Humans are unique in their ability to communicate with one another through the use of language – both through the spoken and written word. Coupled with the ability to express an idea in words, the inclination and desire to communicate it to others is an important part of creating successful things.
In other words, helping others understand what you’re thinking is a critical part of doing anything. For one thing, it helps get everyone on the same page as you, with respect to whatever it is you’re thinking about. For another, it gives everyone a concrete and tangible set of things they can talk about, and in turn, tell others about.
Most importantly, expressing something clearly, introduces a specific and common vocabulary that everyone can use, and know that everyone understands in a similar manner. This greatly helps in ensuring that everyone has a common mental model about the thing at hand, and from their can agree on the shared values about what everyone considers important.
As an example, this is extremely important in growing your organization. You may very well want to hire A-players, and tell everyone that that is your goal. But what does that actually *mean*? For one thing, people may have different ideas about what it means to be an A-player. You may have a very vivid idea about it in your mind, but if you want to use it as a benchmark to qualify the people you want to hire, you’d better put it in words.
This was very apparent in a recent situation at work. I was working with a brilliant engineer, who just didn’t fit into the culture we wanted to espouse as a company. I thought everyone knew what that was (excellence, what else?) but obviously different people had different ideas about what it really meant. I knew, in my gut, that this super-smart engineer didn’t fit in our organization, but I seemed unable to do what had to be done about it, because I kept justifying to myself about how he was really good at writing code. Months went by, with detrimental effects on the team, the morale, the output, and on our customers, as we tried to fix the problem by having multiple discussions with the concerned engineer.
Finally, one day, over a couple bottles of wine, we discussed what our values were. Not in vague terms of greatness, but in actual specific tenets. We didn’t have to go particularly far down the list to realize that our trouble-engineer didn’t fit in. The first one was: Delivery Focus – prioritizing the delivery of quality product to our customers every day. Once it became so obvious, we let the engineer go the following week.
Clarity came only after I was able to express it clearly. When you aren’t perfectly clear about it something, and you never are until you can express it in a sentence or two, how can you expect others to know what you mean?
I’ve since realized that this is why I like to read business books. It isn’t that they have particularly amazing insights and solutions to problems. But many of them do end up giving me new vocabulary to think about and talk about certain problems and possible solutions. It helps form and improve my mental models about the world. And then, being able to express things succinctly, and in unequivocal terms, help move things along.
I came to realize this through the unfortunate episode regarding an otherwise awesome engineer, but have since applied this idea to most aspects of our organization. We now like to over-communicate our ideas and plans, concepts and vision. It serves two purposes, it helps us gain more clarity, and it helps us help others understand what we’re thinking.
And it helps make better decisions about one of the most crucial factors that influence the outcome of any venture – the people you end up working with.
P. S. We articulated more than one value that evening, and perhaps they’ll be the topic for another post, another day. I do have to admit, thanks to the wine, we did have to discard a couple outright the next morning