Saturday, March 21, 2009

Smart People Saying Stupid Things

Remember Senator Ted Stevens' comments about the internet being a series of "tubes" rather than a "dump truck"? His description of the internet was so flawed (or rather poorly described) he got heckled by the Daily Show and it resulted in the spawning of (and his self immortalization through) his own personal internet meme.

The unfortunate thing is if you dissect what he was saying (between his pauses and stuttering), he was actually trying to describe the difference in message flows between Stacks (dump trucks) and Queues (tubes) and why net neutrality is important for internet traffic. How unfortunate. I pictured in my minds eye, some techno-consultant who shook his head at his message being butchered while silently crying that he would probably be blamed for this later.

As tragic (or humourous depending on your perspective) as you find this story, a good lesson here is the dilution of any message by the messenger. One of the biggest issues facing organizations is that for each additional management layer you create, the message usually loses about 20% fidelity while passing between layers (or retains 80%). So after two layers you're down to 64%. After three layers 51% and so on. Think of the childhood game of broken telephone. Or this Dilbert Comic from Scott Adams:

There are some obvious solutions. Jack Welch is a strong advocate of flat management for this very reason. The idea that being flat and having a minimal number of reporting structures makes your organization literally (and ideologically) more tightly knit and flexible.

Another is a very well organized communication plan. Messages should be unified and repeated. Changes should be well managed, but not so drastic that they violate or become misaligned with your core values. In an ideal scenario, people should almost be preemptively able to anticipate your communication. There should be few "surprises" which usually lead to things being taken out of context which further obfuscates the truth. A good example of this is technology companies and the "planned obsolescence" of consumer products.

This problem gets further compounded and exacerbated if:
  • You are in a MNC - Your audience speaks different languages and struggles with understanding idioms, slang or cultural customs.
  • Globalization - Issues related to distance in transmitting messages or updates.
  • Lack of standards or a common lexicon - Changes in context from one department to another lead to gross misunderstandings.
  • Decision cycles - Propagation of time delays from when a message was fresh to the latency after it is released for public consumption including the iterative refining process before it is approved.
  • Message volatility - Chaos. Too much communication and too much changing at once. No "version control" on ideas.
  • Weak culture - Unclear vision or mission in the company's core values or over arching goals causes people to constantly second guess the organization's direction and their role in it.
In professional (and personal) relationships, a top complaint many people have is that communication is poor leading to unnecessary misunderstandings. By identifying the most recurring issues facing your organization's communication channels you can reach the low hanging fruit: preemptively get the most out of your resources with a minimal effort.

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