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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How many meetings do you attend over and over again where the same topics are discussed but nothing changes? If you’re like me, you find these  maddening.  Once we decide we are going to do something, why is it so often the idea is left to die on the conference table? Great ideas that can make a constructive difference to our business are just buried with the assumption our idea is now working because we talked about it.  It is D.O.A. and we do not even realize it!

Here is why.  Ideas cannot be implemented!  Yes those strokes of brilliance, no matter how earth shattering, no matter how dazzling, cannot be executed.  It would be like saying, let’s make a great dinner tonight, and then going over to the table, sitting down and waiting for the food to show up.  Your idea starves to death.

Great ideas, by themselves, are useless.  Everyone has them (or thinks they do).  The “genius” lies not in the idea but in the ability to implement one.  Your job is to take that flat-lined idea and breathe life into it so it can walk and talk and become an agent for change in your company.  We call this, “making things happen”.  With smaller ideas, you usually need only to take disciplined action for implementation.  Larger ideas, often called Strategies, take a more complex approach if we are to see them survive and thrive.

We have been taught to start by taking our Strategy and establishing goals, understanding objectives, and identifying the initiatives.  We have all heard of these things, and have used them.  If these traditional techniques are effective, then why are our Big Ideas and Strategies still on meeting agendas from year to year?

 

Years ago, when I was serving as the U.S. President of a large multinational, we created a Big Idea.  Our new Strategy was going to significantly shift our market segmentation through a redefined sales focus and new product introduction.  If successful, our strategy would deliver additional gross profit without any increase in costs.  It would turn around the financial performance of this “barely getting by” company.  We set objectives and tactics, knew we had to hire different salespeople, establish a new structure, re-train, revamp our marketing plan, develop new compensation plans, the new product, etc.

I was very excited regarding our new Strategy.  I knew we had developed a breakthrough idea and I was ready to go.  I prepared my slides, boarded an airplane and took off to present the plan to my boss, the North American CEO.  I delivered an inspired and passionate presentation.  Instead of the enthusiastic reaction I had expected, my boss looked at my slides on the table as if they were dead already.  He asked me one question, “How do you plan to execute this?”  With a little sweat forming on my brow, I quickly started to explain how I was planning a meeting with my Vice Presidents and Regional Managers.  They would be so excited with the great idea; they would take it back to the field and implement it.  We would have monthly progress reports and follow ups.  He stopped me, looked at the slides again, looked back up at me and said, “You need to take a Project Management Course.”  Then he left the room.

My flight back home was a frustrating trip, to say the least.  I knew he completely understood the Strategy.  We had talked about it together for months.  He was one of the smartest men I had ever worked for, so why wasn’t he excited we were moving forward with this plan?  I was the President, what did I need with a Project Management course?  I’ve been getting things done my entire career. I could make this work.  I wasn’t erecting a building or an aircraft carrier.  Project Management?  What did that have to do with anything?  In turmoil, I walked up and down the airplane aisle, took out paper and wrote everything I recollected from the meeting and drew up some new diagrams.  I knew there was something I was missing here.

Before we landed, it came to me.  He wasn’t questioning the Strategy at all.  But he didn’t think I had a chance in hell of executing such a wide sweeping imperative plan which would challenge our culture and traditional mindset in an absolutely new way.  So after getting over the fact I had traveled over twelve hours to get a two-line response, I hypothesized, maybe those two lines were pretty important.  And yes, the next day I enrolled in a pretty intense Project Management training program.

I learned many things about Project Management including, critical paths, sequencing, resource deployment, task constraints, GANTT and PERT charts, etc.  But the jewel I took away to facilitate implementation of our Strategy was the Work Breakdown Structure or WBS.  I learned a vital methodology for getting things done, especially immense and complex strategies.

Remember, Ideas and Strategies cannot be implemented. So you must find a way to “breakdown” the Strategy into “actionable accountable tasks”.  Many people develop the Objectives and Tactics we discussed above.  But they don’t necessarily connect the dots and pull the Strategy together.  They are often times just smaller disassociated ideas which also go nowhere.  You need to get past the Idea and get into the action.  A comprehensive integrated plan of attack that will create action and accountability must be developed.

At first glance a WBS looks like an Organizational Chart.  You begin with the Strategy in the top box and then list the objectives immediately underneath in a branch-like structure.  Then you take the objectives and break them down into initiatives.  Like the traditional model above we still aren’t at a place where action can be taken!

 

Next you take each initiative and breakdown the actual “actionable” task that someone is going to do.  You breakdown these with as much detail as possible, working further and further down the branch..  When you feel you have broken down all of the actionable tasks ask, “If I do all of these, will the box above on the chart be completed”.  If the answer is no, return and put more work into your WBS.  Go over and over it until there are no holes.

Here is an example of breaking down just one initiative.

 

Now here is the WBS secret formula.  The items on the bottom of each branch are called “Terminal Elements”.  Since Terminal Elements are “actionable”, this is where responsibilities and timeframes for delivering results are assigned.  As the results come in, they are checked off in the Terminal Element boxes as complete.  Accountability is driven at the Terminal Element Level.

If each terminal element is accomplished the next highest box above (the parent) is completed.  Do this across the entire chart and everything continues to roll up completing your project.  What does this mean?  All that is necessary to implement a big idea Strategy is execution of the smallest Terminal Elements.  The Terminal Elements become your deliverables.  And if your WBS is built correctly, they are all that is needed.  The rest of the chart can be in the background.

 

Practice! Practice! Practice! It takes practice to build proper WBS charts.  It takes practice to develop your career.  I have been at WBS charts for over fifteen years and it is still the first tool I reach for when I need to implement great ideas.  Start using them for everything.  Your WBS charts will get better and better.  Make a WBS for doing the laundry, washing your car, or preparing the meal we mentioned earlier.  I am often amazed how much time managers will spend practicing their golf swing or teaching their kid to kick a soccer ball.  And how little time they spend practicing their real craft (which by the way, most likely paid for the golf clubs and soccer ball).  Practice building WBS charts until they are second nature; until they are the foundation for how you think about implementation.

In case you are wondering how that first WBS application turned out for me.  I had our entire management team take the Project Management course.  We built a strong sales program and were successful in shifting our market segmentation.  The resulting 7% growth per job created a margin climb which increased pretax profit from .9% to 5.2%.  Using these implementation methods we took an underperforming company which was in the bottom six of the 42 world-wide companies and brought it into the top eight performers within three years.  A twelve-hour flight, two lines of hard-hitting wisdom … Project Management for a President, a Strategy; who would have thought?  What a great mentoring moment for me.

Learn to use a WBS with expertise and you will go to the “head of the class” and become a true professional implementor, a rare specialty among most Management Teams.  Put your WBS on the wall in your office so everyone can see the plan and the progress you are making.  You’ll be surprised at the attention it receives.  You will be known as a Street Smart Leader who can take those dead ideas lying on the conference room table and give them life.  Once you see those ideas walking and talking throughout your organization, you will have something to be proud of!

for more info on Work Breakdown Structures see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Work_breakdown_structure

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