Simple But Precise

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Most days we don’t think about power plugs. We plug them in. They do their job.

That is, until we need one and we don’t have it. Or, we are traveling and our plug doesn’t fit the local receptacle.

Then it’s a big deal.

The plug is a model of simplicity, but without a precise fit it can’t function.

This idea is illustrative of several leadership principles, but today I’d like to focus on communication.

Over the years, the best leaders I’ve worked with have an almost uncanny ability to communicate even complex topics simply and with great precision as to the results desired or expected.

This is not accidental. Some leaders make it look effortless, but it isn’t.

Combining simplicity and precision in our communications requires forethought, effort and relentless follow-up. It also requires a deep understanding of where information or understanding gaps are.

How can we, as leaders, accomplish these twin objectives?

Here are five ideas. Two involve gathering feedback, and three are about communicating to others.

One – Go On Walkabouts

Do you regularly walk around and interact with your team? Do you really listen to what they have to say?

Earlier in my life I was pretty “Type A”. I was often more concerned about my schedule than my team. I didn’t listen and learn from them, unless it was convenient for me. Big mistake.

Walk around more. Don’t hide behind formality in gathering feedback. A quick 5 minute coffee chat or hallway conversation often yields big benefits.

If this hasn’t been your habit, you may initially arouse suspicion or raise a few eyebrows. Stick with it, and your team will gradually let down their guard and open up.

What you learn will help you communicate more precisely.

Two – Does your culture reward honesty?

Ask yourself this question – is the penalty for disclosure of problems or issues more severe than the penalty of withholding or hiding the information?

Unfortunately, for many companies it is. This is backwards. You can’t effectively deal with problems or issues unless they are disclosed. Sometimes this disclosure can “step on people’s toes” and cause retaliation in some form.

Honest or authentic communication isn’t always easy, but it is vital for both personal and organizational health and growth.

Three – Limit Your “Top Priorities”

In the early 1990s I worked for a company that was led by a brilliant engineer. He had remarkably innovative ideas, but he couldn’t prioritize effectively. As a result, everything was a “top priority.”

In one meeting, he said something to the effect of “this new project is so important that we can’t let other things that are more important get in the way of it.”

What do you do with that?

You can only focus clearly on a handful of “top priorities” at any one time. Part of simplicity and precision is choosing those wisely.

Four – Establish a Clear Finish Line

Surprisingly, many projects don’t have clear end points. This results in confusion. Your team needs to know the answer to the question – “When are we done?”

If this isn’t clear across all projects, your impact will suffer.

Five – Limit Administrative Complexity

Most of my career has involved project schedules. In some cases, more effort is spent in what I call “feeding the beast” of keeping the schedules up to date than it is in actually doing the work.

Project administration exists to serve a successful outcome, not vice versa. When that gets reversed, problems will soon follow.

Combining the twin pillars of simplicity and precision will always serve your leadership well.

One of my favorite movies is “Office Space” which was released in 1999 and featured a very dysfunctional organization and some of its very disgruntled employees. If you’ve seen the movie, you will remember the scenes about the “TPS Cover Sheets” on all memos. Click the button below for a one minute clip from the movie. It illustrates some of my points quite well. Plus, you’ll get a good chuckle in the process.

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