Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Challenges with Communicating Models II

Anders Dinsen posted some great comments and questions to my previous post (here). One comment was, "if I get your model", i.e. if I understand you correctly. I loved the irony here - I was writing a post about potential problems with communication (or trying to) - and I was getting questions about what I meant. 

I thought the comment exchange was great. Anders was doing what good testers do - not sure if he understood me, he posed questions and stated the assumptions he could see. 

A Recent Example
I'm reminded of a course I took a couple of months ago - it was called Communicating Value - and covered a range of topics and techniques, including presentation techniques and content, presenter style and negotiation techniques. One of the exercises was to give a five-minute presentation where you were trying to sell something or get "buy-in" for an idea. I chose the horrendously difficult task of trying to sell the increased use of qualitative information to execs in my organization (which is quite large) and do this in 5 minutes. This was a challenge for me because (i) the topic goes against a lot of "learning"/reliance/intuition about only quantative methods, (ii) the topic is quite complex to explain, (iii) my own explanation techniques can be quite "wordy" and abstract, (iv) execs are used to executive summaries - how to introduce the topic and content and get agreement in five minutes was then a challenge.

For the exercise, I modeled my presentation on a group of execs (that I knew) and on information that I knew they were familiar with and targeted the goal to getting buy-in for follow-up discussions to lead to a trial. In my experience this model worked with people familiar to the topic, the content and some of the related problems. For those not so familiar it became more abstract to them and they lost touch with reality.

  1. Models of communication (or content) do not translate automatically. 
  2. Some models need more time to digest or understand. 
  3. Some models need more familiarity than others.
  4. All models are not perfect, and so need the facilitation and guidance to aid communication and dialogue. 

A Model for Communication
When I started thinking more about this I thought of this relation:

Communication = Artifact (model) + (Discussion and/or Dialogue)

Thinking about the example above, the good exchange with Anders and the previous post, I attempted to jot down some thoughts about modeling as a mind map, below. It might be useful, but as I've been saying, I also expect it to be fallible….


  1. Thanks for the kind words, Simon. I've really enjoyed this.

    That was a very interesting challenge you took upon yourself there. I recognize the dilemma about explaining complex topics in a short and convincing way!

    By the way: Anyone in doubt of the power of metrics should become convinced in the weeks to come as the Olympics are being held. Calculating scores, number of wins, measuring times, counting penalties... by the end of the day it's all about metrics! Qualitative evaluations are just to fill out the sound part of the tv transmissions :-)

    And if you think counting does not make people happy, well that rule certainly does not apply to those competing in the Olympics. They count; and it makes them happy.


    1. Hi Anders,

      Yes, be careful what you measure...

      With reference to the Olympics it reminds me of an unfinished post after the World Championships (athletics) from last year. At the beginning of the 2011 season (I think) the false start rule was changed to make the first false start an automatic disqualification, rather than a warning.

      This was apparent pressure from TV firms on the IAAF so that TV schedules could be held. A consequence of this was that in the mens 100m final Usain Bolt was disqualified, and the race ran without him. Many around the world, and probably most in the stadium (for which the tickets were probably not cheap), had probably tuned in at that time to see him run. They could be arguably described as disappointed. The TV producers? Well they got drama, if not the content - but it was ran according to schedule :)

      What happened here?

      ONE interpretation: A stakeholder request (TV producers) to maintain transmission schedules was met by changing a measurement (no false starts permitted). The result (in the case above) was, arguably, disappointed viewers and spectators. Did the IAAF interpret and implement one of their stakeholders (TV) request in a way that gave value to all their stakeholders?????

      Be careful what you wish for - and be careful how you measure it to achieve that ambition…. Arguably, the IAAF didn't test their proposal for ways it could fail - or they did and decided the outcome was OK.

  2. Hi Simon,
    Great set of posts! One thing that springs to mind is the relationship one has with the person/people that you are communicating with. I believe Anders has already blogged about empathy and given your example of communicating with execs could the following be important? Do you know them as people? (if you know someone well and someone knows you well could that aid or hinder the communication regardless of the familiarity of the subject?) I'm thinking 'how is this going to demonstrate a benefit to me?' aswell as the organisation? How often do you see them face-to-face? and does this make a difference in communicating a model? Also, could there be situtations where you don't communicate the model at all, someone else communicates it for you? proxies(as long as they understand the model :) ) or even flash model comms.. however dilution may be downside.

    I believe timing can also be important, when is the 'best' time to communicate the model. (i.e what have people got on their plate at the time)

    I also think that different stakeholder positions over time may also be important. i.e Awareness, Questioning, Accepting and Sustaining positions and how communicating models may differ for stakeholders in those different positions.


    1. Hi Peter,

      Yes, familiarity definitely helps - and I've experienced both sides. When someone understands the way you communicate they "know" the structure in which you might present or discuss something. If someone is not familiar with that they might switch off, jump in with questions (that would be answered further on), or be otherwise confused and frustrated. I'v experienced similar responses.

      Communicating someone else's model? I wouldn't try. I might take my interpretation, or my take and add my own spices, and use that. A model that can be communicated without interpretation or re-interpretation is probably something quite simple, static or have a bunch of experience built-up with them (tacit knowledge).

      Communication of something new can take time - it's a combination of learning, understanding, reflection, learning, etc… And that's a two-way street (IMO) - it works for the person receiving and the one originating the information. So, yes, for stakeholders (and others) this can go through the stages you mention. Or maybe, then the process has reached some form of dialogue - where both parties and working on the information/model with a mutual aim of learning and expanding.

      The timing aspect, yes, this is something Anders touched on in his look at the empathy aspect. People receive messages and information differently when under stress. Having empathy (or searching for a dialogue state) can help understand whether to continue or pause/delay any attempted discussion.

      Good thoughts, thanks!