Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Overcoming NETMA (Nobody Ever Tells Me Anything)

I attended a great seminar by this title, probably around 1990. Unsurprisingly, I couldn't find my notes in 2004 (a six-year stay in Japan came between those dates). So I'm going to give you what I remember, jumbled and incomplete though it may be. Here's a story:
My mother mentioned in a letter that "by the way, our house burned down, so we're moving..."

Back when I was in college, long distance cost like dollars a minute, but I called them anyway. "Why didn't you tell me sooner?!" I said.

"We didn't want you to worry," they said. Oh, and "you couldn't do anything about it."

"Upset" wasn't an adequate word. A lot of the time, our instructor said, we don't give people a lot of information for the same two reasons.

They hate that.

First, they do worry. They often know something's going on, but when we don't tell them... well, nature abhors an information vacuum, so people make stuff up, and often it's worse than reality. This is true in families, and it's true in organizations.

Then, sometimes they can do something about it, even if it's just asking a question. To cite a fictional example, in Tom Clancy's Debt of Honor, a certain aircraft carrier sustained damage to two of its four propellor shafts. It'll be months before they can be fixed, and everybody assumes it'll therefore be months in dry-dock. Until someone says, "Sir, I hate to sound stupid, but how fast will she go on two shafts?" It's a lot easier to weld the gearbox shut than it is to restore the two shafts, of course, but somebody had to think of it first.

We aren't trying to keep people in the dark (it doesn't work anyway, contrary to the mushroom theory); we just don't want to weigh them down with too much stuff and distract them from what they need to be focusing on. So what are some practical steps?

Oh, by the way, the objective here isn't information for information's sake, but rather building a healthier, more effective organization.

A periodic meeting

I remember the story; unfortunately I don't remember why this was such a good idea. The story was this: A certain dentist had a staff meeting every morning, before the first patient arrived. They would review the day's schedule, including anything out of the ordinary; I think he brought doughnuts. I suppose that by getting everyone in sync, and telling everybody what everybody else was doing, this guy gave them a sense of being on the same team.

And if memory serves, the meeting wasn't all business, either; people mentioned things like vacation plans, so there was a sense of family. This made the office a more pleasant place to work -- and also to visit! Patients liked the atmosphere and apparently referred their friends, because this guy's business was booming.

A meeting, then a meeting

The boss in this story was in the state government, in Texas. She went to her department-head meeting, and as soon as she got back, gathered her people to tell them what happened. Of course, she only had to do this a few times before they started anticipating these post-meeting meetings.

What benefits came from this practice? I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

Give 'em the bad news right away

Suppose the Big Cheese lets fly that there will be layoffs -- 6% of the workforce. Should you tell your people what you know?

If you don't, then, well, see above. So how much do you tell them? Well, you don't want them to make up stuff that's worse! But you may be forbidden to say too much. H'm, sticky situation. But that's why they pay you the big bucks.

What's the worst thing...?

This might have come from some other seminar, but the idea here is to ask people what the most annoying thing is. Go ahead, man up and ask them!

It might be easy to fix, in which case wouldn't you feel silly leaving that opportunity not taken!

That's it for now; I'll update this if I remember more.

No comments: