Posts tagged: Communication

The Monkey Cage Sessions

monkey throwingI’ve seen a lot of strategies and “solutions” fail over the years primarily because the solution was crafted before the problem addressed was thoroughly understood.

Many times, the strategy or solution was the result of a brainstorming session filled with type A personalities (me included) ready to make things happen.

You may be familiar with the type of session I’m referencing. Usually, there’s a guru consultant leading the charge. He separates the group into teams and gives them Post-It notes and colored sticker dots. “Write down as many ideas as you can in the next 20 minutes. Don’t think too much. Be creative! No idea is dumb. Stick your ideas on the wall. Now go!” After 20 minutes, a leader from each group presents their best ideas to the rest of the room. Then each person in the room is allowed to vote for maybe six of his or her favorite ideas using the colored sticker dots. A few people are assigned the winning ideas and off we go.

Those types of session frustrate me. I’m concerned there’s too much action, too many unspoken assumptions, and not nearly enough serious thinking.

Over the years, I’ve developed a problem solving technique that I’ve found to work a lot better. I call it the Monkey Cage Sessions. The technique is all about thoroughly identifying the problems from all angles before developing carefully considered, thoughtful and collaborative solutions.

It’s got an intentionally silly name because the process should be fun.

Here’s how it works:

Step 1 Define the problems.

We start by gathering a group of cross-functional people – ideally from different levels of the organization – together in a room to talk about the problem or problems we’re trying to solve. This could be as simple as enhancing a Careers page on the corporate website or as complicated as building a complete company strategic plan. It’s important to define the general scope of the problem, but it should be defined fairly loosely so as not to stifle the discussion.

The rules of the meeting are fairly simple. We only discuss problems. No solutions. This is a license to bitch. Let it be cathartic.

I usually stand at the whiteboard, marker in hand, and write down everything everyone says. There is no need to be overly structured here, and anything anyone says is legitimate. We throw it all at the wall and we’ll sort it out later.

Sometimes people want to debate whether or not something another person says is really a problem. If someone said it, it’s at least a perceived problem. It’s legitimate. Also, there is often an attempt to offer an explanation for why a problem exists. The explanation is covering for another problem, so that problem should be written down.

People are always tempted to offer solutions, even when they think they’re offering problems. For example, someone might say it’s a problem that we don’t have a content management system. Actually, a content management system might be the solution to a problem. What problem might a content management system solve? Beware of any problem statement that starts with “We need…” and be prepared to break down that need into the problems needing the solution.

Sometimes the problems offered up are very broad and vague. In those cases, it’s important to work with the group to dissect that broad problem into its component parts.

This first session generally uncovers a LOT of problems, but the problem is still usually not completely identified yet. Which leads to…

Step 2 Categorize the problems

While the chaotic approach of the first session works well to get an initial set of problem descriptions, it’s important to create some order in order to prepare for the problem solving stage. So Step 2 involves writing down all of the problems and sorting them into logical categories. I don’t have any pre-determined set of categories. Instead, I prefer to the let the problems listed dictate the categorization.

Step 3 – Widen the circle

We probably have a pretty good description of the problems now, but we’ve also still likely missed some. For Step 3 we send the typed and categorized list of problems to the original group as well as a widened circle of people. The original group will likely have thought of a couple more issues since the day of the meeting, and the new group of people will almost definitely add new problems to the list. Since this is the final stage of problem description, we want to give this step at least a few days to allow the team to think this through as completely as possible.

Step 4 – Develop the solutions

Finally, we can start solving the problems. Woo hoo!

Now it’s time to gather a subset of the original meeting to start working towards solutions. There should be at least a few days between Step 3 and Step 4. We want to give people some time to think over the full problem set. The group should enter the Step 4 meeting with at least some basic solution ideas. There is no need to come into the room with comprehensive solutions that solve every problem on the list, but the solutions considered should certainly attempt to solve as many problems as possible (without causing too many new problems).

I usually find that by this point many of the solutions are fairly obvious. But there should be good discussion about the relative merits of each suggested solution, and the solutions should be measured up against the problem list to determine how comprehensive they are.

I like to end the meeting by assigning people to lead each of the proposed solutions. Obviously, any suggested solution from this session will need to be fleshed out in a lot more detail, and the leader from this meeting is responsible for determining the viability and solution and then potentially leading the development and ultimate execution to completion.

Subsequent progress is then handled via a separate execution process.

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I’ve had very good luck over the years using this technique. Some of the primary benefits I’ve found are:

  1. Better understanding of the problems
    As the initial meeting wraps up, most people are inevitably feeling enlightened about the problem. They’ve outwardly expressed their own assumptions (which sometimes even they didn’t know they were making) and they’ve understood the perspectives and assumptions of others. They’ve seen the problem in an entirely new light.
  2. More comprehensive solutions
    The heightened understanding of the problem and the critically important time between steps to allow the team to be more thoughtful in their ideas. Those ideas are usually pretty all-encompassing solutions to start with, but the discussions in Step 4 lead the team to collectively choose the best of the best of the solutions offered.
  3. Better execution
    Solutions are nothing but fancy ideas until they’re executed. And poor execution can cause even the best ideas to fail. The process of fully defining the problems and sharing that work with wide circles of people is an incredibly important stage that sets the foundation for success in execution. When the execution team provides input in the process and understands the basis for the solution, they are far more supportive in the effort. They are also far more prepared to make the daily, detailed decisions that are often the difference between success and failure.

So, that’s the Monkey Cage Sessions. I hope you find it helpful. If you try implementing the process in your business, I’d love to hear how it goes.

What do you think? Would this process work in your organization? Have you ever used a similar process?


Click (not the one you think) to success

Click book coverIn my experience, the most important factor for success in business is the ability to interact well with other people. Leadership skills, financial skills and technical skills all matter a lot, but they don’t amount to a hill of beans without solid people skills.

The reality is none of us can be successful completely on our own. We need the help of other people — be they peers, staff, managers, vendors or business partners — to successfully accomplish our tasks and goals.

Human relationships are more complicated than Wall Street financial schemes, but we often take interpersonal skills for granted. We rarely study them to the degree we study financial or technical skills. After all, we’ve been talking to people all our lives. We’re experienced. But I’ll argue there are subtleties that make all the difference, and they’re worth studying.

In my opinion, the best business book ever written is How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie — and it’s actually not even classified as a business book. I’ve never read a better guide to the basics of interacting effectively with people.

But I just finished a book that will take its place nicely alongside the Carnegie classic on my bookshelf.

Click: The Magic of Instant Connections by Ori and Rom Brafman (authors of Sway, one of my favorite books from last year) explores the factors or “accelerators” that exist when people “click” with each other. We’ve all had those instant connections with people in our lives, and those types of connections generally lead to powerful and productive relationships. While the Brafmans dig into both the personal and business nature of those connections, for purposes of this post I’ll focus on the business benefits of understanding and fostering such connections.

The book covers a wide range of connection accelerators, more than I could ever cover in this space, so I’ll just address a few that really stood out to me:

Proximity
Simple physical proximity can make a huge difference in our ability to connect with others. A study of a large number of military cadets found that 9 of 10 cadets formed close relationships with the cadets seated directly next to them in alphabetical seat assignments. Another study found that 40% of students living in randomly assigned dorms named their next-door neighbor as the person they most clicked with, but that percentage dropped in half when considering the student just two doors away. Maybe more startling, the students who lived in the middle of a hall were considerably more likely to be popular than those living at the end of a hall.

Why?

The authors explain that these connections are often driven by “spontaneous conversation…Over time, these seemingly casual interactions with people can have long-term consequences.”

I think many of us have instinctively understood the value of placing working teams in close proximity to each other. I’ve personally always attributed that value to the working conversations that are overheard and allow various member of the team to better understand and communicate issues about the work. But maybe that close proximity is also allowing people to better connect with each other. Maybe those connections allow us to better relate to each other and give each other the benefit of the doubt. Looking back at my career, I can think of many instances where office moves have coincided with strengthening or straining my working relationships with people.

Proximity is more important than I ever thought. We should carefully consider office layouts to foster the right types of connections. If close proximity is not possible for certain teams or people, we should understand the negative effects of separation and look for other ways to foster the connection.

Resonance
Resonance “results from an overwhelming sense of connection to our environment that deepens the quality of our interactions.” Huh? For example, the book reports that we’re 30 times more likely to laugh at a joke in the presence of others than if we hear it alone. My friend and colleague Jeff Dwoskin moonlights as a stand-up comedian, and he once explained to me that the difference between a good comedy club and a bad comedy club is the arrangement of audience seating. When tables are close together, people laugh more. When there are lots of booths that separate the audience into tiny groups, it’s much harder to get a laugh and keep the funny going.

Many companies swear by their open seating arrangements. Rich Sheridan, founder of Ann Arbor-based Menlo Innovations, seats his agile development teams on open tables together. No cubes. No walls. He says it’s a huge key to their success. Does that work for everyone working team in all situations? I doubt it. But certainly working environments have impact on working relationships and their resulting productivity, and resonance is a concept worth considering.

Similarity
“No matter what form it takes, similarity leads to greater likability…Once we accept people into our in-group, we start seeing them in a different light: we’re kinder to them, more generous.”

Kinder. More generous. Those sound like good bases for effective working relationships. It’s amazing how finding common ground can bring teams closer and help them work more effectively together. Sure, those of us working for the same company in the same industry all have industry and company in common, but it seems like the more personal similarities are more likely to bring people together. For that reason, we should encourage water cooler chats and other personal interactions in the work place. Everything in moderation, for sure, but a little personal time can actually end up improving productivity by reducing stress and misinterpretations that lead to unproductive miscommunications. The book reports that a “Finnish health survey conducted on thousands of employees between 2000 and 2003 revealed that those employees who had experienced a genuine sense of community at work were healthier psychologically.”

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“Common bonds and that sense of community don’t just foster instant connections — they help to make happier individuals.” The Brofmans provide numerous examples of teams that performed significantly better than others primarily due to the interpersonal dynamics of their members. We simply cannot succeed in life without the support of other people. It’s worth taking the time to understand how to improve those relationships for the betterment of all parties. And pick up Click, it’s well worth the read.

What do you think? Is this all hogwash? Do you have stories of how personal relationships have led to success in your life?

How to achieve FAME in analysis

focused handsIn retail, and in web retail in particular, we are drowning in data. We can and do track just about everything, and we’re constantly pouring over the numbers. But I sometimes worry that the abundance of data is so overwhelming that it often leads to a shortage of insight. All that data is worthless (or worse) if we don’t produce thoughtful analysis and then carefully craft communication of our findings in ways that enable decision makers to react to the data rather than try to analyze it themselves.

The most effective analyses I’ve seen have remarkably similar attributes, and they happen to work into a nice, easy-to-remember acronym — F.A.M.E.

Here, in my experience, are the keys to achieving FAME in analysis:

Focused

Any finding should be fact based and clear enough that it can be stated in a succinct format similar to a newspaper headline. It’s OK to augment the main headline with a sub-headline that adds further clarification, but anything more complicated is not nearly focused enough to be an effective finding.

For example, an effective finding might be, “Visitors arriving from Google search terms are converting 23% lower than visitors arriving from email.” An accompanying sub-heading might further clarify the statement with something like, “Unclear value proposition, irrelevant landing pages and high first time visitor counts are contributing factors.”

All subsequent data presented should support these headlines. Any data that is interesting but irrelevant to the finding should be excluded from the analysis. In other words, remove the clutter so the main points are as clear as possible.

Actionable

Effective findings and their accompanying recommendations are specific enough in focus and narrow enough in scope that decision makers can reasonably develop a plan of action to address them. The finding mentioned above regarding Google search visitors fits the bill, and a recommendation that focuses on modifying landing pages to match search terms would be appropriate. Less appropriate would be a vague finding like “customers coming from Google search terms are viewing more pages than customers coming from email campaigns” accompanied by an equally vague recommendation to “consider ways to reduce pages clicked by Google search campaign visitors.” Is viewing more pages good or bad? Why? The recommendation in this case insinuates that it’s bad, but it’s not clear why. What’s the benefit of taking action in quantifiable terms?

Truly actionable analysis doesn’t burden decision makers with connecting the data to executable conclusions. In other words, the thought put into the analysis should make the diagnosis of problems clear so that decision makers can get to work on determining necessary solutions.

Manageable

The number of findings in any set of analyses should be contained enough that the analyst and anyone in the audience can recite the findings and recommendations (but not all the supporting details) in 30 seconds. Sometimes, less is more. This constraint helps ease the subsequent communication that will be necessary to reasonably react to the findings and plan and execute a response. Conversely, information overload obscures key messages and makes it difficult for teams to coalesce around key issues.

Enlightening

Last, but most certainly not least, effective findings are enlightening. Effective analyses should present — and support with clear, credible data — a view of the business that is not widely held. They should, at the very least, elicit a “hmmm…” from the audience and ideally a “whoa!” They should excite decision makers and spur them to action.

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The FAME attributes are not always easy to achieve. They require a lot of hard thought, but the value of clear, data-supported insight to an organization is immense.

The most effective analysts I’ve seen achieve FAME on a regular basis. They have a thorough understanding of the business’ objectives, and they develop their insights to help decision makers truly understand what’s working and what’s not working. And then they lay out clear opportunities for improvement. That’s data-driven business management at its best.

What do you think? What attributes do you find key in effective analyses?

The Communication Illusion

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” —George Bernard Shaw

I read that quote the other day, and it kind of blew me away. How often, as managers, executives, marketers and team members do we send forth messages and assume effective communication has taken place? I know that I personally have been guilty of spewing forth my thoughts and directives in ways that were clear to me but were not nearly clear enough to my audience. In the information age in which we live, it seems communication is the majority of what we do on a daily basis, so I thought I would take this space to explore my thoughts on the topic. I hope to learn from your thoughts, as well.

Over the weekend, I did a bit of reading on communication. As I read Wikipedia’s article on communication, I was reminded of the technical breakdown of communication I learned in my college Organizational Behavior class (see image to the right). While those explanations are useful, I really wanted to think about communication in more practical terms. While communication between individuals is very important in business, effective one-to-many communication can often be extremely challenging.

Technology may impede quality

Ironically, while communications technology advances have improved the speed, frequency and reach of our communications, they may have effectively reduced the quality of our communications because communication via phone, IM, Twitter, texting, etc. takes out so much subtlety, nuance, and context.

Albert Mehrabian and Susan Ferris performed a famous study to determine the proportion of the three major parts of human face-to-face communication: content, tone, and body language. According to the research:

  • 55% of impact is determined by body language—postures, gestures, and eye contact,
  • 38% by the tone of voice
  • 7% by the content or the words used in the communication process.

Although there is some controversy surrounding the exact numbers because of the scope of their research,  clearly communication is significantly aided by elements like body language and tone of voice that are not present in the forms of written communication that have become dominant because of technology innovations. Even phone conversations are missing the all important body language component.

But it’s not practical to communicate with everyone one-on-one, in person. So, how do we communicate more effectively and avoid the illusion that communication has taken place when it hasn’t?

“It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.”

That is the subtitle of Words That Work by Frank Luntz, and those words are an important reminder of both the meaning of effective communication and the inherent challenges of achieving it. Our audiences bring with them their own unique past experiences, biases, cultures and perceptions (and frankly, so do we). When you think about it, it’s amazing we’re ever able to communicate anything at all. Because Luntz is a well-known Republican pollster and a somewhat controversial figure, I hesitated to reference him for fear politics would get in the way of my message here. But many of his communication tips transcend politics and make good sense for business communications, so I wanted to share some of his tips that I find very helpful (and decidedly non-partisan):

  • Simplicity: Use Small Words
  • Brevity: Use Short Sentences
  • Consistency Matters
  • Sound and Texture Matter
  • Provide Context and Explain Relevance

I would add two things to this list of communication tips: repetition and listening.

In my experience, repetition is critically important in any managerial or executive communication. Sometimes repetition means saying the same thing over and over, and sometimes it means slightly altering the core message to ensure the message is cutting through the biases, perspectives, etc. Either way, the key is understanding that saying something once is simply not enough given all the previously mentioned obstacles each message must hurdle.

“It is the province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.” Oliver Wendell Holmes

Just as great leaders are also great followers, I believe the best communicators are also the best listeners. By truly dedicating ourselves to listening to our audiences, whether they are staff, peers, bosses or customers, we can better understand their perspectives, biases and cultural influences. We can learn to tailor our message so that it is heard as we meant it. I believe great communication takes great listening, and great listening takes conscious effort and a huge amount of discipline, but I also believe the return on the listening investment is the ability to communicate more effectively. And the ability to communicate more effectively is priceless.

Man, it’s not easy. But the more ways we find to ensure what our audiences hear is what we intended to say, the more effectively we will communicate and eliminate the communication illusion.

I really want to learn from you. What communications lessons have you learned? What tips do you have to share?



Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell


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