On Communication

My workplace isn’t the only place I harp on communication. I’ve also done it in my HOA. We have a good board of directors for our HOA, but due to some advice from the HOA’s management company to be careful from a liability standpoint about conducting business on the various mailing lists in use in the community, there are times when communication about HOA related matters depends on that management company to do a distribution in email, and the management company hasn’t shown they do a very good job of this. Anyway, I harped on that, a little harder than I probably should have, and I got rightfully called out for it publicly. And I deserved it.

One of the points in that was this:

If Jason Young wants to volunteer he can certainly come on board. The last time we asked for volunteers for the Communication committee he did not volunteer.

I actually laughed a bit when I read that, not at the poster, at myself. Because that’s for dang sure, I can’t complain about something and not step up to it, but I did have some rationale for it, and I thought my response was pretty relevant to things outside my community – and to colleagues and to the eventual “Googlization” of this

This is a completely fair criticism. I have made a big deal about communication, and continue to do so, and in fact, did not volunteer for the “Communication committee” I was even asked twice about it and I didn’t respond.

It’s really hard to complain about something and not step up to it. That can be hypocritical as all get out 😀 Hey I certainly am that more times than I will ever want to be.

But not about this, and here’s the rationale. I work in Higher Education on Government grants. The first thing we do about anything is to “form a committee” And the second thing we do is fail at what we are doing because we formed a committee. The thing is, you don’t need a committee to communicate. In fact, committees make it worse. We don’t need meetings, we don’t need planning, we don’t need a roadmap, we don’t need nametags, we don’t need those things to “communicate” You might need one for a newsletter. You definitely ought to have one for landscaping. You need a group of people that care about those subjects to sit around and bounce ideas off each other to do those things.

But communication, you just do.

I know it’s not quite that simple. I know from every day in all the positions I’ve been in, you have to continue to ask yourself “who should know this” and to make sure that the folks that need to know, that want to know, that should know, well, know. It’s not easy, in any area of this thing we call life.

But I think the core point for the workplace, our social groups, our professional organizations, our families: communication doesn’t need committees, it’s just what you do.

Bye, bye Mr. Questioner Guy

noquestions I so wish I had some modicum of musical talent. I think that the last time I was exposed to any kind of music education was 1st grade, maybe kindergarten. While I’m not completely tone deaf, I only rarely experience that feeling of matching the human voice to some kind of external sound, and I can’t make my voice do it. I don’t really have the readily apparent motor skills to play the guitar or the piano.

But I do so wish I had some musical talent, because I’d spend my life doing whatever I could to be the next Weird Al. Or Flight of the Conchords. Writing parody songs for the rest of my living years.

For those that know me, asking questions is fundamentally core to how I work and how I live – particularly why? – I even joked last week that my name should be legally changed to an interrobang.

But sometimes the working life conspires in such a way that you have to change directions. Even for those that know me, you might be surprised that I expend the vast majority of my questioning energies on myself. That won’t and can’t change. I couldn’t turn that off if I wanted. But maybe for a time, I can stop the external questions.

You might think, ok, well that opening was certainly random. Well, I spent part of the weekend replaying Don McLean’s “American Pie” in my head in an attempt to parody the lyrics in the form “Bye, Bye, Mr. Questioner Guy” I didn’t get very far, it probably should be crowd-sourced.

So instead, I leave you with something far more entertaining. Years ago I once went to my local Kroger, only to find that they had moved the Little Debbie rack somewhere I couldn’t find it anymore. And well, the rest is history.

Bye, Bye, Oatmeal Creme Pie

A long, long time ago… I can still remember how
That creme filling would make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance,
That I’d never go to the south of france
If it meant I’d be without them a while
But that April day made me shiver,
Almost tempted to cry a river
Bad news at the kroger…
I don’t know I can go there

I can’t remember if I tried
My indignation that day to hide
But hunger rumbled down deep inside,
The day I found no pies.

Soo..Bye, bye Oatmeal Creme Pies
Drove my Ford to that store but the shelves was dry
And good ol’ boys were having RC and moon pie
Singing this will be the day that I die
all gone are the Oatmeal Creme Pie

Suspension

Some moments in life require a suspension of all the things that we know to be true,

Suspension

if only for that moment that we might see things in ways that we ordinarily would not – Jay

Don’t Praise Me, Bro

I have had the great fortune in the close to 12 years that I’ve been working at NC State of being able to do work that I enjoy, that I’m passionate about and I have had the great honor to have worked with a lot of smart, caring, involved, hard-working people that care about those around them.

Both of which mean that I’ve been, at times, in the right place at the right time to receive praise and recognition of the things I’ve worked on. It’s something I’ve never quite been entirely comfortable with.

Don’t get me wrong, I have enough of an ego that I don’t shirk away from being the center of attention. I have been known a time or two (cough) to take over a meeting, a forum, a discussion with long rambling soliloquies in one form or another. It’s not really a center of attention thing.

I like to think that I do good work. I certainly care very deeply about my work, and want it to be the best it can be, and jokes and sarcasm aside, I care very deeply that others can learn from, make use of, and benefit from that work. I’m sure I’d be lying to you and myself if I said that part of me doesn’t want some recognition of that.

But even given that, when it comes to praise and recognition, I always get a little embarrassed. I don’t really know how to take it. I’ve tried to learn more how to graciously accept it, because when you don’t have that skill, you can appear at best ungrateful, and at worse, you can insult the one providing the recognition, and you might cheapen the praise for others.

But still, I’ve been trying to put my finger on it – and I think it comes down to the old “it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it” line from American Bandstand I’m composing the metaphorical equivalent to the album, and I guess I’m the artist that wants a little more than “it’s got a good beat” – I’m not necessarily expecting the person hearing to have the faintest idea about how to compose music themselves (because I sure don’t know how – as my flawed metaphor will surely attest) – but to be interested enough in how it sounds to tell me they played it all night – and ask questions about that middle part – and let me tell them that I borrowed that classical part written for the glockenspiel and turned into an electrical guitar solo. Honestly, I’d feel that – or at least I hope that I could – handle the flipside – having someone come up and tell me out of the blue that they really didn’t like it and maybe had I used a part written for the violin instead of the glockenspiel, it would have been better.

Without that, praise and recognition sometimes feels like it’s not far removed from judgment. And maybe uninformed praise and recognition really isn’t that much different than uninformed judgment.

Maybe I really am an educator deep down. I’m not looking for praise or recognition – but for understanding

They changed ours

one year ago:

I twittered his name last night, and a fellow dog-loving friend from Iowa said “Winston and Truman, eh? They should be able to change the world!”

Yes, I think so. They’ve already changed ours.

Invisible Cape

One year later, he really hasn’t learned to fly, but they both have shown us that wishes come true.

Making a wish

Ten Things You Should Be Saying At Work

Earlier this week James shared this article from publishing CEO Michael Hyatt about the “10 things you’d love to say at work but can’t”

But you know, in my job, I find it more prevalent that there’s an awful lot of things at work that we should be saying – but don’t. And I don’t mean those “I love the work you do” express-the-unspoken-gratitude-and-appreciation-for-your-colleagues-more-than-you-do things . I mean, real, legitimate definitive discourse about things we do, and the things we don’t do.

Here are some of mine – and as you might imagine if you have perused prior postings heretofore mine come mainly the the form of questions.

  1. Who, exactly, is “they”?
  2. What do you think [word phrase] means in this situation?
  3. What data do we have that backs up that assertion?
  4. Thanks for that data, can you tell me how it was generated?
  5. How does this help us get to where we want to be?
  6. I don’t think that this has worked like we thought it would. Let’s try something different.
  7. I don’t know.
  8. Yes.
  9. No.
  10. Why?

That’s my 10 off the top – what are yours?

The second greatest joy

While this blog and most especially that even more geekily weird one involving plastic dinosaurs continue to languish in appropriate obscurity – it is with great mirth that I watch the stats on my humble flickr account. From time to time I think of leaving it to go to smugmug or another service… but you just can’t beat landing on page one for a Google Search for “dust cloth” with images like this:

Improvised Dust Cloth _Improvised Dust Cloth: I had to dust the cabinets today. Never let an engineer get the bright idea to do this. _

There’s real funny, and there’s just funny, and questionably funny, and lastly my own funny, and my own crazy jokes are joy – at least to me, and that’s what it’s all about.

The Joy of the New

There is little in this life that measures up to the joy of the new – seeing and experiencing things for the very first time.

Except the joy of seeing that in others.

Our dog Winston, seeing the Atlantic Ocean for the first time.

Operator, can you help me place this call

I’ve always been pretty fascinated by the allegory within the Genesis story the Tower of Babel, particularly the confusion/division of human language.

I think it’s because I’ve always been fascinated by the human challenge of communication – and why something so seemingly simple and so core to the human experience, seem so incredibly difficult. Especially in the workplace.

I have never researched or studied much in the way of what scholars have to say about the subject – or business experts, I’ve just observed, contemplated, praised, opined, complained about the nature of communication of groups and larger organizations that I’ve been in.

Every larger organization that I’ve been a part of had what everyone terms a “communication problem” of some kind. Every larger organization that I’ve been a part of has had a situation where they acknowledge the problems/challenges/opportunities – and they’ll talk about working on it, doubling efforts, forming focus groups, task forces, tiger teams, etc. to study the problem, make recommendations, write reports whatever. And sometimes it changes, but normally it doesn’t. It’s just an endemic thing that happens with groups and communication.

I’d like to tell you I know how to solve communication problems in organizations. That I know some fundamental secrets to getting information flowing. I’d like to tell you, but I can’t – because honestly I haven’t the faintest clue how you solve problems with two different people walking away from a conversation with two completely different interpretations of what just was said. I don’t have the faintest clue about how you solve the “signal degradation” as the report of a conversation goes from person to person to person. Or the problem of custom vocabularies between teams and the use of the same words that mean different things. Or issues of pride and fear, where people will just stay quiet on unclear points to avoid looking like they don’t know things. Or any of the dozens of other communication challenges between folks. I know how it happens, I usually recognize it. But I can’t solve it, or tell you how. (and frankly the people that tell you they can are delusional at best, liars at worst). At best, there are mitigation strategies, but there’s not much in the way of solutions. It’s a human thing. It’s why every culture has some variant of a “Tower of Babel.”

I can tell you though, that if you can’t even get to those problems, you can’t get through those problems. If you aren’t talking in the first place, you can’t even begin to have all those vocabulary and interpretation issues.

I do have one secret. One management-consulting-like little mantra that gets to the heart of at least one of the fundamental problems. Of course it’s an over simplification of a complex problem. But that’s how we roll in the workplace.

Here’s the personal form:

Ask Questions, Give Answers

Here’s one for you leaders:

Expect Questions, Expect Answers

Here’s really what it boils down to:

Never leave a question unanswered.

Here’s an expanded version of the above:

Never, ever, ever, ever leave a question unanswered. I don’t care how long it takes. I don’t give a flying damn how stupid the question is. I don’t care how many times it has been asked. I don’t care how many times it has been asked by the same person. I don’t care how much it ticks you off that you are being questioned. Go ahead and send the missive around to your peers that “OMG I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT QUESTION WAS ASKED AGAIN” Just answer the damn question. Period. End of Story. (p.s. “I don’t know” is an acceptable answer. “Because I said so” is not. Unless the questioner is 5 years old and only if they are asking why they can’t go to chuck-e-cheese for dinner for the 4th night in a row.)

Pretty much every successful communication exchange is about a question and an answer. But it’s not going to be successful if the question isn’t asked. And it’s sure not going to be successful if the answer isn’t given. I have seen over and over and over again that the questions don’t get asked. Or when they do, the questions are ignored. And worse, the questioner is treated like a pariah, and the flipside, the answer isn’t heard, or respected.

If your first response to all this is that I’m over-simplifying the issue – you’re right. And if you know me, I’m sure you can point out multiple times with me where I get annoyed as hell about being asked, or I give some gruff response about looking it up yourself. “Black” said the pot to the kettle.

But I do hope that you’ll have to look pretty hard for a time when I was responsible for being the person that gave the answer, that I didn’t give an answer (and in the process answered 50 other questions that you never had) And if I didn’t, or didn’t for a long time, where I didn’t apologize profusely for not doing so. It’s just something that’s pretty important to me, and it’s something I’ve found to be successful for making sure information is out there.

There’s a lot of other things you might be thinking. One I’ve run into a lot with leaders is that you might be thinking to yourself about that guy that you have in the group over in the corner, that you are completely afraid of your boss’s boss’s boss walking in because he’s going to ask some embarrassing question about some little minute detail that you think is too trivial to be asked. In that case you have a problem. No, not in your group. You have a problem. Your boss’s boss’s boss should know how to deal. And if they have a clue – they’ll say “I don’t know. But that’s a good question, I’ll get back to you on that, or make sure that someone does”

I’m not going to say that that you won’t have someone that does that. Especially if you are encouraging questions in your team. And you yourself are giving answers and asking questions. That’s life. There are ways to deal with that. But ignoring it isn’t one of them. When the answers stop, the questions stop, and when both stop, communication stops. And that’s the problem.

I’m not going to say that this isn’t a hard and time consuming thing to do. Answering some of the questions will take a tremendous amount of time and effort. Sometimes it’s hard, mainly because the questions themselves can require us to think and deal with things that we’d rather not.

But what things in life that are worth doing are easy or simple? Not many.

Ask Questions. Give Answers

You’ll be amazed how much the communication in your organization, your group, your team, maybe even your life improves.