LUKE
Yeah, they sure do make a lot of
cold, hard, noise, Captain.
The Captain feeds his fury staring, then reaches out his
hand and Boss Paul lays the blackjack in it. As the chain
guards finish and stand up, trembling with rage, the Captain
takes a convulsive step forward and brings the sap down behind
Luke’s ear. As Luke tumbles down the littered embankment
toward the men:
CAPTAIN
Don’t you never talk that way to me!
You hear? You hear? Never!
His rage subsides and his voice becomes calm, reasonable.
CAPTAIN
(to the men)
What we got here is failure to
communicate. Some men you can’t reach,
that is they just don’t listen when
you talk reasonable so you get what
we had here last week, which is the
way he wants it, well he gets it,
and I don’t like it any better than
you men.

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Many of you will recognize these famous lines from Stuart Rosenberg’s 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke starring Paul Newman.  For those of you under the age of 35, you really should check out this classic from Netflix.  Cool Hand Luke is the moving character study of a non-conformist, anti-hero loner who bullheadedly resists authority and the Establishment.  One line of the film’s dialogue from Strother Martin, who plays the prison warden called Captain, is often quoted: “What we’ve got here is…failure to communicate.” Anyone seeing the movie realizes that Luke is very aware of what Captain is communicating; he just doesn’t accept it.

For years there has been a colossal focus around the concept known as a Lack of Communication.  The prevalence of the so-called communication deficiency has become a magnetic reason for which to attract every problem.  The more heed I give to this issue, the more I am convinced there is no such thing as a “lack of communication”.  This vague ambiguous term has been propagated to justify every fault from why the paperclips ran out, to the Strategic Plan’s failure, and the company’s underperformance.  The communication failure movement has become one of the great “cop-outs” of our time.  As a Leader, you must eradicate this excuse from your business.  The elimination of this one term from your business will immediately improve cooperation, attainment of goals, and your overall business performance.

I recognize the implication of my position.  It concludes all of those classes and seminars you have participated in, from all of those communication consultants were an immense waste of time and money.  And even worse, rather than aiding problematic situations, they have been harmful.  Yes, that is exactly my conviction.  Communication facilitators who have come to your company and lectured about listening, personality styles, diversity, the role the sexes, etc., were misguided.  Sure there is value in being a better listener and understanding others perspectives and traits, but the basic premise, that if we just learn to “talk” to each other correctly everything else will work itself out is vastly erroneous.  Communication experts and consultants are today’s business “snake oil” salesman.

Anyone who works with me will hear me refer to the concept of “root cause” analysis. The root cause is the underlying reason a problem exists.  In my article, Creating Great Ideas by Exercising Your Mind, I compare root cause methodology to a four year old asking, “Why?”  If you’ve studied and implemented this concept, you already realize that unless you get to the root cause of situations, you really are just putting impermanent Band-Aids on potentially permanent problems.  You are reacting to fires and creating the subsequent emergency.  The idea or concept of “communication problems” is about as far away from a “root cause” analysis as you can get.  Communication problems are only symptoms at best.  If you are going to be a Street Smart Leader you need to realize that communication is never the problem.  You need to start asking “Why?”

Let me give you an example: Joe and Sally have a project assigned to them.  They both go off and begin to work on the project.  Two weeks later the project is due and after reviewing their work you discover you are completely disappointed with their product.  Their work is inconclusive, incomplete, inaccurate, and you are baffled by their inability to have concluded the assignment properly.  As you expound your frustration to them, they begin to ponder the excuses as to why they should not be held accountable.

First, they remember the communication consultant who came to the company last quarter.  And since it was made clear in the classes that communication problems are the “root of all evil”, they quickly go there.  They assert there must have been a communication problem between you and them for the work to be so far off from your expectation. Somehow you didn’t explain the task properly or they took away the wrong information or concept of the task. Now you know better, and although it would be uncomplicated to concur with them, endorsing the communication consultant’s viewpoint, your stomach binds into a knot.  As a leader, you know this isn’t right.  You know they were furnished clear concise directives.  You expected them, with their level of experience and competency, to fill in the blanks and perform; because after all it is not your job to hold their hands through every step of an assignment. You make this clear.

Next, they look at each other and begin to discuss the communication failure they must have had between themselves.  Apparently they didn’t have enough time to meet, or when they did meet couldn’t agree, or maybe they just miss understood what each other’s was going to be doing in terms of completing the task.  Regardless of the excuses, they are trying to avoid accountability on the basis of a communication problem.  As a leader you must crush the notion that communication problems can be used as the excuse for non-performance.

If you want to propel beyond communication problem excuses and solve issues, you must drive down to “root cause” analysis.  Often the root cause is simple; Joe and Sally just don’t like each other and so they can’t work well on a project together.  This is remedied by sitting them down and enlightening them on the realization that their personal disputes are the reason why their communication broke down.  Clarifying how petty differences will not constitute a motive for underperformance in their jobs and that regardless of how they feel about work towards each other, you expect them to leave-it-at-the-door and do their work professionally.  If this reoccurs you need only make it clear that if they cannot perform, irrespective of conflicts, you will find someone else who can.

The root cause of communication difficulty can often be a more complex reason such as the constraints of poor organizational structure or a non-cohesive gravely designed process.

Organizational difficulties can be one of the more impenetrable root causes of poor communication.  Most likely, you do not possess the authority to reorganize the company.  But you can understand where organizational breakdowns are occurring and why.  For example, does your company have a highly compartmentalized structure with different departments pursuing diverse goals and incentives?  Is the structure counterproductive to the pursuit of inter-departmental cooperation?  You may not be able to change the structural drivers that are reinforcing uncooperative behavior, but you are able to reach across those departmental walls and build bridges which heighten your team’s attainment of goals.  Some of those bridges will be from personal bonds with the leaders of other groups, grounded in mutual respect, trust and concern for the mutual welfare of each other.  Some bridges may just be the result of creating win-win situations completely motivated by the self-interests of both people on either side of the wall.  Regardless, you must find a way for your team to succeed with whatever organizational challenges exist.

Let’s take a moment and look at where a process problem is sometimes blamed on communication.  Process improvements and re-engineering efforts are major subjects and there is an abundance of books and expert programs which can be engaged to streamline your company efforts.  One of the simplest and most effective tools to evaluate your processes is a Deployment Chart.  A Deployment Chart is a matrix based flow chart showing the relationships between process participants. Learn to examine how you are asking people to do things to determine where the breakdown is originating.  Evaluating and redefining your processes to ensure a smooth flow can eliminate what may appear to be a communication problem.

There are many other “root causes” that disguise themselves as communication problems.  Some of them are complex and multilayered and require in-depth analysis.  More often than not, they are the progenies of lack of commitment, lack of focus and lack of creativity.  Once you barricade “lack of communication” as an excuse for non-performance and demand to understand the root cause of your team’s failures, you will activate an immediate acceleration in accomplishment. I realize there may be some communication consultants out there, who upon reading this, will conclude that I just do not understand communication issues.  I would contend it is the superficial ideology of these consultants that is at the “root cause” of many communication issues.  I challenge you to think seriously on this subject and dismiss the tide of brainwashing which has overcome us in recent years.

You need to be a Tough Leader and deal with the hard subjects behind your problems.  You need to scrape back the artificial answers such as “lack of communication”, and excavate your genuine challenges.  Only then are you going to discover tangible solutions. Avoid the “feel good’ fallacy of better communication. Deal with the material issues and produce substantial results.  Those real results will be the building blocks for your Winning A-Team.  And one more thing… it is amazing how well a Winning A-team can communicate!

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My truly worthy ideas usually come to me as a very clear concise image in the predawn moments between when I awake and before my eyes open.  They flood into my consciousness from their nightly hovering in the same way, a moment later, my eyes open and my vigilant puppy, Buck, pounces to ravenously lick my face.   Great ideas!  Where do they come from?  How do you know they are great? Or that they will even work?   A successful manager must be able to create ideas.  Ideas which move his team forward and establish higher levels of performance and competitiveness.  He must develop thoughts that can be believed in by others and successfully executed.

All managers depend on their experiences and what they have been taught to make decisions and deal with difficulties.   As trusted as this concrete footing may be, it limits the possibilities of breakthrough concepts which can markedly create advancing change initiatives.  Situations become trapped by repeating the same solutions to the same problems.  We have all been dared to “think outside the box” as if this is a reflexive response.  If divergent spontaneity was indeed simple, abundant development would emerge continuously.  Good ideas require work.  Even “Eureka” moments of brilliance are the result of thoughtful substructure.

A Street Smart Leader continually sharpens his skills of Abstract Thinking.  Abstract Thinking involves thinking about situations that are removed from the facts of the “here and now”.  Abstract thinkers are able to reflect on events and ideas, and on attributes and relationships separate from the objects that have those attributes or share those relationships.  Strong Leaders move beyond concrete thinking based on only seeing the facts and instead focus on ideas under the surface and their multiple meanings.

The study of abstract thinking is a vast subject which I will leave to the expertise of others.  But there are some very straight-forward pragmatic concepts that you can employ to strengthen and shine your ideas.

You need to begin to think of your problem solving methodology as a creative process.  And unless you are just a naturally gifted creative person, you will need to stretch and exercise your brain to be more creative.  I am amazed at the amount of time people will dedicate to mindless pursuits such as watching television, reading gossip magazines, or sports activities.  How much time are you spending training your mind?  Gain an understanding of the basic propensities of your mind.  Are you an intuitive or a structured person?  Do you prefer direct or indirect action?  There are many profiling tools to help you gain insights to your natural strengths.

If you are going to stretch your thoughts, you must train your brain to be more versatile.   Embark on specific exercises and courses of study which will expand your mental capability.  Learn to play an instrument or a foreign language.  Do crossword puzzles or learn a new artistic skill.  Find ways to look at the same situations differently.   For example, one of my predispositions is towards “directness”.  I am inclined to approach problems head on and compete with a “take no prisoners” mindset.  Although I can win many encounters with these natural tactics, there are time when these strengths work against me; especially if I am crusading from an inferior position.  So for several years I have been endeavoring to master the game of GO.  It is a 4000 year old ancient Chinese board game centered on indirect battle strategy.  It focuses on acquiring territory in addition to capturing opponents.  It is the anti-Chess game and forces a different train of thought for me.  It takes me out of my comfort zone.  If you want to create, you must dedicate yourself to discovering a way to exercise, strengthen and tune-up your brain every day.

With your brain sharpened you are ready to create great ideas to solve problems and take advantage of opportunities.  But it is important to begin by asking the Right Questions.  Many failures are the orphans of misplaced efforts.  Dig into your situation deeply and understand what problem or need you are attempting to solve.  Do you have a productivity problem or a morale problem?  They could both show the same symptoms.  Do you need more customers or better customers to improve profitability?  Different strategies would relate.  Verse yourself in the methods of “root cause” analysis; the tactics of drilling down on a situation until you understand what are the real drivers behind the complications.  There are many six sigma courses and tools to assist you in sharpening this skill.  But if you don’t have the time for them, just let a four year old train you by asking you questions.  They will keep asking, “Why?” until they get to the root cause.  Why did we give up this vital inborn instinctive programming to the impatience of others?  Crystallize what you want to do.  Start with the Right Question!

You’re still not prepared for creative ideas yet.  Next you need to craft a vivid Vision of your successful outcome.  Your Vision is more than setting a new goal.  You must be able to visualize what the outcome will look like, how it will feel, what will be different.  Your mind must be crystal-clear as to the Vision it wants to achieve for it to become a reality. Those of you who are Stephen Covey fans will recognize this philosophy as his habit of, “Begin with the end in mind”.  Too many meetings are adjourned with managers rushing off to solve a problem they do not unequivocally understand without a thought to what the “winning” outcome would really look like.  The concept of “something is better than nothing” is erroneous.  False-starts and band aid fiascos only ruin your reputation and shut down your future creativity.  Construct your vision of success before you begin thinking of ideas to get there.

Along with your Creative Thinking, you should possess a strong groundwork of Critical Thinking.  Critical Thinking involves logical thinking and reasoning.  As ideas surface, you will need to critically scrutinize them for soundness.  Understanding principles of inductive and deductive reasoning as well as logically fallacies are valuable tools with which to build your thoughts.  If you begin with an invalid premise you will find yourself pursuing a lost cause.  The application of critical thinking to your creative process will result in reality based attainable solutions that work. Find additional checks and balances to your thought process.  If you are a natural critical thinker, find an intuitive person and ask them how they “feel” about your idea.  And if you are intuitive by nature, find a logical person and ask them what they “think” about your idea.  Your idea will be tested – either before implementation or after.  You choose.

Are you ready to begin your Creative Thinking?  You should make time each week in a place where you can concentrate on thinking.  Great thoughts do not come in between the hurry of hectic activities.  When is the last time you took an hour and just went off by yourself to think?  Sometimes when I am doing this, someone will walk up on me and hesitate wondering if they should interrupt.  They always have a surprised look on their face when I look up from my concentration and say, “I was just thinking.”  Isn’t it peculiar how little quality time we make for one of the most important activities we have as Leaders?

Now get away and think.  Remain focused on the “right question” and keep your Vision in the forefront.  Challenge the existing prevailing thoughts.  Imagine possibilities.  Develop every option and re-think your preconceptions.  Trust your feelings as you look down every path.  Look for relationships with seemingly unconnected resources.  Open up your mind and let everything on the topic pour out.  Do not settle for a quick fix.  You are looking for a breakthrough.

The preeminent tool I use to get the abstract juices flowing is a personal brainstorming session known as Mind Mapping.  Mind Mapping provides a flexible, fluent, image based methodology to elaborate on associative and metaphorical thinking.   Mind Maps start with a central topic and then branch out into possibilities.  They allow the freedom to start new and divergent ideas anywhere in the thought process and provide a visual format to link and weave commonalities.  Mind Mapping technique is easy to learn but takes practice to master.  Create Mind Maps for everything.  Flush out all of your thoughts, experience, lessons, advice and intuitions.   Remember you have a vision, a destiny, to fulfill with a new and original thought.

MIND MAP EXAMPLES

To become a prominent Street Smart Leader you must, Learn – Think – Lead.  Learning to Think is a part of your craft.  Become dedicated to the ideology of expanding your mind and thinking great thoughts.  Not every idea seeking venture will end with a brilliant result.  Often you will leave your creative sessions with only an exasperated and scribbled Mind Map.  But if you commit yourself to critical and creative thinking, someday, just before you feel that lick on your face, there it will be, Eureka, a Great Idea!  And guess what?  If you only have five or six Great Ideas in a year you will run far ahead of your competition and you will be a Superstar.

For Mind Mapping software go to mindjet.com or thinkbuzan.com