What a tangled web we weave. In an age where the overall vision keeps trending toward business at the speed of thought, the growing volume of complexity we have to contend with can slow things down to a crawl. Added complexity pushes back against the demand for faster response. To meet that challenge, knowledge must be allowed to flow quickly and easily through the enterprise, increasing in value at each step along the way.
As we painfully Monday-morning-quarterback each disaster du jour, it becomes apparent that the root causes of many of our problems aren’t due to lack of knowledge. Rather, knowledge either wasn’t shared, or it was shared but not fully understood or correctly applied.
If failing to learn the lessons of the past means we are doomed to repeat them, how do we break the cycle? In our attempt to answer that question, we looked through many decision processes, giving close attention to where things tended to go wrong. Our conclusion: Most of the poor response to disasters, including lack of preparation or prevention, pointed to miscommunication, or more accurately, misalignment.
Communication, simply stated, is the process by which actionable information is transmitted by one agent and received by another. Note that we use the word agent to account for humans, organizations and machines, since many activities leading up to critical decisions are performed by individuals, technologies or collections of both. Misalignment is the condition whereby effective and timely communication is impeded. As you will see, misalignment comes in different flavors.
Not only that, when you add departments such as contracting, finance, HR, marketing and IT into the mix, it’s easy to see how the knowledge pipeline can become stopped up like a debris-filled storm drain. Here are a few of the more common misalignments to watch out for:
Misalignment #1—Attempting to oversimplify a complex situation.
We have inherited this unfortunate condition under the guise of scientific reductionism. We see it everywhere, from clinical drug trials to climate change research. We examine a small, select set of variables while holding everything else constant. Humans don’t like a lot of variables. Unfortunately, we can no longer ignore certain parameters just because we don’t understand them or they make us uncomfortable.
Misalignment #2—Forcing communication into a rigid template.
Have you ever had to prepare a one-page decision memorandum? How about one of those dreaded “quad charts?” Behind the curtain, hundreds of dedicated, conscientious knowledge workers burn the midnight oil submitting their input, only to have it whittled down into a miniscule “sound bite.” The vast majority of information generated dies on the vine, often arbitrarily with little or no rationale. Worse yet, valuable context is lost by being squeezed through the narrow aperture of a single perspective.
Misalignment #3—Failing to take semantic distance into account.
A large part of what makes managing knowledge flows so difficult is the added complexity that comes from the many different perspectives (semantic distances) among the agents that are communicating. For example, in the course of eliciting input from subject matter experts, software developers, users, procurement officials, etc., requirements for a new product will be viewed by some in terms of functional capability, by others in terms of system design features and parameters, and by others in terms of performance results or outcomes. A supposedly simple notion of requirements ends up having different meanings, depending on the perspective. Unfortunately, such differences may not be discovered until after the fact, when a so-called “solution” is delivered only to be sent back to the drawing board at significant additional cost.
Differences in knowledge, skills and abilities of agents further contribute to increased semantic distance. A familiar example of that occurs when experts attempt to transfer their knowledge to novices.
Based on our experience, here are some recommended approaches to establish and maintain alignment:
Remedy #1—Keep alignment in mind from the get-go ... from planning to execution, from forming a team to developing requirements, and for all related problem-solving and decision-making activity. That especially applies when forming teams. Don’t leave essential people out because they might not fit in. Instead, make sure your team is facilitated by someone with the necessary soft skills to keep the conversation open and honest, with everyone contributing.