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Not Business as Usual: To get better, you must measure

John Riddell
Not Business as Usual
John Ridell writes a business column and a fun, Zoomer-Boomer outdoor column for the Sky-Hi News.

In this world of ever-increasing competition, everyone seems to understand the importance of good communications but there does seem to be a lack of clarity over just what constitutes “good.” Companies and individuals spend a tremendous amount of money on improving communications but most have very little definition for their goal of improvement. All they know is that everyone tells them they must get better.

One of the key maxims of successful management is that to get better, you must measure. Without a starting benchmark and a method to measure impact, you can never know if the activity actually resulted in an improvement. While common sense would say that you would never commit precious financial resources to a problem in anticipation of making it worse, without measuring, this could very well be the case. You simply do not know. While hunches may be a recipe for success at a racetrack, they are not a solid foundation for sustainable business success. So if we think we need to get better at communications, how might we set up a system for sustainable improvement?

Let’s first define “good” as having whatever your message is, understood by whomever it is you are communicating. This implies a significant variability in not only what you say, but how you say it, where you say it, and when you say it. When you talk with entrepreneurial managers, it is quite amazing the stories they relate highlighting the gap between what they understood themselves to say versus what their employees or customers actually understood. Interestingly, these conversations generally polarize around a perception of responsibility. One group of transmitters assumes responsibility for the error in reception; the other group assigns blame for the same error. The first group understands better communication as a controllable and therefore a measurable. The second group relegates miscommunications to the shortcomings of an illiterate, misguided, unmotivated, stupid, (you decide on the adjective) audience.

So the first key for sustainable improvement is an assumption of responsibility. This can be a difficult pill to swallow. The fact is we all do have employees and customers of varying intelligence and comprehensibility. For some intent on improving communications, this reality requires them to “dumb down” the message to the lowest denominator. They fail to realize that this “dumbing down” probably does not adequately communicate the quality, essence, or spirit of the message. Others, however, focus on the medium or channel of the message. With no intent to damper the emotion of the message, thought is given to how the message is communicated through best reception. A seemingly endless variety of channels however can sometimes overwhelm even the best of intentions.

Both approaches have their place and both need to be evaluated for effectiveness. Verification can be burdensome, complicated, and expensive. For many entrepreneurial managers however, it can be simply asking a varying sampling of folks to put into their own words what they understand was just communicated. Assigning a one to ten rating for quality of duplication establishes a comparison of intent with the actual. Tally and average the scores and you have an indicator of your communication effectiveness. Scores averaging nine or 10 indicate a pretty strong match between intent and result. Seven to eight are not bad but should certainly prompt questions on areas for improvement. Averages below seven and you need to be worried. This implies that only about two-thirds of what you said was understood in the way that you intended it to be. The good news is now you know it but the better news is now you can improve upon it.

Following a successful international business career, John Riddell turned his attention to small business/entrepreneurial pursuits that included corporate turn-arounds, start-ups, teaching as an adjunct business school professor, authoring noted business and sports columns, and serving as VP for the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce directing its Center for Entrepreneurial Growth. He can be contacted at jfriddell@msn.com.


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