Nobody understands what they don't do

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Sometimes the most obvious observations are made in hindsight, and sometimes they are not only obvious, but succinctly elegant. In the case of the title of this post, it came accidently in a phone call to a prospective client. She was explaining to me the difficulty she was having in conveying the importance of risk transfer to other members of her organization. The tricky part of her necessary presentation involved how her company would interact with ours, the service provider. The most basic of questions – what do you do and how do you do it? – needed to be easily explained. And in the middle of expressing her frustration out tumbled this brilliantly self-evident observation – “no one understands what they don’t do.”

It’s easy to take for granted what you know (and do) and assume others have the same understanding. We’re all guilty of talking industry jargon to those who have no idea what we mean. However, assumption inevitably leads to disconnection, or worse. Steve Jobs once famously observed “it’s not the job of the consumer to know what they want.” And it shouldn’t be the job of our client, or prospective client, to know what they need to do to make the relationship work - that is on us.

Breaking down complexity can be a daunting task. When the topic itself is complicated, such as insurance, it is doubly trying. Putting abstract thought into simple language can be something of an art. Visuals help – process maps, infographics and work flows can provide clarity and illustrate the delineation between who does what, when and how.

This obligation to understanding is not without its benefits. It can lead to examination and modification of our own assumptions and (often entrenched) methods. For the learner, it can promote confidence in decision-making, convey subject-matter expertise from the teacher and provide a path for the unknowing to follow. Most importantly, well-defined explanations and process road maps can shorten onboarding ramp-up and push against the inevitable project creep and Hofstadter’s Law.

In our work, we deal with multi-party interactions, many links in the chain and a certain co-dependency among all the players for the wheels to turn smoothly. There are points of interaction and responsibility that must be clearly understood. I wonder how many times we have lost a deal or caused the sales process to drag on too long as a result of our failure to properly explain complexity to those who needed better understanding. Assume nothing.

Along the way we have learned that the larger the organization, the greater the need for understanding, consensus and process. The need for order is greater because there are more cogs in the wheel. There must be rules or there will be chaos and the relationship will fail.

Communication is survival. No one understands what they don’t do. Thank you, Susanne Wagner, for your impromptu wisdom of this often poorly remembered necessity in business, and in life.

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