Why Simple Communication is Complex

July 30, 2013 — 9 Comments


I’m the CEO of a global company, but I don’t have an MBA. Much of what I know about business I learned from Peter Drucker. I first discovered the Austrian business theorist’s writings on innovation, entrepreneurship, and management in the late 1990s, when I was heading up IDEO’s London studio, and they continue to inspire me. I keep a complete set of his works on my iPad for easy reference.

Which is why it’s such an honor to be speaking at the Drucker Forum in Vienna this fall along with a host of very smart folks including Roger MartinCharles Handy, and John Hagel. For this year’s conference on “managing complexity,” I’ll be addressing what our increasingly complicated and interconnected world means for people and organizations—a topic I’vewritten about before.

Here’s an example of trying to manage complexity that I know firsthand: In the early days of IDEO, there were fewer than 100 of us in the company. We didn’t have email, but being small made it easy to communicate and stay nimble. We now have over 600 people in 12 locations across eight time zones. Though we use email, IM, and an intranet we call the Tube to share ideas, it’s still tremendously difficult to keep our far-flung family connected in ways that feel truly human and real.

Drucker explains why: “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.” In other words, much of the message is conveyed through nonverbal forms of expression like eye contact, posture, and hand gestures. Taking this to heart, we continue to experiment with new tools: real-time video like WebEx, Blue Jeans, and Google Hangout; as well as video wormholes in IDEO offices around the globe. Not perfect solutions, but a start.

I’ll have to wait until November to hear what my fellow speakers have to say about managing complexity and connectedness in the global workplace. Until then, I’ll keep mining Drucker’s work—complicated thoughts made simple for the non-MBA—for guidance on how to navigate what’s ahead.

What tools or behaviors have helped you tackle complex organizational challenges?

Photo by Andy Deakin / IDEO

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog) 

Tim Brown


9 responses to Why Simple Communication is Complex

  1. Joanna Felder July 31, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    Getting an outside facilitator to listen to what is being said. People inside the organization know the business best, but cannot get out of their own way oftentimes to see the situation. Hairball sifters, complexity simplifiers…whatever you want to call them, the facilitator distills the essence from a confused group and find threads of clarity.
    Then allowing the group to address organizational change directly. Link up on agreed directions, align departmental priorities. Create one vision, one pathway that everyone can march along.

  2. Ana Karina Luna August 1, 2013 at 2:38 pm

    Great post. I’d like to add and call attention to another tool: the human mind itself.

    I know by direct experience that there’s much truth in this simple statement you post here: “The most important thing in communication is to HEAR WHAT’S BEING SAID.”

    It might seem strange or mystical, but meditation helped me immensely with communication with other humans. I learned with a meditation teacher how to focus my attention when I’m talking to a client or collaborator. The key here is in the quality of the hearing. Which means focusing attention on the message entirely, taking it in without mental judgements or the interference of our own ideas — we can and will, as thinkers that we are, judge and interfere soon after — so it can hit us completely as it leaves our interlocutor. More than often, most people are paying half-attention only to the message itself (verbal, visual, emotional) and the other half of their efforts is in already making assumptions, having ideas, or plotting the next smart thing we want to say to impress a client or a co-worker. Most of these can takes us down the path that leads to the syndrome of hearing only what we want to hear, and ignoring things which fall outside of our conscious interests or plans. I used to “hear-not-hearing” before and as I adopted this simple but focused approach I saw a great improvement: less mistakes, less miscommunications, more responses that hit the target.

    At all times, there are all sorts of signs being given away by humans, even if ever subtle, but no less important. To be able to perceive (and not only sense) what’s going on in any situation requires a certain focus, a clearness of mind, which in turn can give more insight, better communication, and bring perhaps more optimum solutions.

    I hope you didn’t mind I stretched the topic a bit into this other realm, the mind.

    I’ve never heard of Drucker, but I’m curious about him now. Thanks for the hint on him.

  3. I recently completed a course from VitalSmarts called “Crucial Conversations”. I learnt skills to identify and handle situations where conversations have high stakes and emotional content. Really helpful course! Link at http://www.vitalsmarts.com/products-solutions/crucial-conversations/

  4. Alexandra Pereira Klen August 15, 2013 at 3:31 pm

    I am a great fan of Peter Drucker. One of my “business disappointments” is that I have never had the opportunity to meet him personally. About 8 months ago I started a discussion in TED group at LinkedIn with the following provocative statement: “Some guys I would have loved to meet and to talk to…”. And, in my list, Peter Drucker was ranked #1.
    I completely agree that nonverbal forms of expression are extremely helpful to facilitate communication. Having said that and coming to your question about tools or behaviors that have helped me tackle complex organizational challenges, I tell you: dancing! More specifically partner dances which involve a leader and a follower (a couple). The first rule in this kind of dances is that you have always to maintain the connection with each other – without saying a word and, sometimes, without any body contact! When you learn to “hear” what isn’t being said (in words) but is being transmitted in other forms (eyes contact, posture, gestures,…) the connection is there. And the communication happens. Besides that dancing also helps you learn to improvise better, to be flexible and more adaptable to changes. No need to say that your skills related to innovation issues will appreciate your dance 🙂 .
    Communication requires you to exercise both left and right sides of the brain. So, Mr. Brown, shall we dance?

  5. There are a few tools I’ve experimented with to tackle complex challenges.

    1. Listening – It’s amazing how many people hear, but don’t listen.

    2. Questions – Asking why or how might we followed by white space for others to fill is an interesting experience

    3. Photography – I studied it seriously for about 10 years, took tens of thousands of photos, edited nearly as many and realized that in that time, I learned to see. I see patterns, WOW moments, abnormalities and curiosities in the most average of places.

    4. QUBE – I’ve been participating on Eddie Obeng’s Virtual Business School platform called QUBE which has proven to be a very useful tool to simplify complexity.

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