Archives for posts with tag: communication


Near where I live, there is a wonderful cheese shop. It sells an amazing selection of English artisanal cheeses, as well as a variety of other delicious local produce. Not surprisingly, it is my place of choice for cheese for Christmas.

I placed my order in good time, for collection on 23 December. I duly arrived at the shop, full of anticipation, on my way home from work. The table outside groaned with goodies including beautifully-decorated cakes, rustic breads and colourful preserves. The shop is fairly simple inside, but filled with the wonderful aroma from the cheeses and from the delicious food being served in their upstairs café.

There seemed only to be one young lady serving, and she looked a bit stressed by the queue of customers; cutting, weighing and wrapping cheeses is a slow process. Still, I assumed serving me would be easy – all that should have been done already. She looked in the fridges under the cool counter; not there. She looked in another fridge; no better. Looking more stressed, she told me that she was very sorry, she couldn’t find my order; “Would you mind going away and coming back later?”

Bad move. “Yes, actually, I would. I’m on my way home from work, I‘ve had a busy day, and I don’t want to hang around. That’s why I placed an order.” Another hunt still produced nothing.

A small lady with shoulder-length reddish hair came in – the manager. We found where my order had been written in the book, just as I had said. “Well, if you can wait, we can make up some of your order again, but I’m afraid we have none of the Tamworth left. We are completely sold out of soft cheeses.” I grumpily agreed that they had better do that, meanwhile starting to wonder where I would be able to find a good soft cheese on Christmas Eve. Then she showed me a small cheese –under 100g I would say – and said “we have one of these left. They are absolutely delicious – unfortunately I can’t give you a taste as it is the last one. They are £6.” … So that is about £60 / kg? Are you serious? No thanks.

After that, the manager lost interest. The assistant worked out the total price, and only then said “we’ll give you 10% off for the inconvenience”. I paid, and walked out with my cheese, about 20 minutes later than I had expected and in a thoroughly bad temper.

So what did I learn from these unhappy events? Observing my own feelings, first, that the longer the problem lasts, the more it takes to put it right. And second, that if you don’t do enough, you might as well do nothing.

The first rule of customer service is “keep your promises”. And since things will sometimes go wrong, the second rule is “When you can’t keep your promises, try to solve the problem you have caused as quickly as you can”. If the assistant had said at the start something like, “I’m really sorry, I’ll make the order up as quickly as I can. You can have a free coffee upstairs while you are waiting. What can I offer you instead of the Tamworth?” – suggesting solutions to my problems – I would probably have been satisfied, and would actually have spent more. By the time the manager showed me the expensive cheese, she needed to have given it to me, not offered to sell it to me, to compensate. And by the end, a 10% discount not only did not solve my problem but felt like adding insult to injury.

A customer problem is an opportunity for free good – or bad – publicity. The choice of which is yours.

I’ve recently started taking singing lessons. A bit late, you might say, since I have been singing in choirs for decades, and I certainly wish I’d started sooner.

I have been surprised to discover that almost none of my lesson time is about singing in tune or in time! Everything is about technique – how you breath, how you pronounce the words – and a lot of my practice is just saying the words, not singing them at all. It is really hard to train your body to work in a very particular way: months or years of lessons, hours and hours of practice. You can’t just be told the right way to do it and go away and then do it right – it is more like learning to drive than learning to pass an academic exam. And sometimes you have to be told something over and over again before you are ready to absorb it.

I think I have taken away three wider lessons:
• What you have to do to learn a new skill may be quite different from what you expected;
• Results may take a long time and demand considerable perseverance; there are no short-cuts;
• Hearing something is not enough – you have to hear it at the right time.

That has made me think about the problems of change in a different way. As an example, one of my clients has many junior and middle managers with a fairly low level of financial understanding, and with commercial pressure continually increasing this is holding them back. How should we fix this? The traditional approach would probably be to send them on a short course to learn the “facts” about finance – understanding a P&L, a balance sheet, etc. But perhaps it is not the facts but the practice they are short of, or they are not ready to hear the message? I have done enough short courses myself to know that few of the facts stay in the mind for long anyway. The singing lessons experience suggests to me that that is probably only part of the solution.

Time to think about a new approach!

A couple of weeks ago, I had an evening out at the opera. I’d never encountered this on previous visits, but throughout the performance, there was a lady at the side of the stage translating the sung words into sign language. At the time I thought it rather odd – why would deaf people come to the opera at all? In any case, the words were displayed in English text over the top of the stage. Was this accessibility gone mad?

That prompted me to do a little research, and to realise that there are many reasons why there might be deaf people in the audience: from the obvious-if-you-think-about-it possibility that they might be with partners who are not deaf, to the much more important fact that most deaf people have some hearing and may well enjoy music (and even if they have no hearing, may find musical enjoyment in feeling the vibrations), and the more profound realisation that for some deaf people the language spoken and written around them may be ‘foreign’ compared to sign language.

All too often, we make assumptions about how other people see things. In this case, the conflict between my assumptions and the evidence led me to investigate, and find out that my assumptions were wrong, but much of the time our assumptions go unchallenged, and so un-investigated. In change projects, this is a particular danger. People who are feeling threatened or alienated by a change may be unwilling to point out that wrong assumptions are being made, even if they are not assuming that “management must have thought of that – it’s not for me to say”.

Change managers must try to unearth conflicts like this by building relationships widely, and giving people at all levels encouragement to bring their concerns into the open. Change projects often fail, at least to some degree. I wonder how often that is because the manager did not realise, or bother to find out why, the assumptions were in conflict with the evidence.

The unexpected death this week of Bob Crow, leader of the RMT Union (which represents many London Underground train drivers amongst others) has prompted quite a bit of media comment over the last few days. Tributes from industrial and political leaders have expressed sincere sadness, despite what his militant public persona might have led you to expect.

I never met Bob Crow, but it seems to me that he grasped more clearly than many that what most people want in their leaders is passion and an appeal to their emotions. At a time of generally falling Union membership, he doubled RMT membership, and then doubled it again, over a decade. I doubt that he could have done that by making a careful rational case. Stack that up against managers who – as public servants, charged with careful management of public money – are obliged to make their arguments rationally. Can you imagine what would have happened if politicians had incited Londoners to picket RMT headquarters when the tube went on strike? It is hardly surprising that he made an impact.

Recalling other powerful Union figures of the past – Arthur Scargill, say – isn’t that instinctive understanding of emotional leadership and the power of passion something they had in common? And perhaps the reason we now have a much less unionised and strike-prone world than we did is in part because union leaders have become less demonstrably passionate.

We need leaders who are passionate about their cause – whether in politics, in industry, or in unions – because that is what galvanises the led. Whichever side of the argument you are on, we need more leaders like Bob Crow.


A recent client experience came to mind when I read the following blog post:

Seth says “you will be misunderstood”, and broadly speaking I agree with him: we all interpret what we hear in the context of our own experiences, however careful the speaker, and those experiences are all different. But I think is important to remember that there are degrees of misunderstanding; not all misunderstandings are equal.

My client had started a change project which was running into difficulty. As I started to talk to his staff, it became clear that they all had slightly different understandings of the objectives of the project. Not only did that mean that there was confusion about where they were trying to get to as a whole, but it also meant that the various workstreams were unlikely to join up.

You won’t be surprised to hear that there was not much formal documentation for the project. I’m sure my client felt he had explained what he wanted very clearly – and if he had been on the receiving end, I am certain that he would have understood himself perfectly. But his audience was not him, and he had not taken the additional step of asking his audience to play back to him to check their understanding.

One of the most important tasks for any project manager is to make sure that project objectives are defined clearly, and that everyone understands them. A key skill for project managers is therefore to be able to put things into simple, unambiguous language that fits the background and culture of everyone in the team. They must be good translators: there may still be some misunderstandings, but if they can’t reduce them to a very low minimum by adapting their language (and their listening) to their different audiences, they will not be effective. Just look what happened at Babel!

Do you have any experiences of projects going wrong because people did not understand each other well enough? Share them below! If you have a project which you think might be suffering from this problem, please get in touch.

Central London Traffic

Central London Traffic (Photo credit: oatsy40)


Driving through London a day or two ago, I was amazed to see in front of me an advertising van unlike any I had ever seen before. Half of the back of the van was taken up with a large screen, repeatedly showing a short advertising video clip, obviously in full view of the drivers behind.

Call me old-fashioned, but this seemed to me to be an innovation too far. Driving in London is hard enough, with heavy traffic, bicycles, pedestrians, buses stopping and starting, complex road layouts etc. to pay attention to, without adding advertising which is so clearly going to distract drivers. Health and Safety rules have a bad reputation, but this seemed to me to be something they really should apply to.

But it did remind me that if you want something to grab someone’s attention, you should make it move! Years ago (even before the first PCs), I was a University Lecturer, and had to put on a display of some research for an open day. Nearly all the displays people made were static. Even though my subject was hard to make exciting for the public, and though my animated display on an early computer screen was small and very crude (in those days anything more would have been very hard), the fact that it moved and had a very simple coordinated sound track attracted far more visitors than most other displays.

Change is like that too. It moves, so it grabs people’s attention, unfortunately more often negatively than positively – like the advertising van did for me. But if you can find a way to make people curious, and if possible engage them in the exploration of the change, the results can be quite different!

English: neck of bottle of champagne

English: neck of bottle of champagne (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What? Don’t you mean success?

Well, no – although that is worth celebrating too.

I came across this idea recently in “Co-active Coaching”[1], and it makes a lot of sense. People rarely fail at things because they didn’t really try – or at least not at things that matter. First they had to find the courage to attempt something which they knew would be likely to expose them to the risk of failing. Then, wanting to avoid failure, they tried hard, probably attempting things they had never done before in the process. Finally they had to admit they had failed – even though in the process they had probably achieved more than they ever thought possible. All of those things are difficult, and worthy of celebration in themselves

But there is more to it than that. Failing is an excellent teacher! When you fail, you have to face up to things you tried which did not work. Often you will want to understand why they did not work, and this may lead to more success next time.

There is also a less obvious reason. When we are criticised, blamed and shamed for failing, it usually has the desired effect of making us very keen to avoid failing again. Unfortunately, the consequences of that very understandable urge are not necessarily to make us try harder. We are very likely also to learn to avoid taking the risky option in the first place, or to limit the options we consider only to the ones which appear ‘safe’.

You can’t stop failure hurting, but instead of adding to the hurt, celebrate the courage, the effort, the learning involved – and at the same time create a culture in which even risky options can be seriously considered.

[1] “Co-Active Coaching” By Henry and Karen Kimsey-House, Phillip Sandahl and Laura Whitworth


How often have you found yourself having a conversation, and it gradually dawning on you that the person you are talking to thinks the conversation is about something quite different to what you thought? It happens to us all from time to time, and normally it causes at worst mild embarrassment as one of you says, ‘hang on a minute, I thought we were talking about  x’ and the other looks bemused. Sometimes though, miscommunication can cause real problems.

Perhaps the most common place for miscommunication to lead to problems in the working world is in emails. Maybe the relationship is a bit sticky already, or perhaps the subject is one which might be a bit emotive. You write an email, for example telling someone what you are going to do. Writing the message down gives you a chance to choose the words carefully so that they can’t be misinterpreted, right? Wrong! Within a few microseconds of pressing the ”send” button, you notice that your computer has started to smoke from the heat in the reply that has just clanged into your inbox. You read it – how could they have misunderstood your intentions so wildly? They must be spoiling for a fight! Your emotion finds its way into your reply, and the exchange just escalates.

Why are emails so fraught? First, they are too easy: we dash them off with little thought. For straightforward factual messages that is no problem. The trouble comes when the exchange has some (often unexpected) emotional content. Although they seem like a way of keeping the emotion out, and so appear to be an easy option (especially when we are worried about the reaction and it seems safer to keep our distance), humans are emotional creatures: we don’t often do purely rational. By leaving out the emotional context of the message, which we detect mostly from body language and tone of voice, we take away the very cues which would help the recipient to know whether we meant to be provocative or were just not choosing our words very well. Poorly-chosen words in the context of a friendly tone and an open expression will usually only prompt clarification, but without these, people usually assume the worst.

Here are five tips for minimising the risk, and getting things back on track if necessary:

  • If you think the message might have some emotional content, don’t rely on e-mail if you can possibly avoid it. Start the exchange face-to-face, or at least with a phone call, so that there is an emotional context. Only once the tone has been set should you follow it up with an email.
  • If you didn’t think the message was emotional, but the response appears to be – or even just indicates misunderstanding – never send an email reply. Pick up the phone straight away to clarify, or go and see them if you can.
  • If you have to send an email which you know might be misunderstood, save a draft overnight before sending it, and re-read it in the morning. You have a better chance then of seeing how someone else might mis-interpret your words, and stopping it before it is too late. I rarely find I change nothing the next day!
  • For really sensitive messages which you have to put in writing, ask someone else to check your words before you send them.
  • If an exchange has gone emotional, apologise face to face – even if you don’t think you have anything to apologise for.

Do you have any stories you can share of communications exchanges gone horribly wrong? Please share them below! Fill in the poll even if you have no stories to share!

Queueing for the Proms 2008 on the south steps...

Queueing for the Proms 2008 on the south steps of the Royal Albert Hall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


I’m sitting on the steps outside the Royal Albert Hall in London. Fortunately today it isn’t raining, but even if it was, I needn’t worry. These days the Proms have an excellent system for managing the queue – rather like the ones on the deli counters in a supermarket. When you arrive, you are given a numbered ticket, which guarantees your place in the queue. Once you have your ticket, you can wander off for a coffee or a snack, or take shelter if it rains, knowing that everyone will be admitted in the order they joined the queue regardless. It is not particularly sophisticated – but it is simple, and it works.

Simplicity is hard fought for: it does not happen by accident. Once a complex process or system is in place, changing it to remove unnecessary complexity is hard, just as all change is. Even stopping a simple process getting more complicated needs constant vigilance: otherwise, it is likely to gather exceptions and special cases, as well as extra checks that seem important but which have a cost which is frequently overlooked. Just as nature dictates that the disorder of the Universe (or a teenager’s bedroom) increases with time, and that this can only be reversed by the input of work, so it is with organisations.

Why does it matter? Because simplicity is inherently more efficient and less error-prone. Have you tried to explain your organisation’s processes to a new joiner? If so, how easy do you find it to explain the judgements required if the process has branches (if this, then that, but if not, then the other), and how quickly do people learn to make them properly? Good governance depends on people following the rules. Complexity makes it more likely that people will make mistakes, and also makes it harder to spot when people deliberately try to get round rules. For an extreme example of what happens with complexity, think about tax codes: with complex rules and many special cases, expert advisers earn a good living, which must be at the expense of either the tax-payer or the tax-collector or both. While good for the experts, does that not make its complexity bad for the rest of us?

Do you have any good examples of complexity leading to unexpected problems, or of how getting rid of it has reduced them? Please share them below!

Banana skin

Let’s face it, if innovation isn’t change, what is? So in thinking about why change is difficult, and how to overcome the challenges, thinking about how to make innovation successful may help.

A frequent characteristic of innovations is that the needs they address, or could address, are not recognised. History is littered with examples, from Marshal Foch’s view that aeroplanes were of no military value to Thomas Watson’s famous assessment that there might be a global market for at most 5 computers. Most people have probably heard the saying “build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door”. Innovations still fail, though, because the world didn’t know it needed a better mousetrap, and so it wasn’t listening. Before you can even start to persuade people to adopt your innovation, you may have to help them to recognise that they have a problem it can address.

Change initiatives are no different. I was recently helping an organisation plan a major change. I believed that the change would have consequences for other aspects of the operations, and that these consequences needed to be planned for too. Although I made several attempts to explain this to the CEO, I failed to convince her. Needless to say no such planning was done, and so I shall not be surprised if there are later problems requiring emergency solutions. A pity, but you can’t win ‘em all!

How do change initiatives start? One or a few people have an idea about how to do things differently. Sometimes there may be a widely-recognised problem, but even then it may be a big step to create the link to the proposed solution. Often most people – even management – have not yet recognised that there is a problem, and before they will consider any change, they need to be persuaded that the need is real.

Change initiators are often the people who are able to see what will trip up the organisation before others can, but that means that they also have the challenge of helping others to see what they see. Think of the lookout on a boat – their vantage point means they can see rocks ahead before anyone else, but before they can get the boat to change course they have to be believed. The power of the human mind to cling on to existing beliefs, for example that the rocks are miles away, is very strong.

So change management starts with taking the time to educate people about the problem that needs to be addressed. Until they believe that there is a problem – that there are rocks ahead – trying to persuade them to accept the change required to address it is likely to be wasted breath.

Do you agree that change management starts with persuading people that there is a problem? Do you have any examples you can share? Please leave comments below.

If you need help seeing the rocks, or persuading people they are real, do get in touch.

These thoughts were prompted by reading ‘To make innovation stick, try trying’ by Gretchen Gavett: