Have you been here? You have a great idea — an amazing and awesome idea that will completely transform your product. But it never quite took off. Why? One reason might be that you didn’t communicate the idea well enough. Communication is an incredibly important skill in an organization, though it’s very hard to do well. A lot of times an idea is totally clear to me and therefore I think it should be very clear to someone else. But the other person has a very different perspective.
In this post I’ll explain why communication is important, show some examples of communication failures and then present one useful way of thinking about communication
Why is Communication So Important?
As people move up in an organization, technical skills become less important and business skills gradually grow in importance.
- Technical Skills. When starting off in a job you are hired for your specific skills as an individual contributor. These are skills like creating a PowerPoint, or analyzing a spreadsheet or coding up a project in a programming language.
- Business Skills. As you get more senior in an organization, it’s more important to set direction and get everyone moving in that direction. That’s all about communication.
Examples People Being On Different Pages
- I remember one day a few years ago. It was a beautiful day. I was casually walking down the street smiling all the way. Then I noticed a thin blond woman around 40. She was in thin white dress with a small stroller next to her and this awful grimace on her face. She was shooting her hand up as she desperately tried to hail a cab.
- So I thought to myself “I’ll help her hail a cab because she looks like she needs lots of help.” So I put my arm up.
- Man, did she start screaming, “Don’t steal my cab! I just stepped on a piece of glass which is now stuck in my foot! I really need this cab!
- “When I look back, she obviously thought I was trying to hail a cab for myself — because I never told her what I was up to. Why would a person be hailing a cab for her without mentioning it? Instead of this being helpful I just made her life more difficult.
- This is a pretty amazing article that introduced Michael Lewis into the world of high frequency traders which he later wrote about in Flash Boys. It follows the case of Sergey Aleynikov who worked at Goldman Sachs. The way Goldman saw it, Aleynikov stole Goldman’s software code that was worth millions. Aleynikov thought he was just uploading open source software to an online repository. It’s a story about the hacker ethos vs. the Goldman ethos. Spoiler Alert: Goldman wins and Aleynikov ends up in jail.Here’s one example of the difference. Goldman thought Aleynikov was being nefarious because he was using a repository called “subversion” (i.e., he was trying to subvert Goldman). In reality, subversion is a repository for multiple versions of your code (“sub-versions” of your code).
- There’s a lot of comedy based on people coming at the same situation from different points of view. One of my favorites is Rowan Atkinson’s Fatal Conversations where the Principal at a boarding school is concerned about a student’s horrible behavior. The father, for some reason, is more concerned that the principal has beaten his son to death. The humor, of course, is the two different perspectives.
- Richard Feynman, the famous physicist had synesthesia, a mental difference where some things are seen as colors. From Surely You Must be Joking, Mr. Feynman: “When I see equations, I see the letters in colors – I don’t know why. As I’m talking, I see vague pictures of Bessel functions from Jahnke and Emde’s book, with light-tan j’s, slightly violet-bluish n’s, and dark brown x’s flying around. And I wonder what the hell it must look like to the students.”
- I could go on forever with examples. While I was writing this, I happened to listen to the an episode of Invisibilia called Frame of Reference where they talk about how one person can have two different points of view inside their own head.
- How Does Pixar Think About Communication?In the book Creativity Inc Ed Catmull wrote about the different mental models that people use to make sense of their jobs. Here’s a great one on communication:
Katherine Sarafian, another Pixar producer, credits the clinical psychologist Taibi Kahler with giving her a helpful way of visualizing her role. “One of Kahler’s big teachings is about meeting people where they are,” Katherine says, referring to what Kahler calls the Process Communication Model, which compares being a manager to taking the elevator from floor to floor in a big building. “It makes sense to look at every personality as a condominium,” Katherine says. “People live on different floors and enjoy different views.” Those on the upper floors may sit out on their balconies; those on the ground floor may lounge on their patios. Regardless, to communicate effectively with them all, you must meet them where they live. “The most talented members of Pixar’s workforce—whether they’re directors, producers, production staff, artists, whatever—are able to take the elevator to whatever floor and meet each person based on what they need in the moment and how they like to communicate. One person may need to spew and vent for twenty minutes about why something doesn’t look right before we can move in and focus on the details. Another person may be all about, ‘I can’t make these deadlines unless you give me this particular thing that I need.’ I always think of my job as moving between floors, up and down, all day long.”