Ambuiguity is the Thief of Productivity

Monday, November 25, 2013

I heard it said once that, common sense is so uncommon it ought to be considered a superpower! How many times before have you tried to give instructions or an explanation to someone, such as an employee or work associate, and somehow, inexplicably  they did not understand what you said? 

I have been baffled before as to how detailed I've been in my explanations and instructions, and yet somehow, someone who reported to me still did not understand. Can you relate? So who's fault is it at that point?

Many  weeks ago, I assigned a task to a team member and did so with the greatest care and detail. Whenever I am giving instructions, I try to err on the side of too much detail, especially in writing. (Over the years I've sort of defaulted to that method because of so many problems in this area.) When the deadline rolled around, I learned that the team member had hardly even begun the task. Their excuse?  They did not understand the scope of the task. I was shocked and frustrated beyond words.  So much for overcommunication!

So I asked them what they did not understand, and they asked more questions, I answered those questions, and we set the new deadline. That deadline came and went, but this time they had more questions that to me were completely unnecessary to the completion of the task. Who's fault is it now?

I answered those questions, put a new deadline on it, and did something I did not do before. I scheduled a Google Hangout with them, in order to have a face-to-face conversation.  Previous to our meeting I created a new mock-up of what I wanted, including even more explicit detail.  In our meeting I presented it all to her, and then asked if she had any further questions or any additional ambiguity. Guess what? The task got done within 24 hours. 

So who's fault was it that the task did not get completed on the first deadline? In part, it was both of our faults. The team member should not have waited until the day of the deadline to express their concerns and questions. Ultimately however, it's MY fault as the manager, because I evidently communicated a task with ambiguity. As a result, my ambiguity became the thief of our productivity, since we actually wasted time that neither of us would be paid for because we obviously could not charge the customer for it.

It's easy to blame the person you gave a task to if it doesn't get done.  It's easy to assume that you are the best communicator in the world. It's easy to think the world is full of idiots who don't have any common sense. But when push comes to shove, when the pedal hits the metal, when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, if YOU are ambiguous in what YOU have communicated, it's YOUR fault!.  It makes no difference if you are a manager or a team member, ambiguity will rob your productivity... and therefore, your success.

Here are a few helpful tips I've learned along the way about eliminating ambiguity and increasing productivity.

First, never assume you have communicated completely. If the world is supposedly full of idiots who can't follow instructions, it's also full of managers who breathe life into the old saying about what happens when we assume. Communicate the very best that you are able to, and error on the side of assuming that your team member will probably need some kind of help down the road. You will show your self to be a patient boss, and they will love you for it.

Second, communicate in as many ways as possible. Use the phone, talk face-to-face, use videoconferencing. Just commit to yourself that whatever you need to communicate to someone else, you will do so by talking.  Did you get that?  Talking.  Not by email, or instant messaging, or texting. Those methods are helpful for reinforcing, supporting, or documenting what you said, but not saying what needs to be said to someone.  Ambiguity hides well in these methods of communication. 

Third, provide examples of what you want done. Draw pictures.  Provide diagrams.  Create flowcharts.  Write support documentation. Give work samples, Envision mock-ups. And here's a common sense idea: show them how to do it!  This allows them to watch you as you do it, providing them a living-color example of how you want it done. In short, do whatever it takes to enable the person to visualize and understand what you want done. 

Fourth, ask other team members to audit or review your communications. If you find that the people to whom you give things to do don't seem to be able to get them done without frequently asking for more help, then you probably have a problem with ambiguity and YOU simply need coaching.  Use the three previous points above as a start.  That said, on the flip side, if your team members believe that you are communicating without ambiguity, and yet others are still unable to meet deadlines, then it's time to hold THEM accountable.

If you've been wondering what's been holding back your productivity and success, it could be ambiguity in your communication. Work through these four helpful tips for the next thirty days and see if your productivity does not begin to increase rapidly. Then celebrate with your team as productivity from clear communication becomes YOUR new superpower at work and in life!

About the Author: Rob is a follower of Jesus at Jubilee Church.  From there he pursues Jesus' mission at Revive Consignment as the Business & Operations Development Director, as well as at Jubilee Church of Atlanta, in Woodstock, GA. From there he envisions and pursues missional-shaped business for the kingdom. He and his wife Sherri have been married for 20 years and together have three sons and a daughter. Rob believes the mission of the gospel is summed up in four simple phrases: know God, obey Jesus, make disciples, and plant churches. This is the pursuit of his life, as well as the point of his blog.

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