They Just Don’t Get It

“They just don’t get it.” If you find yourself saying this, you have a communication problem, and you are the only person who can solve it.

This notice comes from Kim Erwin, a professor and innovation consultant who has seen a lifetime’s worth of communication breakdowns. Many of these begin, she says, with thinking of communication as an event that occurs at the end of an idea, rather than as part of the process.

As it turns out, it is the process that matters most. We make the mistake of seeking buy-in and approval with feature length Powerpoints and long-winded presentations, when we should be developing solutions through on-going collaboration.

When a plan doesn’t take off, we’re often quick to pinpoint the boss who always says no. However, if you manage to get some coworkers on board first, their excitement and approval can influence the many stakeholders who might say “no” for various reasons.

During Thursday’s Experiencing the New lecture, Erwin offered some ways to incubate action in a situation that otherwise feels like walking through molasses:

#1 Understand the problem

In any given discussion, everyone is seeing the problem through a different lens. Loosely overlapping ideas can feed a lengthy discussion, but that doesn’t mean everyone understands the problem in the same way.

Avoid the “illusion of alignment,” as Erwin puts it, by creating a model of the problem together with your team. The social process of creating the model is key to helping everyone develop a deeper understanding of the issue, and it will also keep people on the same track after the meeting disperses, and the magic of insight dissipates.

#2 It’s an exchange, not a delivery

When approaching others with an idea, Erwin warns not to go around trying to tell everyone about your whole project. She suggests sharing a small portion of your idea that is interesting enough to get people to ask more questions. Physical mockups, especially lo-fi ones, are great tools for prompting further inquiry. Cardboard, markers, and handwriting keep an idea from feeling too well realized before it is ready.

This brings us to:

#3 Make your idea tangible

Ideas are easier to grasp if you can hold them in your hand. We are able to understand our physical world in ways that hearing and seeing cannot produce. Offering only a snippet of your idea in material form will cover much more ground than a verbal presentation about the entire thing.

Additionally, when we are trying to comprehend a problem, it helps to bring things off a screen and onto the table. Once a Powerpoint slide is clicked past, it is gone forever. Post data on a wall in your office, or write observations over an on-screen presentation using dry erase markers. Doing this will help you make connections that are not possible in just your mind.

Kim Erwin is currently a professor at IIT Institute of Design. To learn more about her ideas on how to communicate successfully in your office, check out her book Communicating the New.

By Emily Hamre
Published January 23, 2015