Talking about problems does not necessarily mean that people are thinking clearly about them. The following report, from one of BPI’s key facilitators, provides some insights on how critical thinking skills can take us to places that even the best communication would fail to reach alone.
Communicating Clearly : Thinking Clearly
A training company with one of the most effective communication skill programs for parents was in trouble. A friend, who worked for this long established company, suggested that the President invite us in to consult with them because of our expertise in helping people identify, analyze and resolve problems.
The problem was with the sales of the program. This was their flagship product, the one that had launched the company. After more than a decade of expansion, sales had hit a plateau and had now been flat worldwide for several years. Why?
When we arrived they agreed to have us observe a management meeting as they discussed the issue. I was impressed with the ability of all concerned to communicate; to put into practice what they were teaching others to use. A great deal of thinking was shared quickly, with everyone saying what they wanted to say and feeling understood.
As I listened, I made note of several possible causes mentioned by the managers:
- Our ads are old and not drawing attention like they did before
- The market for parent training is drying up
- Our competition is expanding at our expense
- The materials were old fashioned and not impressive
- The independent network of consultants was selling less, being satisfied with their current opportunities to conduct workshops in their local communities
I commented on their praiseworthy ability to communicate clearly. (Although they admitted they were on their best behavior because a visitor was observing.) I also mentioned that they had avoided several thinking traps that organizational leaders often stumble into.
- They did not assume they knew the cause of the problem.
- They did not jump to conclusions about what action to take.
- They did not run off doing a series of trial and error actions, wasting resources or making this problem worse.
Good Communication Was Not Good Enough
However, talk and inaction had proved not to be a winning strategy either. At the end of 40 minutes the team of eight managers was no closer to understanding how to address their issue than when they had started. They had been discussing this problem on and off in their regular meetings for almost three years now, what could an outsider offer this group of highly skilled communicators that would help resolve this issue in just a few minutes?
Communication Plus Critical Thinking
I decided to help them apply our BPI Problem Solving analysis process. I would ask the process questions and organize the information they volunteered on easel pages. They would supply the facts and expert judgments about their issue.
We quickly sketched the facts about the problem. Questions covering what, where, when and magnitude were asked and answered, creating a clear description of the problem. This took only a few minutes.
Comparisons Lead to Possible Causes
The BPI process questions next helped set up a few key comparisons between the problem area and the non-problem areas. These comparisons came from the experience and knowledge of the management team. The first purpose of the comparisons was to reveal what is different or unique about the problem area that might account for the problem being with the parenting program and not the company’s other communication programs. This encouraged them to develop what we call “high quality” potential causes for a problem. Many of the potential causes mentioned in the earlier part of the meeting were refined and added to the list. But, the process led to a new potential cause making the list, one that no one else had thought of before.
Comparisons Also Help Evaluate Causes
The second purpose of the list of comparisons is to evaluate these potential causes. Each possible cause is assessed based on how well it fits the known facts in the problem description. The potential cause that fits these facts best is deemed the most likely cause; the one we should first attempt to verify.
The Most Likely Cause
The most likely cause turned out to be a change the organization made when the manager of the flag ship product retired. Instead of hiring a replacement, the manager of the teacher product was given the parenting product, too. This essentially cut the attention given the parent product by half.
Everyone at the meeting agreed that the former manager was very passionate about parent-child communication and gave a great deal of time and energy into spreading the word about it. When he left, the manager of the new teacher product was suddenly charged with promoting two products. Given the difference in passion for the one product and the existing workload of the manager of the teacher product, it was not at all surprising that the growth of the parenting product stalled!
The above analysis took just 30 minutes. It used only information already known to the managers in the room. In fact, this information had been available for years! The process narrowed the focus to the one potential cause that fit the available facts, they verified it and then quickly moved on to making a decision about what to do – a decision based on the reality of the situation.
As is often the case, the answer appears obvious after being revealed and verified. But this answer was not discovered before the BPI Problem Solving process was applied, in spite of extensive expert communication.
Often good communication is not enough. What is needed is a systematic process to use the facts, harness the judgments and focus thinking.
If your organization has problems that have been around for too long, using BPI’s critical-thinking Workshops will get you on the right track by releasing the power of what you know and all your relevant experience. For more information on BPI’s systematic, critical thinking processes, please contact us. Or, you might want to sample our concepts by taking one or more of our self-instructional modules available on this website (see Buy Lessons in left column above).