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The power of "why" in communication

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April 29, 2013

A couple of weeks ago on the phone a client asked, “Dustin, can you come in and facilitate a meeting between one of our process teams and management? We’re struggling to obtain the executive buy-in we need with one key part of the improvement process.”

I had not been involved in the process team and management’s initial project meeting to discuss the new idea and apparently it didn’t go over so well. Their process team was frustrated that their implementation idea to improve a process basically got shot down from management. Management was frustrated that the process team couldn’t understand their point of view and why they didn’t think the idea would work. So there was an impasse they were hoping I could help them solve in order to move forward and smooth things over.

Getting back to the basics of “why.” The scenario I described above plays out much more than it should in organizations of all shapes and sizes. It’s the age-old dilemma of “management is out of touch vs. I wish our people would put more thought into their recommendations.” Both sides are right in a lot of cases.

I always like to come back to a basic (and overlooked, because it is so simple) principle when solving problems like this: Ask “why.” Simply asking “why” until you get to a root understanding of the issue is always a great foundation from which to begin. The reason both sides are right in this impasse is that they both failed their requirements of the “why” principle.

First, from a process improvement team standpoint, it is absolutely critical to accomplish the following two objectives when rolling out a new idea and trying to achieve buy-in:

•    Establish the case for why this certain part of the process needs improvement. You need to be able to describe what is currently happening in the process that is causing negative consequences to the process, to clients, to profitability, etc.

•    Explain why the proposed change is appropriate and optimal to solving the problem(s) identified. Describe the benefits and how it will impact all key stakeholders in the process.

Then, from a management and buy-in standpoint, leaders need to approach ideas with what I describe as “healthy skepticism” and not be immediately dismissive and negative. They should be open to receiving new ideas while making sure they are asking healthy and productive questions that lead to answering the “why’s” that need to be answered.

From a grudge to ah-ha!  In my client example above, both sides forgot the importance of “why” and what their roles in communication. Both sides were right (or wrong, depending on how you want to view it).

I went into the meeting last week and within 15 to 30 minutes, discovered they were much closer than I was initially led to believe on the phone. The process team wanted to implement a form on the front-end of one of the processes. This would capture key information and answer questions from an internal customer group before proceeding forward into a detailed and time-consuming process. Because there wasn’t a tollgate established upfront, there was lots of wasted time and effort, duplication, work loops and frustration. It impacted the internal customer group as well. This form was their mechanism to ask internal customers for this information.

Management interpreted the form as just that, another form to complete at a level they didn’t think should be filling out forms. Management didn’t understand (because it wasn’t communicated upfront) that the form was the mechanism to capture the answers it was requesting. The critical element here was not the form, but the three to four key questions on the form that the process team needed answers for at this specific time in the process in order to save time later.

Once this “why” was established, we had unanimous agreement! And the internal customer group even bought in because the five minutes they would spend on this tollgate on the front end would save them multiples of that time later if their colleagues had to circle back eventually to get the answers.

This wasn’t rocket science. Unfortunately, each side didn’t take the time necessary to understand their role in the communication process. The process team didn’t take the time to properly explain the background and “why” this change was necessary. The management team didn’t take the time necessary to understand the “why” and ask the appropriate healthy questions to get that comfort level of understanding.

It feels much better to have those mutual “ah ha” moments than hold grudges. Use the “why” principles to help that become more of your reality.

Dustin Hostetler is the founder of Flowtivity, a firm dedicated to helping CPA firms improve performance by applying Lean principals to accounting firm processes.

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