Mind the (understanding) gap

Even the best communicators face the possibility that their intended audience misunderstands their information.

It’s probably prudent if I dig into my own experience to illustrate this point.

I recall in an early job, in the days before widespread use of instant communication, being asked to fax some information to someone called “Mark”. I looked back in the file notes for Mark’s contact details, and duly sent a fax off to the only Mark I could find. 

When my boss returned from a busy lunch with a different Mark, I realised my mistake. What compounded my error was that the Mark who had received the fax, and who was presumably enjoying a good read of its sensitive contents, was not a bemused by-stander. That Mark was the last person on earth my boss would have wanted to learn what the fax contained.  

It was a bad day at the office.

In our collective embarrassment, I’m not sure anyone bothered to calculate what this error had cost. But given the nature of the business, it would have been equivalent to someone’s annual salary.

As a result of this episode, I now slightly obsess about the fine detail. Who knows this? Who should know this? What does the intended recipient not know? What assumptions do I need to address?  

The truth is that assumed knowledge continues to wreak havoc in everyday life. 

You’ll know what I mean if you ever had to listen to a voicemail message multiple times.  The caller gives the contact number quickly (because they know it off-by-heart), but you’ve never heard it before, and so need to listen to the whole message multiple times to capture the relevant detail.

Another basic example is road signage. The French have a clear system that tells you when you’re leaving, as well as entering, a village or town. We don’t have the same practice here in UK, even though a (one-sided) sign has been installed to welcome the oncoming traffic. This issue predates satnav; it’s about communicating basic information that might just help the uninitiated visitor.

These are “small” examples, but the reality is that, in many organisations, assumed knowledge exists, and the costs can be considerable.

How many uninitiated visitors are struggling to find your business?

How many confused colleagues are (inadvertently) compromising your productivity and profitability because they don’t know what is required of them, or how to deliver?

I recently heard a very successful manufacturer admit to being appalled by the gap between what he thought his teams knew, and what they were able to explain to a third party.  

It’s for this reason that Armstrong Watson uses a team advisory service to help our clients root out incidents of assumed knowledge. Not only does this promise to improve performance, it’s also a fantastic way of engaging colleagues and helping them to feel valued and heard.

If you would like to discuss the issue more, please email me.

If you’d like to learn more about how we can help you overcome your business challenges, contact Nick today

Email Nick

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