Thursday, September 21, 2006

Memo to bosses: shut up and write it down

How many times has an innocent suggestion from the boss inspired a rush of activity to carry out his orders, only to find out he intended something completely different? According to the Wall Street Journal's Cubicle Culture column on Tuesday (link here, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), countless times. One example has a sales manager's boss asking why one of his salespeople is still in his job. The manager thinks the boss wants the salesman promoted, when in fact he was questioning why he hadn't been fired.

The article doesn't offer much advice other than to ask what the boss means if you're not sure what he's asking you to do. But I've got a suggestion: stop talking so much.

Bosses love to talk for many reasons. It's easier, for one. Saves time, too. And people tend to listen to them (or pretend to listen—perhaps leading to some of the misunderstandings referred to above).

The problem is that oral instructions are very easy to misinterpret. They are also hard to pass onto others without introducing even more error. Oral communication is like a noisy analog network. There's hiss, and static, and breakup. Pass it from network to network, and it gets worse. At some point you have nothing but white noise, or the teachers' voices in the Charlie Brown TV specials.

Bosses need a digital code to communicate better. Digital networks follow protocols and have redundancy of information to allow error detection and correction. But how do we design this error-free communications mechanism for bosses? We don't have to. It's already here—the written memo. Easily copied and retransmitted error-free, the memo is a perfect way to ensure your message gets across as you intended.

But wait! Written communication is time-consuming. It requires the boss to think about what she wants to say, then encode that in words, phrases and paragraphs that convey that meaning. She must review and revise it, and get input from others to ensure it says the right thing. Sounds like a lot of work.

No matter. Want to be a better boss? Shut up and start working at the keyboard.

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