DHQ: Your brand-new book, Communication
Gaps and How to Close Them, asserts that communication is as important
to software projects as tools, methods, and languages. Do people have trouble
KARTEN: People become open to accepting
the critical role of communication when they have personal ahas about the
impact of communication failures. In my seminars, I've found that simulations
of actual work experiences can help people appreciate the flaws in when and how
they communicate. Once people gain this insight, they're very open to considering
change. For example, a few of my recent seminars were with technical groups that
were highly motivated to be responsive to clients, but in their haste, they often
neglected to ask some important questions that would have helped them understand
what their customers really wanted. Participating in some simulations helped them
realize how their behavior and tactics contributed to the problem they were experiencing.
DHQ: What is the biggest stumbling block in convincing managers and technical
professionals that effective communication is vital to the success of their projects?
KARTEN: When I think back to my days as a techie, I can
well recall being happiest when I could concentrate on my programming and testing;
having to interact with other people was a distraction and a nuisance. So, with
technical professionals, the challenge is to help them appreciate how just a few
small changes can have positive consequences for their immediate work -- and for
their career growth. Most managers, by contrast, are already aware of the importance
of effective communication, but some don't appreciate the damaging impact of faulty
communication on productivity and relationships -- and some don't want to deal
with these "messy people issues."
DHQ: In this
fast-paced, ever-changing world of systems and software development, is there
time to worry about communication skills?
on communication doesn't take time; it saves time. As technical professionals
and management well know, the further in a development effort an error is found,
the longer it takes to resolve and the greater the cost, so it's vital to put
the effort in up front. The same is true of communication; it invariably takes
longer and costs more to resolve the relationship, project, and service problems
caused by flawed communication than to take steps to communicate effectively in
the first place. It's a small investment with a huge payoff.
How can we identify communication problems within a company?
KARTEN: Some questions can help, such as: Is the level of employee grousing
excessive? Are we issuing mixed messages? Do we spend a lot of time undoing mistakes
or redoing work to get it right? Are we experiencing a lot of customer complaints?
Have we had difficulty introducing and managing change -- or been on the receiving
end of a mismanaged change effort? Situations such as these are likely to be at
least partly the result of flawed communication. Therefore, it's a worthwhile
strategy to examine whether faulty communication might have contributed to these
situations, and to evaluate how changes in what's communicated and when and how
it's communicated might prevent a recurrence.
if our managers don't think time spent on communication is mission-critical or
KARTEN: Fortunately, people can take
numerous steps to improve their own communication without requiring management's
approval or support. For example, you can make a point of asking follow-up questions
to clarify a colleague's instructions. You can respond faster to phone and e-mail
messages from key customers, even if only to explain that you don't yet have the
information they want. You can periodically voice your appreciation of the efforts
of others. You can moderate your tone of voice so you don't come across as blaming.
You can try harder to consider another person's perspective, and to shape your
comments accordingly. We can all take personal responsibility to work on our own
self-improvement. If we each focus on doing our best as individual "Gapologists,"
we can have a huge positive impact on our relationships with each other and on
our ability to achieve our work goals.
DHQ: Your first
Dorset House book, Managing Expectations, continues to sell very
well. How is it most relevant today?
expectations has certainly proven to be a very compelling and enduring topic.
I regularly hear from people who have read my examples of mismanaged expectations
and tell me, "That's my company you're writing about!" The book focuses
on twelve strategies for managing expectations, such as: help customers describe
their needs, become an information-gathering skeptic, clarify customer perceptions,
try the solution on for size, listen persuasively, and when appropriate, just
say whoa! As with Communication Gaps, my examples focus on the experiences
of software and IT organizations, supplemented by amusing everyday experiences
that everyone can relate to.
DHQ: You explore communication
issues in your newsletter, Perceptions & Realities. Tell us about
that project and where we can find it.
KARTEN: My newsletter
uses a lighthearted approach to address serious issues that arise in such areas
as delivering superior service, enhancing teamwork, improving consulting skills,
managing expectations, strengthening client relations, and gathering customer
feedback. Communication is at the heart of these articles. For seven years, Perceptions
& Realities was a printed newsletter, but this year, I started posting it
on my Website in PDF format, downloadable by one and all at no charge. Readers
are welcome to print as many copies of each issue as they'd like. It's on my Website
DHQ: You write about engaging in a variety of athletic
activities -- everything from skiing to bungee jumping. What leads you to try
new things, and what's next?
KARTEN: Well, bungee jumping
was a one-time thing -- I'd always been curious about what it would be like, and
when the opportunity presented itself, I couldn't resist. It resulted in one of
my favorite presentation stories, so terrifying though it was -- and it was! I'm
glad I did it. Skiing is an addiction. I love the feeling of propelling myself
down the mountain. At my favorite ski area, there's a group of skiers over the
age of 80. My goal is to stay healthy enough to someday join their 80+ Club (not
too soon, though!). In the meantime, my current fun thing is aerobics. I'm taking
a cardio-kickboxing class and a class called "Survivor," which is intensive
huffin' and puffin'. I want to become aerobically fit enough to write my next
DHQ: What is a communication gap?
How will we know when we've encountered one?
use the term "communication gap" to refer to situations, in which inadequate,
inappropriate, or faulty communication adversely affects work or the relationship
among the people doing the work. Communication gaps are frequently caused by misdirected,
one-way, poorly timed, or badly worded communications, as well as by misunderstandings,
misinterpretations, and miscommunications among the parties involved. And sometimes,
even if you've communicated perfectly, people respond in unexpected or puzzling
ways. We're all capable of creating a communication gap, contributing to one,
or falling victim to a gap created by someone else, and the best way to prevent
gaps from occurring, or at least to minimize their impact, is to become aware
DHQ: Do gaps only occur in conversations?
KARTEN: Hardly. Communication gaps are pervasive. They occur in all forms of
communication, and between individuals and groups at all organizational levels.
Gaps can occur if people aren't mindful about how they offer ideas, present information,
implement change, propose policies, solicit needs, make recommendations, establish
standards, give or receive feedback, or simply converse -- whether with customers,
suppliers, management, colleagues, or teammates. Attention to when and how we
communicate is especially critical to successfully building relationships, delivering
superior service, and managing change, which is why I devoted a section of the
book to these three contexts.
DHQ: How did you first discover
communication gaps? What kinds of gaps do you encounter in your work?
KARTEN: My psychology background provided the theoretical underpinnings and
my IT technical and management experience helped me become an observer of gaps
in action. Now, as a long-time consultant and seminar leader, I regularly encounter
the damaging consequences of communication gaps in client organizations. For example,
although software personnel in one organization expected a leap in customer satisfaction
due to numerous service improvements, customers hardly noticed and continued to
complain. In a second organization, an IT division embarked on a company-wide
desktop upgrade that was an agonizingly painful experience for both themselves
and their customers. Customers in a third organization learned at an inopportune
time that their hardware vendor defined its problem response standard differently
than they realized. A consultant preparing to visit a fourth organization was
overwhelmed by anxiety in response to an innocuous request from his client. These
are just a few of the numerous examples I address in the book.
What kinds of communication preferences do people have, and how can you use them
to your advantage? How do you find out someone's preferences?
KARTEN: We all have communication preferences, such as whether we prefer to
receive information in written or spoken form and if in writing, in a narrative
form or a visual form. Some people prefer active, high-energy group interaction;
others prefer time to reflect and one-on-one or small group interactions. While
we all have general preferences such as these, our specific preferences may vary
from one situation to another, and may change over the course of a project. Accommodating
someone's preferences enables you to interact more effectively with the person,
thereby improving your odds of a successful outcome. Observing and listening yield
clues about a person's communication preferences, but the most reliable way to
understand someone's preferences is to discuss these preferences early and often
-- that is, at the outset of a project or relationship and then periodically over
time. I think of this process as communicating about how you're going to communicate.
DHQ: What is a Perspectoscope, and where can we buy
KARTEN: Ah, I'm glad you asked. If you can understand
another party's perspective, you're in a much better position to avoid communication
gaps. But understanding that perspective is no simple matter, so I invented a
tool called a Perspectoscope to make it easier. A Perspectoscope looks something
like a telescope. To use it, you point it at the person whose perspective you'd
like to better understand. Then you look through the eyepiece, and voilà,
you see the world as that person sees it. By becoming aware of the person's attitudes,
actions, and behavior, you can choose ways of interacting with the person that
may be more effective than those you've used previously. I was hoping to have
Release 1.0 of the Perspectoscope produced by now, but we're, um, having difficulty
with the prototype. In the meantime, until we get the bugs worked out, the book
offers numerous techniques to help you better understand someone else's perspective.
DHQ: What are service level agreements (SLAs) and how does
communication affect them?
KARTEN: A service level agreement
is a highly effective tool for improving communication between service providers
and customers, or between any two parties that need to interact or cooperate in
support of a third party or a shared goal. An SLA is a formal, negotiated agreement
that helps the parties identify expectations, clarify responsibilities, and provide
an objective basis for assessing service effectiveness. Communication plays a
crucial role in two ways. First, the communication that takes place while creating
the SLA helps the parties understand each other's needs and constraints far better
than before. Second, once the agreement is operational, the parties manage it
through a communication process that includes service tracking and reporting,
collaborative problem solving, and periodic reviews of service effectiveness.
SLAs have been strikingly effective in helping parties transform their relationship
from adversarial to win-win.
DHQ: What is the first step
one should take toward improving communication?
Awareness. The starting point is to become mindful of the potential for communication
gaps and to channel that awareness into observing gaps after they've occurred,
and when possible, preventing them from occurring in the first place. As you develop
that awareness, consider the role you may have played in creating or contributing
to a gap. When a situation plays out in a puzzling or unintended way, be open
to asking yourself: "Could the reason be me? Could there be something I said
or heard or misinterpreted that led to this situation?" I've had a head start
in becoming a Gapologist because I'm my own best case study. As I reveal in the
book, I've experienced numerous personal examples of flawed or confusing communication,
so I've had lots of opportunities to discover that, Yes, at times, it's me!
Why should a techie -- who already has to keep up with endless changes in technology
and programming languages -- read a book on a soft skill like communication?
KARTEN: Because the book addresses their everyday experiences and explains
the causes of some of their familiar frustrations. Because the examples I use
are from their organizations -- or organizations like theirs. Because they will
learn simple changes they can make that will dramatically improve their ability
to interact effectively with others in pursuit of their technical goals. Because
as a former software developer and IT practitioner myself, I understand the challenges
faced by technology professionals and I'd love for them to have an easier time
of it than I had. And because readers have described the book as a down-to-earth,
very accessible, non-ponderous, amusing-while-serious, information-packed book
that they enjoyed reading -- even at the beach!
an organization wanted to appoint a Czar of Communication Gaps or Chief Gapologist,
where would that role appear on the org chart?
In Managing Expectations, I described the role of Expectations Manager
as a designated or rotating responsibility within a work group, so that over time,
everyone in the group would gain expertise at focusing on expectations. I'd advocate
the same approach for communication. Preventing and resolving gaps is something
everyone can do; it's a responsibility, not a role. But it would be valuable for
each work group to have someone whose designated responsibility, perhaps on a
rotating basis, is to pay particular attention to gap-prevention. And everyone
at a high-enough level to manage across organizational boundaries should ideally
be a skilled Gapologist as part of his or her existing duties.
DHQ: If you had to choose one lesson from Communication Gaps and How
to Close Them that you would like the reader to come away with, what would
KARTEN: Apply a generous interpretation. That
is, when someone responds in a puzzling, confusing, or disturbing way to something
you say or do, try to refrain from responding in kind, lashing out, finding fault,
or jumping to conclusions. Often, the explanation for the person's response is
much simpler, and far more positive, than anything you might imagine. Start by
considering positive interpretations, and ask questions to check out your interpretation
and to clarify the other person's intentions.