[IMGCAP(1)]Recently, I had a little medical adventure that, at one point, required three different doctors from three different specialties to consult on a relatively simple decision. All three doctors are excellent in their fields, and all three are affiliated with the same hospital, with connections to that institution's expensive-looking internal communication system. So I figured I could rely on them to communicate among themselves and make the necessary decision.

Obviously, I was mistaken.

Establishing effective communication among these three doctors was, apparently, my responsibility—even though I had no understanding of the issue they needed to discuss, had no access to the hospital's internal communication system, and had no concept of the sort of timeline they were operating on. When I finally realized that I needed to step up, it was the last minute, so I simply made the important decision on my own.

Naturally, I got it wrong.

Aghast at my foolishness, the three doctors finally consulted and made the right decision. Eventually, they even shared it with me, and now I'm recovering beautifully. (Thanks for asking.)

Navigating the complex and impenetrable subsystems of America's health care maze is by now a fairly cliched topic, and I wouldn't ordinarily subject you to yet another story on it—except that even more recently, I saw some shocking evidence that the subsystems of Accounting Today, while far less complex, can be just as impenetrable.

The evidence was in the form of two e-mail chains that came to my attention.

The first originated with a colleague who needed a very small change made to a very small part of our Web site. They had no idea who to contact to make this change—it fell awkwardly between Editorial and Sales, neatly skirted both Circulation and Marketing, didn't quite warrant the attention of the overworked and understaffed Help Desk, and involved a part of the site that was too established for the Web Development staff to touch, while being at the same time too new for the regular Web Maintenance staff to know how to fix it. Some 87 pleading e-mails later, we managed to get the change made, but still without quite figuring out who is responsible for making similar changes in the future.

The second e-mail chain involved a reader who wanted the address on their subscription changed, and had been bounced around to pretty much every department in our company. Ordinarily, I ignore these e-mails—surely everyone knows that Editorial doesn't handle address changes? It's obvious that that's handled by Circulation, isn't it?

However, having been primed by my medical adventure and by the first e-mail chain to appreciate how opaque a system can be, I had a minor epiphany: This kind of thing is obvious—but only to people in Editorial and Circulation. And not even always to them. (It's not the most elegant of epiphanies, but there were high-grade painkillers involved. Bear with me.)

Here's the point: No organization is ever as easy to navigate as the people inside it think it is. And if you're inside an organization and find it even a little complex, then it's probably a horrible, horrible nightmare for outsiders.

Outsiders, remember, are people like clients, prospective clients, and, all too often, former clients. Don't assume that they know how to navigate your firm, or that it's easy to figure out. They probably don't know who to contact to get an extra copy of their tax return, or if they have problems with the client portal, or if they have a financial planning question, or if they want to engage you for extra services.

Maybe they should know—maybe your Web site is a model of clarity, and maybe you've explained it a million times to every single client—but it's still your organization. It will always be clearer to you than it is to them (even if it isn't that clear to you). When they call, when they e-mail, when they ask—help them. Show them how to get the answers they need, even if it's not your department.

In the end, navigation should be everyone's department, and everyone in the system should be able to explain it to the people outside the system (insofar as that is humanly possible).

I, for instance, made it a point to shepherd that reader's address change through our Circulation Department. As it happens, the address change had already been made while I was having my epiphany, so my intervention may well have actually reversed the original address change. We're still waiting to see. But the point is that now I know exactly who to contact to fix that kind of thing—and it's not even my department!

Next week: I learn how to mail a replacement copy

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