Speaking To Be Understood

Finding alignment in an organization is hard, but there are some actions you can take that help.

My family and I live in a split level, sort of three half floors. My wife and I have our bedroom on the lowest level, the kitchen, the living room, dining room, etc. are on the second level and the kid's rooms on the third level over the garage. Our kids are very early risers, and my wife tends to take the brunt of that during the week. Now, breakfast time tends towards the chaotic; the kids are talking, arguing, and playing with each other while we are cooking and generally trying to keep things from devolving. It's an excellent experience to have with the kids but stressful to do all the time. On a particular Saturday, I thought I would catch the kids before they came downstairs and get through breakfast while letting my wife sleep. My earliest rising middle child came downstairs first.

Together we made the bottle for my littlest, got her up, dressed, and moving. I put breakfast together and got them fed. As we were finishing up, my wife came upstairs. She woke up our oldest and got her moving. When they came downstairs, I could immediately see that she was disappointed in something, but I had no clue what it was. So I asked her. She thought I would have laid out breakfast for my oldest and had it ready when they came down. I didn't. While I had the individual items ready, it had not occurred to me to put them on a plate and have it laid out. What my wife expected hadn't occurred to me, and she hadn't communicated what she expected to me. It was no big deal. I laid out the food we moved on. However, unpacking this experience proved enlightening. When we talked about it later, I found out that one of the most challenging and stressful times of the day is breakfast. Not having to do breakfast at all is something that my wife looks forward to all week. When she came downstairs and saw that breakfast wasn't ready for our oldest, that joy in being able to skip a challenging portion of her day just collapsed. I didn't have that context, didn't understand it, and if I did have that context, I would have made sure she didn't have to experience that.

We suffered from a lack of alignment that we didn't discover until it was too late to solve the problem.

Alignment is a Solvable Problem

By default, we are mostly not aligned. Each of us builds a mental model of the world in our heads. We base that mental model on our experiences over our lifetime. Our model of how the universe works shifts and adapts to take in new experiences as they happen. Because no two people have the same experience, no two people have the same mental model. That mental model shapes and drives our response to the world. There is no fundamental reality. There is only our perception of that reality, as shaped by our mental model. Expecting someone to 'just understand reality' or 'just do what the right thing' doesn't make any sense. What you are asking them to do is to 'just understand your reality' or 'just do what you think is the right thing.'  Humans have not evolved to read minds, so you aren't likely to get what you want. That expectation leads to conflict. Inside organizations, that leads to building the wrong thing, missing deadlines, miss-hires, etc.

Group of hands on a tree
Image credits: Shane Rounce

If we are all making decisions using different models of the universe, how can we ever align? The answer to that is to build shared experiences. Over time, those shared experiences will inform the model in everyone's head such that people begin to align on expectations. A great example of this is Amazon's culture of writing. One-pagers, six pagers, product announcements as part of the pitch deck, etc. Everyone who works for or has worked for Amazon defaults to doing those things when kicking off a new project. Amazon has done a stellar job of defining an experience that helps a group of people build a mental model that mostly aligns.

Fostering Shared Experiences to Drive Alignment

There are two ways to foster that shared mental model. The first is to look for people that share similar experiences with the group. Suppose you have a team or organization made up primarily of people from startups and scaling organizations, and you hire someone whose background is mainly from a large company. That person will be at a disadvantage because their mental model of how things work will not align with the organization. They will get a lot of things wrong before they have enough experience to align their model. The inverse of that is also true. If you put someone whose background is entirely in startups into a larger, more staid organization, they will get a lot of things wrong before they start getting it right.

Hiring for shared experience can be an effective way to get started. Unfortunately, hiring for shared experience results in a something akin to a mono-culture in agriculture. You end up with an organization that is brittle and susceptible to disease because there is just not enough variety of thought.  That person whose experience is with big companies may be bringing something to the table that your organization needs, and you want them to be successful.

An alternative approach is to embrace that those differences exist and adjust your management style to address them and foster new shared experiences. The simplest place to start is in the 'asks' you make from your organization. You completely control those asks and can shape the experience around them. When you make asks, apply these simple rules.

  1. Write down your asks.
  2. Present your written asks.
  3. Give your audience time to understand your ask.

Write Down Your Asks

If you can't describe it in writing, I guarantee that you won't be able to explain it in a way that your audience understands. Too often, you have a nebulous idea of what you want and haven't given it enough thought to make it concrete. No one can win a race that doesn't have a finish line. If you ask someone to haul a load to Chicago, without specifying that you want it delivered to the corner of Division and Western, don't be surprised when they deliver it to the Board of Trade building. The fault is not theirs. The responsibility is yours. In not telling them exactly what you wanted, you failed to define a solvable task. It's not their fault that they didn't solve it.

Think through your asks before you make them to your organization. Write them down, define metrics to measure their success.

Present your written asks

When you present your ask to your audience, they won't get it first, even if they say they do. You assume that the audience understands what you are asking. Often they understand the words but interpret the intent in a way different than you do. You are saying one thing, and they hear another. Your audience is interpreting your words through their mental model, and the more your mental models differ, the larger the gap between what you ask for and what they deliver.

To overcome this, take feedback, and ask questions. Ask. A LOT. Of questions. They are bringing their mental models to the conversation. Ask them questions to figure out where, how, and why their models differ from yours. Use what you learn to tailor the ask and improve your mental model.

Give your audience time to understand your ask

Mental models take time and iteration to shift. You will not make an ask one day and have your entire organization on-board and delivering the next. You are going to make that ask, then talk about it, then talk about some more. Then you are going to make another, and another. With each ask, your experience and your audience's experience is going to unify and align. You must be intentional about it.

An Intentional Approch

Try to understand how the members of your organization think and how their mental model works. Probe with questions, make a hypothesis, and test those hypotheses. Intentionally build a model of each individual in your organization. If your organization is too large to have a detailed model of each individual, model your directs then model, their supervises in aggregate. That will help tailor your communication to the members of your organization. You will be better able to help them understand what you are saying.

Build that model explicitly. Start with your first contact, think through there background and experience, and build a model in your mind and how they think. Do this intentionally, through every interaction, refine and adjust your model. It helps to take notes and write out your thoughts, but be explicit in your model building.

Where Appropriate, Brain Dump

The history and experience that inform your mental model are unique to you. Sharing that history helps your audience align their model with yours. When you are talking through an ask, tell stories. Talk about which of your experiences is driving you to make that ask. Become a storyteller, one with a particular focus. Focus on communicating the inputs that have shaped your model. The places you can do this are somewhat limited. They are generally limited to private one on one conversations, usually with your direct reports but could be others. When you start doing this, you enter the beautiful world of Mentorship. You should be mentoring your directs, teaching them what they need, building shared experiences, and doing the meta-analysis on those shared experiences. That will give them a leg up on delivering things that are important for the organization. Your breadth of experience is more extensive than theirs, and that makes your model more robust. Mentoring the members of your organization in this way is going to help them make better decisions faster. That's going to help them grow stronger more quickly, which is good for both of you.

Finally

You are responsible for finding the right way to communicate with your organization so that they understand what is needed and how to deliver it. Understand that your audience's mental models are different and adapt your communication style to address those differences and drive alignment.

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