One of the biggest myths I’ve had to confront as a professional is the holy grail of so-called “efficient” communication. What I’ve learned on a personal level is that efficient communication is not necessarily effective, and I’ve seen this play out to the detriment of organizations. In the end, since efficient communication is only partly a measure of how effective it is, I’ve seen the inefficiency of what that “efficient” communication can introduce.
At Fixate, we strive to keep our communications within and outside the company effective, rather than efficient. Whether we are talking to each other or our customers, we feel like every interaction is important. We value our time and our customers’ time, so we have chosen to focus on effective rather than efficient communication.
What is the difference?
Efficiency is fundamentally a measure of getting the most value at the least cost. In communication, this can mean communicating with the least number of words, in the shortest amount of time, with the least repetition. It is often translated in the workplace to mass emails (most people get the same message), the excessive use of reply-to-all, adding people to conversations, etc. It can mean shutting down “insignificant” conversations in favor of organized meetings, brainstorming sessions, and other seemingly “important” large conversations.
There is definitely a place for meetings, the mass email, or the succinctly worded message. And of course meetings with members who pontificate, or include grandstanding, excessive storytelling, and little outcome are of no use to anyone.
However, effective communication may not always be efficient. Effective communication means that the intent, the message, and the desired outcome of the communication is clear, actionable, and achieved. There are many types of communication needed within and outside a company for it to thrive. They aren’t all efficient, but they should be effective. Below, I describe three key types of communication, and what we’ve learned in terms of process and tools to increase their effectiveness.
Whether the problems are big or small, it seems like most internal and external communication revolves around their resolution. The most important attribute of making this type of communication effective is the response to problem-raising. Effective problem-solving relies less on people knowing the answer and more on their ability to ask clarifying questions.
For example, a common problem may be that an internal or external process doesn’t work. It is very tempting (and feels efficient), to immediately throw out suggestions about solutions. Then the problem-raiser goes and tries everything, and comes back with more questions.
However, a more effective approach when confronted with a problem conversation is to ask clarifying questions. Assuming that the problem was raised in a more or less journalistic and logical manner—so that you know what the problem is, some inefficient—but effective follow-up responses could be:
- Repetition. Repeat the problem and ask if you got it right.
- Elaboration. Ask open-ended questions that invite details, including the solutions that have already been tried.
- Root cause analysis. Try asking “why” five times to get to the root of the problem to make sure you are actually solving the right problem.
Even the most attentive listener is going to misunderstand, forget, or lose track of details that they later need. Even more likely, someone thought they understood the message. Then, when they go to act on it, they realize they need more details.
It can be frustrating to address questions if you were the original message giver, particularly if you spent a lot of time crafting your message. However, questions for clarification are buying signs. Whether it is a customer or a co-worker, it means they are invested in what you said, and care about the outcome. So, keeping a neutral to enthusiastic reaction to clarification is critical for the success of both the relationship and the task, assignment, or whatever was the object of the original communication.
It’s important for a lean organization to come up with creative approaches to all kinds of things. While focus is just as important, creating room for informal brainstorming is a great way to keep everyone’s minds poised to take a creative leap.
This isn’t formal brainstorming, where everyone is facing a blank white board and a moderator. I’m talking about the kind of brainstorming that starts with “I just had an idea, what do you think?” or “Have you ever wondered if…?”
Making room in your life and in the routine of your organization for people to use each other as sounding boards is critical to success. Rather than treating these exchanges as a distraction, a disciplined team can respond in a variety of ways that serves to reinforce their innovative thinking, reignite their passion about their work, and make conscious decisions about what they spend their time on.
Informal, peer-to-peer brainstorming may result in:
- A new idea, solution, or feature worth pursuing
- A correction to an old problem that had been forgotten
- A reminder that the current path seems like the best one
- An insight that proves useful in the future
- A mental break, leaving people with more energy to attack their current tasks.
There is enormous value in casual conversations. We are human, and we crave community. It is easier to work with someone whom you feel some personal connection with so you can add them to your tribe. Shooting the breeze is another way for us to get to know each other. This holds just as true for customers as coworkers. Even if a conversation has no obvious immediate benefit, building meaningful connections with others leads to trust, which allows us as individuals and organizations to take risks. Therein is where innovation lies.
We have a globally distributed team and customers, so we have to rely on a combination of tools for remote communication, as well as face-to-face interactions in order to communicate with each other. We find these tools extremely valuable for effectively using all three types of communication.
- Slack. For internal messaging, Slack is invaluable. With Slack, we can have instantaneous interactions that are nearly as good as face-to-face, and also share files, links and other information. It is more fluid than email, but retains a history, so it is useful if we need to refer to something later. We use it for one-on-one conversations, but also to communicate with all our contributors and team members.
- Google Docs. This makes document editing and so many other parts of our influencer content production workflow easy. Being able to share documents and comment in them (sometimes simultaneously) is a great way to collaborate. We often harness Google Docs for every type of communication described above.
- UberConference. This tool helps keep our globally distributed team connected with each other and our customers so we can produce great influencer content. The ability to record conversations also makes this tool very useful for company and customer conversations, because we can refer to requirements given orally that may not have been captured in writing.
- Trello. Our influencer content creation management process relies on using our Trello board. It allows us to create and assign topics, create and meet deadlines, and communicate and interact with everyone who has to work on or review the content before it gets distributed.
- Bill.com. Billing is just another form of communication. The practical aspect of making sure people feel that their work is valued relies on having a good invoicing and payment system.
- Docusign. Docusign allows us to keep track of company and customer contracts. Contracts are just a formal style of communication. Having all our contracts stored and shareable for signature online means we can easily share and refer back to signed agreements as needed.
A focus on efficiency in communication can be misplaced and actually create an inefficient communication environment. Focusing on effective communication, rather than efficiency, can be more valuable to building a business. Using electronic tools, communication that approximates some of the ease and informality of face-to-face communication can be achieved. These tools can support effective communication, which can take more repetition, time, and effort in the short term, but will pay off in the long-term by creating a culture that supports problem-solving, innovation, and relationship building.