Posts Tagged ‘Communication’

The expected response to any suggestion of change is “Yes, but I am too busy – I do not have time.”

And the respondent is correct. They do not.

All their time is used just keeping their head above water or spinning the hamster wheel or whatever other metaphor they feel is appropriate.  We are at an impasse. A stalemate. We know change requires some investment of time and there is no spare time to invest so change cannot happen. Yes?  But that is not good enough – is it?

Well-intended experts proclaim that “I’m too busy” actually means “I have other things to do that are higher priority“. And by that we mean ” … that are a greater threat to my security and to what I care about“. So to get our engagement our well-intended expert pours emotional petrol on us and sets light to it. They show us dramatic video evidence of how our “can’t do” attitude and behaviour is part of the problem. We are the recalcitrant child who is standing in the way of  change and we need to have our face rubbed in our own cynical poo.

Now our platform is really burning. Inflamed is exactly what we are feeling – angry in fact. “Thanks-a-lot. Now #!*@ off!”   And our well-intentioned expert retreats – it is always the same. The Dinosaurs and the Dead Wood are clogging the way ahead.

Perhaps a different perspective might be more constructive.


It is not just how much time we have that is most important – it is how our time is structured.


Humans hate unstructured time. We like to be mentally active for all of our waking moments. 

To test this hypothesis try this demonstration of our human need to fill idle time with activity. When you next talk to someone you know well – at some point after they have finished telling you something just say nothing;  keep looking at them; and keep listening – and say nothing. For up to twenty seconds if necessary. Both you and they will feel an overwhelming urge to say something, anything – to fill the silence. It is called the “pregnant pause effect” and most people find even a gap of a second or two feels uncomfortable. Ten seconds would be almost unbearable. Hold your nerve and stay quiet. They will fill the gap.

This technique is used by cognitive behavioural therapists, counsellors and coaches to help us reveal stuff about ourselves to ourselves – and it works incredibly well. It is also used for less altrusitic purposes by some – so when you feel the pain of the pregnant pause just be aware of what might be going on and counter with a question.


If we have no imposed structure for our time then we will create one – because we feel better for it. We have a name for these time-structuring behaviours: habits, past-times and rituals. And they are very important to us because they reduce anxiety.

There is another name for a pre-meditated time-structure:  it is called a plan or a process design. Many people hate not having a plan – and to them any plan is better than none. So in the absence of an imposed alternative we habitually make do with time-wasting plans and poorly designed processes.  We feel busy because that is the purpose of our time-structuring behaviour – and we look busy too – which is also important. This has an important lesson for all improvement scientists: Using a measure of “business” such as utilisation as a measure of efficiency and productivity is almost meaningless. Utilisation does not distinguish between useful busi-ness and useless busi-ness.

We also time-structure our non-working lives. Reading a newspaper, doing the crossword, listening to the radio,  watching television, and web-browsing are all time-structuring behaviours.


This insight into our need for structured time leads to a rational way to release time for change and improvement – and that is to better structure some of our busy time.

A useful metaphor for a time-structure is a tangible structure – such as a building. Buildings have two parts – a supporting, load bearing, structural framework and the functional fittings that are attached to it. Often the structural framework is invisible in the final building – invisible but essential. That is why we need structural engineers. The same is true for time-structuring: the supporting form should be there but it should not not get in the way of the intended function. That is why we need process design engineers too. Good process design is invisible time-structuring.


One essential investment of time in all organisations is communication. Face-to-face talking, phone calls, SMS, emails, reports, meetings, presentations, webex and so on. We spend more time communicating with each other than doing anything else other than sleeping.  And more niggles are generated by poorly designed and delivered communication processes than everything else combined. By a long way.


As an example let us consider management meetings.

From a process design perspective mmany management meetings are both ineffective and inefficient. They are unproductive.  So why do we still have them?

One possibkle answer is because meetings have two other important purposes: first as a tool for social interaction, and second as a way to structure time.  It turns out that we dislike loneliness even more than idleness – and we can meet both needs at the same time by having a meeting. Productivity is not the primary purpose.


So when we do have to communicate effectively and efficiently in order to collectively resolve a real and urgent problem then we are ill prepared. And we know this. We know that as soon as Crisis Management Committees start to form then we are in really big trouble. What we want in a time of crisis is for someone to structure time for us. To tell us what to do.

And some believe that we unconsciously create crisis after crisis for just that purpose.


Recently I have been running an improvement experiment.  I have  been testing the assumption that we have to meet face-to-face to be effective. This has big implications for efficiency because I work in a multi-site organisation and to attend a meeting on another site implies travelling there and back. That travel takes one hour in each direction when all the separate parts are added together. It has two other costs. The financial cost of the fuel – which is a variable cost – if I do not travel then I do not incur the cost. And there is an emotional cost – I have to concentrate on driving and will use up some of my brain-fuel in doing so. There are three currencies – emotional, temporal and financial.

The experiment was a design change. I changed the design of the communication process from at-the-same-place-and-time to just at-the-same-time. I used an internet-based computer-to-computer link (rather like Skype or FaceTime but with some other useful tools like application sharing).

It worked much better than I expected.

There was the anticipated “we cannot do this because we do not have webcams and no budget for even pencils“. This was solved by buying webcams from the money saved by not burning petrol. The conversion rate was one webcam per four trips – and the webcam is a one off capital cost not a recurring revenue cost. This is accpiuntant-speak for “the actual cash released will fund the change“. No extra budget is required. And combine the fuel savings for everyone, and parking charges and the payback time is even shorter.

There were also the anticipated glitches as people got used to the unfamiliar technology (they did not practice of course because they were too busy) but the niggles go away with a few iterations.

So what were the other benefits?

Well one was the travel time saved – two hours per meeting – which was longer than the meeting! The released time cannot be stored and used later like the money can – it has to be reinvested immediately. I reinvested it in other improvement work. So the benefit was amplified.

Another was the brain-fuel saved from not having to drive – which I used to offset my cumuative brain-fuel deficit called chronic fatigue. The left over was re-invested in the improvement work. 100% recycled. Nothing was wasted.


The unexpected benefit was the biggest one.

The different communication design of a virtual meeting required a different form of meeting structure and discipline. It took a few iterations to realise this – then click – both effectiveness and efficiency jumped up. The time became even better structured, more productive and released even more time to reinvest. Wow!

And the whole thing funded itself.

I love history – not the dry boring history of learning lists of dates – the inspiring history of how leaps in understanding happen after decades of apparently fruitless search.  One of the patterns that stands out for me in recent history is how the growth of the human population has mirrored the changes in our understanding of the Universe.  This pattern struck me as curious – given that this has happened only in the last 10,000 years – and it cannot be genetic evolution because the timescale is to short. So what has fuelled this population growth? On further investigation I discovered that the population growth is exponential rather than linear – and very recent – within the last 1000 years.  Exponential growth is a characteristic feature of a system that has a positive feedback loop in it that is not balanced by an equal and opposite negative feedback loop. So, what is being fed back into the system that is creating this unbalanced behaviour? My conclusion so far is “collective improvement in understanding”.

However, exponential growth has a dark side – it is not sustainable. At some point a negative feedback loop will exert itself – and there are two extremes to how fast this can happen: gradual or sudden. Sudden negative feedback is a shock is the one to avoid because it is usually followed by a dramatic reversal of growth which if catastrophic enough is fatal to the system.  When it is less sudden and less severe it can lead into repeating cycles  of growth and decline – boom and bust – which is just a more painful path to the same end.  This somewhat disquieting conclusion led me to conduct the thought experiment that is illustrated by the diagram: If our growth is fuelled by our ability to learn, to use and to maintain our collective knowledge what changes in how we do this must have happened over the last 1000 years?  Biologically we are social animals and using our genetic inheritance we seem only able to maintain about 100 active relationships – which explains the natural size of family groups where face-to-face communication is paramount.  To support a stable group that is larger than 100 we must have developed learned behaviours and social structures. History tells us that we created communities by differentiating into specialised functions and to be stable these were cooperative rather than competitive and the natural multiplier seems to be about 100.  A community with more than 10,000 people is difficult to sustain with an ad hoc power structure with a powerful leader and we develop collective “rules” and a more democratic design – which fuels another 100 fold expansion to 1 million – the order of magnitide of a country or city. Multiply by 100 again and we get the size that is typical of a country and the social structures required to achieve stablity on this scale are different again – we needed to develop a way of actively seeking new knowledge, continuously re-writing the rule books, and industrialising our knowkedge. This has only happened over the last 300 years.  The next multipler takes us to Ten Billion – the order of magnitude of the current global population – and it is at this stage that  our current systems seem to be struggling again.

From this geometric perspective we appear to be approaching a natural human system barrier that our current knowledge management methods seem inadequate to dismantle – and if we press on in denial then we face the prospect of a sudden and catastrophic change – for the worse. Regression to a bygone age would have the same effect because those systems are not designed to suport the global economy.

So, what would have to change in the way we manage our collective knowledge that would avoid a Big Crunch and would steer us to a stable and sustainable future?

Africa is a fascinating place.  According to a documentary that I saw last year we are ALL descended from a small tribe who escaped from North East Africa about 90,000 years ago. Our DNA carries clues to the story of our journey and it shows that modern man (Africans, Europeans, Asians, Chinese, Japanese, Australians, Americans, Russians etc) – all come from a common stock. It is salutory to reflect how short this time scale is, how successful this tribe has been in replacing all the other branches of the human evolutionary tree, and how the genetic differences between colours and creeds are almost insignificant.  All the evolution that has happened in the last 90,000 years that has transformed the world and the way we live is learned behaviour. This means that, unlike our genes, it is possible to turn the clock backwards 90,000 years in just one generation. To avoid this we need to observe how the descendents of the original tribe learned to do many new things – forced by their new surroundings to adapt or perish.  This is essence of Improvement Science – changing context continuously creates new challenges – from which we can learn, adapt and flourish.

To someone born in rural England a mobile phone appears to be a relatively small step on a relentless technological evolution – to someone born in rural Africa it is a radical and world-changing paradigm shift – one that has already changed their lives.  In some parts of Africa money is now managed using mobile phones and this holds the promise of bypassing the endemic bureaucratic and corrupt practices that so often strangle the greens shoots of innovation and improvement. Information and communication is the lifeblood of improvement and to introduce a communication technology that is reliable, effective, and affordable into a vast potential for cultural innovation is rather like introducing a match to the touchpaper of a firework. Once the fuse has started to fizz there is no going back. The name given to this destabilising phenomenon is “disruptive innovation” and fortunately it can work for the good of all – so long as we steer it in a win-win-win direction. And that is a big challenge because our history suggests that we find exploitation easier than evolution and exploitation always leads to lose-lose-lose outcomes.

So while our global tribe may have learned enough to create a global phone system we still have much to learn about how to create a global social system.

Do you ever feel a sense of dread when you are summoned to an urgent meeting; or when you get the minutes and agenda the day before your monthly team meeting; or when you see your diary full of meetings for weeks in advance – like a slow and painful punishment?

If so then you may have unwittingly sentenced yourself to Death by Meeting.  What?  We do it to ourselves? No way! That would be madness!

But think about it. We consciously and deliberately ingest all sorts of other toxins: chemicals like caffeine, alcohol and cigarette smoke – so what is so different about immersing ourselves in the emotional toxic waste that many meetings seem to generate?

Perhaps we have learned to believe that there is no other way and because we have never experienced focussed, fun, and effective meetings where problems are surfaced, shared and solved quickly – problems that thwart us as individuals. Meetings where the problem-solving sum is greater than the problem-accumulating parts.

A meeting is a system that is designed to solve  problems.  We can improve our system incrementally but it is a slow process; to achieve a breakthrough we need to radically redesign the system.  There are three steps to doing this:

1. First decide what sort of problems the meeting is required to solve: strategic, operational or tactical;
2. Second design, test and practice a problem solving process for each category of problem; and
3. Third, select the appropriate tool for the task.

In his illuminating book Death by Meeting, Patrick Lencioni describes three meeting designs and illustrates with a story why meetings don’t work if the wrong tool is used for the wrong task. It is a sobering story.

There is another dimension to the design of meetings; that is how we solve problems as groups – and how, as a group, we seem to waste a lot of effort and time in unproductive discussion.  In his book Six Thinking Hats Edward De Bono provides an explanation for our habitual behaviour and a design for a radically different group problem solving process – one that a group would not arrive at by evolution – but one that has been proven to work.

If  we feel sentenced to death-by-meetings then we could buy and read these two small books – a zero-risk, one-off investment of effort, time and money for a guaranteed regular reward of fun, free time and success!

So if I complain to myself and others about pointless meetings and I have not bothered to do something about it myself then I now know that it is I who sentenced myself to Death-by-Meeting. Unintentionally and unconsciously perhaps – but me nevertheless.