Why Simple Communication is Complex

July 30, 2013

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)