Have you ever heard of a communication system? You likely have, but you’ve probably not considered what that means. The good news for most of us is that communication is indeed a system. Even better, as technical professionals, we are blessed with the reality of what that means. The next time you serve as a trusted advisor, remember that effective communication requires systems thinking.
A system is a collection of interrelated or interacting parts, each of which can affect the behavior or outcomes of the whole. One defining property of a system is that it provides a function that none of the parts can accomplish by themselves. The corollary is that a system is not the sum of the parts but the product of their interactions.
Simple examples include the mechanical advantage gained from a system of pulleys or a gearbox. Sports teams or work units are examples of human systems. Systems are essential aspects of our everyday lives.
Analysis means to break into parts. Due to their complexity (consisting of many parts), we break systems into parts to simplify the evaluation of the whole.
The irony is the performance of the parts in isolation does not matter. It is the interaction of the parts that matter. System performance is why we cannot take the best of the best from each different car manufacturer and make the most incredible car on the market. The interaction of the parts matters more than each part in isolation is why sports teams like the New York Yankees fail even though they hire the best players each year.
In systems thinking, we begin with the system outcomes we desire. Then, we evaluate the parts, emphasizing their individual performance and how the components interact as a unit. This type of thinking applies universally to all kinds of systems, including communications systems.
Input-Process-Output (IPO) Model
Most technical professionals are familiar with IPO models. Many process improvement professionals are familiar with IPO models, too. This same tool applies to effective communication. IPO Models are a valuable tool to help you define and understand the problem.
Using an IPO model when developing more effective communications is an initial, high-level step. The main purpose is to encourage systems approaches when preparing to communicate problems with high levels of complexity and uncertainty.
How Systems Thinking Produces Effective Communication
The following provides the relevance of the IPO model to effective communication.
Why are you being asked to communicate with the decision maker? It is probably one thing. You will likely have 10 minutes or less to provide it. Stay humble and keep it simple. The decision maker is looking for a few pieces of information to help them allocate resources. They care little about how smart you are, how long it took you to do the work, or what cool new techniques you used.
What communication tools and approaches will be used? Think about the presentation forum, whether it is a written report, live presentation, virtual presentation, video recording, or a combination.
What are the inputs that will be converted to communicated information? These inputs include source data, subject matter experts, pictures, graphs, videos, and interviews. Your mind should also be thinking about the communication quality of the inputs.
What essential communication tools and approaches will convert the inputs into outputs? What internal and external resources, such as copy editors, videographers, and graphic artists, will be needed? How will you and your teamwork convert the technical inputs into communicated outputs?
What are the corporate or industry standards that will be used to convert the inputs into communicated outputs? This can include standard communication templates or reviews by communication specialists from a corporate perspective. From an industry standpoint, this can include standard templates for specific types of analysis, such as FMEAs or graphic limitations of specific industry-standard modeling software.
What type and frequency of review will be used for the communications aspects? Problems with high degrees of complexity and uncertainty take time. The communication aspects should begin simultaneously with the analysis and help the technical team keep the end in mind.
Add A Cause-and-Effect Approach
I often use an IPO model in my training and workshops to create a hands-on understanding of systems thinking.
Another tool in the systems thinking toolbox is cause-and-effect models. Systems thinkers can map out relationships between elements, anticipate consequences of actions or changes, and identify key leverage points within a system.
I use the FINESSE cause-and-effect (fishbone) diagram as the fundamental approach for effective communication in the face of big issues with high levels of complexity and uncertainty.
FINESSE stands for Frame, Illustrate, Noise Reduction, Empathy, Structure, Synergy, and Ethics. FINESSE has been battle-tested and peer-reviewed over many years. The good news is that FINESSE works. Even better, as a part of systems thinking, a technical professional can focus on each of the seven components and know that the parts will work together for the desired result.
The One Thing
Hopefully, you have figured out the one thing that will make your communication more effective is systems thinking. Communication has many interrelated parts that produce an outcome that none of the individual parts can produce on their own. The good news is that you do not have the best-looking, most eloquent, or smartest person in the room to be an effective communicator. The key approach to effective communication is systems thinking. Are you Communicating with FINESSE?
Communicating with FINESSE is a not-for-profit community of technical professionals dedicated to being highly effective communicators and facilitators. Learn more about our publications, webinars, and workshops. Join the community for free.
JD Solomon is the author of Communicating Reliability, Risk & Resiliency to Decision Makers: How to Get Your Boss’s Boss to Understand and Facilitating with FINESSE: A Guide to Successful Business Solutions. JD Solomon Inc. provides solutions for facilitation, asset management, and program development at the nexus of facilities, infrastructure, and the environment.