of us will be looking for work."


Managing your listeners

What's communicated is often misunderstood because the speaker perceives that what's said is more important than what's heard. This is the heart of communication breakdown. What people say is rarely what's heard, even when you have the best communicator delivering the message.

Think of it this way. Everyone has a unique filter that allows certain ideas in and keeps others out.

If I say "you need to better manage your people.", some hear this through a filter of "thanks for the feedback," while others hear "my job's in danger," while others might think "you don't know what you're talking about." One message, unlimited listening responses.

Consider expanding these listeners' interpretations to 10, 100 or 500 people. The challenge then becomes compounded with the message going from listener to listener, versus from the speaker directly. These watered down communications have direct impact on the collaborative nature of project work, leading to the next problem.

The Blame Game

Projects fail, or are "discouraging successes," because an unproductive cycle begins with the deliverer of the message blaming the listeners for "not getting it," while listeners blame the speaker for being a "poor communicator". This ping-pong match creates a "virus of discontent" across the organization.

For example, if I were to ask you: "Have your piece of the project ready to go in two weeks.", you can blame me for not being clear what "ready to go" means and I can blame you for not following through on a simple request.

Taking Responsibility

What's needed is a paradigm shift away from "who's to blame" to each side taking responsibility for how one is heard and how one listens.

Management need to take greater responsibility for the unintended consequences of what people hear them say. For example, they may use the phrase "efficiency" while everyone hears "job loss".

At the staff level, taking responsibility means validating assumptions about what was heard. The underlying dilemma for staff however is an absence of trust between them and management; that it's REALLY about cleaning house disguised as "productivity improvement".

If trust is a problem across your groups, consider addressing these issues first. Opening this can of worms may benefit from professional facilitation, a service that Teibel Education Consulting can help you address.

Listening and Speaking Strategies

Assuming a basic level of trust and a simple need for better communication skills, consider this point of view:

The majority of the time, what you heard was not what was said or what you spoke was not heard by others accurately. If you come from this point of view, you'll be way ahead of others who are more interested in playing the blame game.

Strategy for someone making requests:

Ask your listener(s):

  1. "What did you hear me say? OR
  2. "What are you going to do?"

Most importantly, don't assume listeners got the message.

Strategy for the listener:

Tell the speaker one of the following three things, even if unprompted:

  1. "What I'm going to do is..."
  2. "What I heard was..."
  3. "What I didn't hear or what I am not going to do is..."

For the second strategy, the goal is to help close the feedback loop so the speaker can evaluate in real-time whether what they intended to communicate was heard accurately.

The Bottom Line

Good communicators are primarily great listeners. Great listening takes the extra step of validating what was heard by others, or makes sure that what was spoken by someone else was heard the way it was intended.

Communication is not the message being spoken; it's the act of two or more parties actively listening to the other for a mutually agreed upon outcome.

On Listening

"June Rokoff, Senior VP at Lotus credits her success in turning around the company's position to building a team that listens: she made listening the culture of her team."

— Glen Rifkin, New York Times

Productivity and Achieving Business Goals: They could be apples and oranges

I think most of us would all agree that if you've achieved your business mission or vision, you've probably produced a high-level of productivity. But is the opposite true? Does a high level of productivity automatically translate into business success? The simple answer is no.

What's the difference and why is this a critical distinction for your organization's success? This is the topic of this month's newsletter.

Take this example from a Higher Education institution. Imagine a new and improved Grant Submission tool has been identified to help faculty secure research dollars. The current system is a conglomerate of Word, Excel, emails and faxes going back and forth between
administrative offices and departments.

The proposed technology appears to streamline the collection of data into one coherent set of screens and reports. The majority of faculty are loosely aware how the new system will work and have been given an overview of the benefits that this new system will bring. Ultimately the unspoken expectation by all is that it will support the institutions mission. The software gets installed and is ready to use.

The devil's in the details

On paper, everything looks great. That is, until people actually start using it.

Unbeknownst to faculty, the data entry requirements are greater than expected and the majority of the work ends up falling on their research assistants. It doesn't take long for a growing dissatisfaction to take hold.

What appeared to be a tool to help faculty meet the institutions mission of world-class research, has instead taken their key resources and turned them into data-entry clerks.

Sold a vision but delivered a tool

Software is all about productivity, i.e., simplifying, streamlining, or automating some series of tasks. Software can be a tremendous productivity solution, minus one small caveat — human involvement and the lack of understanding how it impacts people and processes.

Take email for example. The original promise of email was how we would be able to spend more time at home or on the beach, getting more done with less effort or time. (Can we all agree we're not there?)

Software is a linear, problem-solving solution that leads to what we think we want, i.e. "productivity". Unfortunately, productivity is not what we're truly striving for. It's achieving the mission or goals of the organization that is what we're looking for. Achieving vision may involve software, but the real challenge is in understanding and asking broader, mission-driven questions.

Back to our story

Frustrated with the new grant submission tool, a senior faculty member complains directly to the president. What used to be a kluge yet workable set of tasks now has research assistants spending the majority of their time manipulating data-entry screens. To make matters worse, faculty are expected to learn the system themselves to get reports about their grants. This is not what they signed on for and a minor revolt ensues by a few influential teaching fellows.

The unintended consequence of this "improvement project" is that it unfolded as a linear, software solution, versus a means to genuinely support the mission of the institution. In their haste to streamline and simplify work (remember email), the sponsors of the project lost sight of the larger goal; to support faculty in publishing well respected research and attracting the best graduate students. Although well-intentioned, the tools actually caused a greater sense of lost productivity and increased frustration.

Don't get me wrong

It's not that these software tools are bad or don't have a place in helping achieve organizational goals. It's that we don't evaluate them through the lens of meeting these larger questions.

More often than not, productivity projects lose their true value somewhere in the hundreds of pages of technical specs that drive these efforts.

What's the alternative?

The alternative is to not underestimate how easy it is to lose sight of the vision while getting caught up in believing the software alone will solve the problem.

Starting from original conception, through vendor sales, design and finally execution, broader questions about people and processes will help uncover where the real opportunity and pitfalls lie.

Remember, as a pure technology project, the questions are primarily limited to:

  • Can the software perform the following function?
  • How much does it cost?

Focused on mission, the question is:

  • What does business success look like and how will technology help us to realize these goals?

Asking the latter question may yield a completely different set of choices. Your team may even discover that the full suite of "productivity" solutions (i.e. — the software you paid for but didn't install yet) may inadvertently cause a greater sense of confusion and ineffectiveness.

Don't assume technology will keep you moving in the right direction. You may just find yourself and your people working harder but further away from the real value you were looking for.

Achieving Vision

"Vision without action is a dream. Action without vision is simply passing the time. Action with vision is making a positive difference."

— Joel Barker
Independent Scholar and Futurist

Not Another Meeting! The Pavlovian Response to Addressing Business Problems

Over the last twenty years, the perceived value of the staff meeting has significantly diminished. Before email, before networks and the Internet, your weekly meeting was the single most effective way for management to communicate with its staff. Today, "let's have a meeting" is right up there with "let's do lunch". When was the last time you walked out of a meeting with a feeling of true accomplishment, satisfaction or renewed sense of direction?

Like family traditions that die hard, the regular weekly meeting has outlived its useful life. Although we're comforted by the familiarity of our Monday morning gathering, the light banter that begins our discussion, followed by getting down to business, the costs have come to exceed the benefits. We're distracted by pressing deadlines and want better ways to solve problems besides sitting around a conference table.

I can hear cries of objection from those who integrate creative techniques to enliven the meeting experience; rotating meeting facilitators, breaking into mini- groups or laser focusing on action items. These methods are effective but they avoid the bigger question. What drives us to have a meeting every time there's a perceived need to share information among our staff? Like Pavlov's dogs, I believe we operate out of a conditioned response to call meetings, rooted in our desire for familiarity and comfort. We rarely ask "Is this the best forum for this particular business problem?" Instead, we unconsciously gather our yellow notepads, waltz into the conference room, and hope for the best.

Bringing a defined group together can be effective when you know what you're looking for and from whom. It's when "you don't know what you don't know" that makes meetings an unproductive use of people's time. Take for example the experience I had in an office kitchen. While conversing about my role on a project with another project member, I discovered they had a report that was critical to my work. Had I waited just a few more minutes to get a cup of water, I may have never stumbled upon this data. The first time this happened, I was thrilled to have so casually come upon this information and dismissed it as coincidence and luck.

After a similar experience with another person, I wondered: "Shouldn't I have known before this conversation by the water cooler how this person could help me?" It was only after a third time did I consider how many missed opportunities must be happening like this and how the artificial boundaries of our teams and departments can be both useful but limiting.

What if that person two offices over from you has information that will save you hours of work? She would gladly share it, but you're not part of her group. Would you discover this information in one of your scheduled meetings? Probably not. If we conclude that ninety percent of our general information needs can be found in organized meetings, it's that other ten percent that we need to focus on. It's the difficult to find information that is the difference between good and great work.

The question is: "How do we get more easily at this hidden ten percent?"

Like my kitchen experience, you can start by formalizing a period each week where individuals meet in cubicles, kitchens or halls, looking intentionally for these hidden nuggets of information. Encourage individuals to work across the boundaries of existing teams and departments. You may already be applying this strategy on your own, but there are many others who are either waiting for direction from management about their missing ten percent, or are just satisfied with ninety percent of the job complete.

Either way, it's time to get out of our chairs and seek out the information we need, not wait for a meeting in hopes that all our productivity issues can be solved. At best, our teams will find creative ways to make the meeting experience more palatable, but will rarely be a good forum to uncover the missing ten percent that makes the biggest impact.

I concede one meeting ritual that consistently produces exceptional results for ninety-nine percent of staff members. It encourages teamwork, sharing of ideas, creates satisfaction and builds camaraderie. We're talkin’ Chinese food!

Now get out of your chair, go into the kitchen and start a conversation!