The gears of sharing ideas

In business communication, a meeting of minds is a crucial step to get a new project or initiative moving forward. The different modes of communication are like the gears of a (stick-shift/manual) car.

The problem

My organisation places a high value on face-to-face communication.

I don’t disagree that it is valuable.

Things get problematic however when face-to-face communication is viewed as the effective way of communication, but the first available time slot on the necessary parties calendars is 3 months in the future. (All too common within our business operating over 5 time zones).

The extended metaphor

I had an epiphany about the similarity between the different modes of business communication and that of a stick-shift (manual) car while debating the topic with a colleague.

First gear

The lowest gear of sharing ideas and getting onto the same page is two people having a face to face conversion, speaking the same language, with their full attention on what the other person is saying.

With this mode of communication the metaphorical gears interlock perfectly and there is optimal to the ideas being discussed.

If done properly, conflicting viewpoints can be reconciled, and a way forward can be mutually agreed.

Like the lowest gear in a car, this is also the slowest form of propagating ideas, as only the two participants of the conversation had the benefit of the meeting of minds. There are only so many hours in a person’s lifetime. While undeniably effective, face to face communication just simply doesn’t scale sufficiently for the complex ideas related to modern businesses.

Higher gears

The second gear is a meeting with up to 6 people. It’s much harder to find middle ground in such a meeting, so communication is less effective — there is less traction.

But because the same idea is shared amongst all participants simultaneously, ideas can propagate much faster than it would have taken for the whole group to exchange the same ideas one-on-one.

Email, chat and digital communication platforms like Wiki’s, Intranets, Sharepoint and Confluence are ‘higher gear’ forms of communication, each helping to solve some of the constraints of the ideal one-on-one communications, but introducing new constraints of their own.

The highest gears of the extended metaphor will be communications in the form of something like a speech at a conference or a T.E.D. talk.

In such a scenario a simple well-prepared and well-delivered idea can be effectively relayed to a large receptive audience. The simpler the idea, the wider the potential reach of the ideas.

Highest gear drawbacks

Due to the unilateral nature of the interaction the speaker can learn very little about the audience.

Without interaction between the speakers, there is also little chance for swaying preconceptions of beliefs of the audience. Imagine a Republican speaker at a Democratic convention, or a Catholic priest addressing a Muslim mosque gathering.

Of course there are exceptions here … some rare individuals have the gift of swaying large audiences. Maybe it’s even a skill that can be developed.

It’s not something I have given much thought to, but I’d bet that much of my communication gearing metaphor will hold true for public speaking as well.

The basic machinery

Keeping with our vehicle gearing metaphor, there are basic prerequisites for mechanical locomotion similar to the physical prerequisites that exist for effective communication. Theof each process.

There must be physical compatibility between the gears — the communication equivalent of a common language.

The gears must be physically collocated — you can have the perfect gears but if there isn’t any way for them to come into contact, there can be no interaction.

With human interaction the equivalent here is the signals used to interact — be it verbal communication, sign language, or a common proficiency (and access to) a written or digital form of communication.

Without the basic machinery being in working order the nuances of operation are of hypothetical value only.

Gradient and momentum

Like with gears in a vehicle, momentum and the gradient are fundamental to what can be achieved.

Momentum and the communication gradient are the resistance to the ideas that are trying to be communicated.

A steep gradient can be preconceptions or beliefs, or a lack of shared common background information.

Momentum can be aligned as is the case with shared goals, or contrary when there is a lack of buy-in, or interest.

If you try using higher gear communication to speed things up, but you have insufficient momentum or are contending a too steep a communication gradient (or you’re working with substandard machinery), it is unlikely you’d attain your communication goal.

It has happened to me more than I’d like to admit, where I’ve responded to an email based on what I expected it to say, instead of properly reading the words and thinking about the intentions of the author.

And while the momentum of the thoughts in our own minds seem intractable — the effect is exponentially magnified when dealing with shared ideas among a group.

Jumping straight into a higher geared communication is like trying to get up an incline in a car stationary vehicle in second gear. Things won’t proceed according to plan.

Slipping the clutch

When the person trying to propagate his idea doesn’t take the momentum and information gradient into account then the gears of communication don’t lock in, and the person attempting the communication just ends up revving their engine with no effect on others. This causes an increasing amount of heat and friction until either the poor sod runs out of gas (burnout), or blows a gasket (apathy or mental breakdown).

This is the consequence of my own poorly planned communications I experience most frequently.

I get frustrated by being unable to get things moving along within the seemingly impossible constraints of lower geared communications. I then try to force the issue using higher gear interactions, but all I end up accomplishing is aggravating my own sense of frustration and injustice.

Stalling the engine

This is probably the most common outcome of poorly planned higher-gear communication.

Be it in a large meeting where half the attendees are bored or distracted by their personal devices, emails that are missed due to signal overload, or any other shared communication that is either lost, missed or ignored due to insufficient traction.

There’s no drama, conflict, heat or noise, but there’s also no progress or sharing of ideas. All the necessary elements for communication are present, but just like a shuddering engine, it goes no further than the initial attempt that was made.

Unless the person turning the key addresses the problem, they will continue their futile attempts with no effect until they have depleted their reserves.

Grinding gears

When an incorrectly geared communication is forced either by will or circumstance, and there is no escape from the gears interlocking — you get a grinding of gears resulting in noise, friction … conflict.

While it is possible to still move communication along with grinding gears, it is an unpleasant experience for all involved, and if it happens too frequently the gears will deteriorate until there is a total communication breakdown. In business terms, the common consequences are people changing departments, employers or careers.

Blowing the gearbox

What can also happen is that when higher geared communication is driven by someone in a position of authority (a stronger engine), and they try and force the higher geared communication against momentum or a too steep gradient the gears of communication can strip, leading to a total breakdown requiring intensive and extensive outside help to get things going again.

In human terms these are ‘hostage’ situations that occur with runaway conflict ranging from tears, nervous breakdowns to physical violence.

Smooth operator

So — if compatible gears are a prerequisite for communication, but the reality is that the gears just don’t fit, what can you do? The best advice I’ve come across to finding common ground is by following Mark Goulston’s advice from his seminal book ‘Just Listen’ — and do just that. Listen.

Mark’s incontrovertible logic states that you can’t listen if you’re busy talking, and if you’re dealing with any kind of scenario where you’re feeling you’re losing traction, just shut up and listen.

And seeing that it’s impossible to gauge traction without listening, it’s probably a good idea to just shut up most of the time anyway.

Going the distance

If you want to be assured of the most complete possible idea transfer between two people, then a one-on-one, face to face conversation is the best communication ‘gear’.

But it’s also the most time consuming: only relying on face-to-face communications would be like driving around in first gear all the time.

Sure, you’ll have maximum traction, but you won’t get very far. You can try speeding things up in first gear by giving more gas (having more meetings) or revving the car (working longer hours), but at some stage you’ll blow the engine (burnout) or strip the gears.

Higher geared communications are essential for going the distance. The gears need to fit into each other, be properly lubricated, and there needs to either be sufficient momentum behind the concepts or a sufficiently low information gradient for the ideas to be exchanged effectively.

When your communication machinery works well, and you follow the appropriate gear transitions, it’s possible to reach that ideal ‘cruising speed’, where you can cover great distances with minimal heat, noise and engine wear, and maximum fuel efficiency.