Complexity Cheat #03: Engage Your Team’s Mental Processing Power Through Communication

Categories Complexity, The Complexity Tool Kit, Thinking Capability

In our last post we applied complexity thinking to problems haunting the NHS. This week we are coming back to our toolkit. In our third Complexity Cheat we will discuss the power of effective communication and how we can use collaborative thinking to more successfully address complex challenges.

Effective communication is a topic that has been discussed to the degree of exhaustion with regards to leadership and management practice. I think we have all come to accept that communication is the process we get wrong more often than right, language is a mine-field, jargon is the camouflage that hides the mines, and anything you say can and will be used against you.

Why flog the exhausted horse up the hill once more?

Let's use a story from one of our Strategic Nudge training games as example...

The Forastero Case: Do You Prefer the Lonesome Hero Approach or Team Work?

A family firm is in serious financial trouble. Changing the business to be more sustainable takes time, meanwhile the CEO needs to rapidly improve productivity and make a number of quick savings to prevent the company from going insolvent before improvements can balance the books. The challenge has a degree of complexity since changes have to be made on all fronts and departments and all changes have to align with and support the ultimate long-term strategy that is expected to turn the business around.

The CEO has two options: either he works out the best possible plan of action himself and then implements it hopefully getting the leadership team behind him, or he opens the challenge up to the entire company and gets everyone involved in the optimization process and rescue mission. 

In a situation like this both approaches can have merit: where time is incredibly short, actions are unavoidably painful and resistance could be futile for the company, someone has to take tough decisions. However, with a little more time and effort, involving everyone in the process opens up a lot more opportunities for improvement and increases the chances to improve productivity through engagement.

Also it tends to reduce resistance to change when people feel they are involved in the process.

Tap Into Your Team's Mental Processing Power, Knowledge and Creativity

The more complex a problem the more likely it is that a single person - regardless how smart and experienced - will overlook key challenges or opportunities, take a too narrow view of the issue, and thereby miss a chance to reduce problems or maximize those opportunities. In such a situation communication is the most powerful tool in your kit to prop you up; it allows you to tap into the brains of others around you and add their mental processing power, knowledge and creativity to your own.

Tackling a complex matter means there are various angles from which you can approach the problem, none more valid than others. Which approach you take depends on who you are and what is important to you. The chief of operations will have a different set of priorities and ideas from the machine operator but both can contribute their expertise to a solution. In complex situations it is hopeless to try to find the right answer. You find the best answer by taking seriously what matters to those involved - including yourself and the business or organization as such. Engaging as many stakeholders as possible through effective communication can rapidly increase your chances of success.

There is beauty in this extra challenge; it means you don't need to have all the answers. You don't need to be right. You just have to find the person for whom a particular aspect of your problem matters most and get them to find a solution. The challenge of the leader, manager or CEO is to gather the suggestions, align them, work out the best trade-offs and shape them into a coherent strategy.

What sounds relatively easy in theory is of course still worth endless headaches in practice. Much less though, than having to discover an all-encompassing super-solution all by yourself while everyone else is watching in anxious anticipation.

Effective Communication Means Finding the Right Language

People communicate in different ways depending on their role in an organization and their readiness to engage with more complex problems. Communication will be influenced by how each member of your team makes sense of the problem, their interpretation, the context and what impact the entire matter has on them and their job.

Your challenge is to find the right 'language' for each person you want to involve. Let's be very clear: this is not a matter of hierarchy or intelligence and I would strongly suggest to avoid 'dumping down' difficult issues because you think someone won't get it otherwise. Oversimplifying a complex problem deprives everyone of the chance to understand it. Instead you need to find a way to communicate the problem that makes it clear and relevant to the people you want to engage.

You might discover the most valuable ideas to crack your complex problem in the most underestimated location - or from the most unexpected person in your organization. You wouldn't be the first to discover that your janitor has solved the company's biggest riddle years ago - just no one ever asked him about it.

Communication Engages the Team in Solving Complex Challenges

For communication to be effective and to gain the most valuable support from your team, keep in mind, in complex situations...

  1. there is no right or wrong, but different perspectives and priorities
  2. formal hierarchy doesn't necessarily equate to expertise, everyone is an expert on their respective job because they do this job every day
  3. different organizational levels present different contexts of perception and frameworks of thinking, communication on different levels requires different language
  4. everyone who understands a part of the problem can contribute to its solution
  5. those who are engaged tend to be more willing to make adjustments, while those disengaged will resist

In closing here another anecdote from the battlefield of communication...

A Knot in Humanitarian Field-Communication Tangles UN and Army

A few years back a friend of mine told me about a rather quirky situation he had witnessed when deployed on a humanitarian mission after a major disaster had struck a remote region in central Asia. The dire conditions of those affected had lifted restrictions for involving military in the disaster relief work and so both civilian, humanitarian actors and armed forces were working side by side to supply aid and run rescue missions. My friend walk in on a heated argument between an army officer and the UN coordinator. Each one of them insisted on a particular measure that they thought needed to be given priority and none was willing to yield. What made the situation funny was, that actually both of them were arguing for exactly the same thing, they just didn't realize it since the words they used meant something entirely opposite in their respective professional jargons.

Scenes like this must have been more common than you'd expect and the impact of misunderstanding can be disastrous for people affected by humanitarian crisis. Hence at some point UN OCHA decided to run a series of training courses focussing solely on the challenges of Civil-Military Coordination to address the miscommunication issue.

The two fellows in the end figured it out - when they started pointing out their suggestions on a map and drawing up sketches.

Visualization does create clarity!

by Antonia Koop

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