Communication vs Options

What defines great communication? And what skills are required for it? As it turns out, at least when talking business, communication is all about being able to convey specific information to collaborators, in a clear and simple manner. So that there is common understanding and things actually get done. Then again, is it?

“two man walking off pedestrian lane during daytime” by Pelle Martin on Unsplash

What defines good communication

Are these attributes aforementioned enough to factor in all the goodness to the equation, so that you can get what you need? Boiling down the primordial soup of skill sets, features and results, we may find some really useful, possibly under-rated concepts.

If one or more of the parties in collaboration lacks the willpower to take the steps necessary to establish great communication, you most probably won’t have it. They will usually find a way to justify a different course of business. No consensus will be reached.

So it seems that communication needs a group of people to be aligned under a common cause. A common purpose that will have them all look at the same goals, same tasks, with the same sense of importance and urgency. Lack of alignment means one or more of these people are looking at different “stars” in the sky, understanding different specifications and goals, different tasks. But they’re inherently on different missions and they’ll never know better, since they’re all looking at “stars”. All we need to do is clarify thinks as needed, so that everyone is looking at the same star.

Focus may mean different things. Ultimately, it’s important that focus comes from willpower and alignment. It’s the only way we can be sure that everyone is on the same mission, with the same goals and focusing on the same tasks at hand with the same sense of importance and urgency. Then, they only need to direct their efforts to the actionable items at hand. Sentimental connection to the general cause will also help, in keeping people motivated and focused.

What takes away from good communication?

As with anything else in life, we can give to something, or we can take from it. Communication is not any different. Certain circumstances may serve as inhibitors. We must always be on the cautious side at avoiding them. How about some examples?

Goals should be explicitly set and described. This will guide the definition of a set of criteria that will help understand the amount of work each goal entails and why. It will also help people determine whether they’ve reached a goal, when the time comes. Veering off course comes with spectacular ease, when goals are loosely set or described. Consequently, hitting the right target is just as important as hitting it dead-center.

Whether we get to have another go at it, or not, we are always judged by the results we produce. If the results are not up to par, the problem is probably not with our performance, but with our goal setting and how strictly we went about reaching it. Being lenient with it, actually never helps!

Leniency comes in different flavors. Either it be an excuse of “we’ll try a little more next time” or an open-ended funding option, it still doesn’t help people focus. There is always an invisible safety net that is completely visible to them! And convenient, as well.

Time-boxing tasks serves two purposes. Pushing yourself to get them done within the time allotted and being hard-pressed to move on to the next step. Which keeps you moving and learning. If you have way too much time (or money) in your hands, procrastination creeps in. And as you take deliberate action in an effort to focus, you ricochet among walls changing trajectories at the snap of a finger. This translates to an indeterminate cause or mission, lack of goals and, of course, no actionable items to work on. Think about it!

If, inadvertently even, you have seconded a process that sustains a stale routine, championing the absence of action, you know all about the consequent frustration. The real problem with this whole situation is that when you decide to fix the process, you invariably hit the wall of siloed business practices. People will defend the existence of a process they find “convenient”. It is only natural they will vote against — and act opposite to — upcoming changes that will radically affect their routine, even if it is for the greater good.

Having one too many options is probably the worst case scenario you can come up against. People are notoriously indecisive, in most cases. If you can train yourself to take instant action in deciding which course to follow or what task to take up next, you are among the fortunate. It takes some considerable effort, but it’s absolutely worth it!

Here’s an example of one too many options in the game, just to help you wrap your mind around it. A “use case”, per se.

The subway glass-gate predicament

Suppose you get in the subway to catch yourself a train. At some point you’ll come up against an array of ticket validation machines, complete with retractable glass gates that will only let you through once you’ve bought and validated a ticket for the ride. You can see screens showing animations and videos of how you can get your own ticket and validate it. You can see lists of different pricing for different routes, a host of options for discounts on long-term tickets, and so on. There are also directions, frequently voiced out through the station’s public announcement system. There is signage all over the gates saying you can’t use the service without a valid ticket. And there are guards on the other side of the glass gates, patiently holding their position. All the bases are covered. What could go wrong?

Now, suppose someone comes along and tells you that you have two options:

  • Go buy a ticket, come back and validate it, then go through the glass gates to catch the train to your destination.

— or —

  • Wait 30 seconds for the next bloke that comes in with a valid ticket, wait for them to use it and follow them directly through the glass gates before they close behind you, even though the machine’s alarm system will start wailing — but now you’re in for free. You should also know the glass gates will stay retracted in order to avoid passenger injuries and damage to the automated system.

Of course, you’ll ask:
“What happens when that alarm system goes off? Won’t the guards stop me on my tracks?”

But this has been ingeniously taken care of:
“The guards won’t stop you” the stranger responds.
“They are prevented from such actions, by regulation. They can only advise you to not pass through the gates without a valid ticket. And they’ll have to let you go on your merry way.”

What if this “instigator” told you that you could do this “trick” as many times as you like, no consequences, no strings attached? Which way would you choose to go?

There is, of course, a great ethical dilemma and a matter of civilized conduct inherent to this predicament, one that deserves its own conversation. But my question here is this:

“Does the second option seem appealing to you? Would you choose it over the first one?”

I’ve noticed the overwhelming majority of passengers would indeed choose this second option. Why? Because they were given the option.

What if later on you were told you had no other option but to pay for and validate a ticket in order to get on the train — without any apparent changes in the system — would it mean better business for the subway station, or not? And why so?

My (educated) guess is that now you’re trained to go against the rules, just because you’ve seen there are no consequences.

What’s more, do you actually see a communication problem in this picture? Was the staff at the subway station unable to convey specific information to passengers, in a clear and simple manner? Or, was the technology used to communicate those messages insufficient or inefficient? Do you suppose there isn’t a common understanding in using a valid ticket to pay for the service provided?

Well, I think not. I sustain the problem lies with the lot of options. This is a predicament wherein the passengers are presented with one too many options to abet a predictable outcome. And in lack of a better “ethical code”, they will probably take the “seemingly” more convenient path, acting as freeloaders. That’s, of course, until the subway company files for bankruptcy. Then the commodity of transportation is lost altogether. My guess here is that most people (there is also a social dimension to the phenomenon) that chose the second option are unable to see through the consequences of their actions. Otherwise, why take the risk?

So, what’s the deal?

Freeloading is primarily not a consequence, it’s a choice. And this choice will be made, even if the subway station’s communication towards the passengers gets through loud and clear. That said, communication is usually not the issue. The available options are.

So, put your money where your mouth is and make sure only the viable and sensible options are made available to all parties. It takes some doing, but communication will almost magically become much more clear and efficient!

Getting back to the subway use case, how could one make sure only the viable and sensible options are made available? I dare say, it’s quite easy! It’s just a matter of interface, methinks — of course you might disagree. For example, one could merely replace the fully retractable glass doors with rotating metal bars that only allow space for one individual to pass through at any given time. Then lock in position to accept the next valid ticket, before rotating again. Wouldn’t that single change make the whole system more foolproof? — Or should I say, more “freeloader”-proof?

And I think one would discover that, following that change, all passengers are automatically fully aware of how the ticket validation machines work. Because now, not using the messages communicated through the station’s terminals and PA system — to learn, would only mean a total waste of their own time.