I have lost count of the number of times I start talking about a technology concept and end up getting a stunned look. I don’t think the stunned look is the result of my commanding knowledge of the subject. Rather, I am speaking in a framework that I am comfortable with, but my listener is not.
This is true of any specialized profession, but I believe that technology provides a special circumstance. In most professions, change is annual and incremental. The amount of knowledge may be broad, but it is also specialized in one area. However, in an accounting firm, the audit staff does not need detailed knowledge of the business tax processes to do a job well. In information technology, the overlap to any other profession can be very high. Almost everyone uses a computer to do part, or all, of their work.
One of the critical roles of a leader is the ability to make direction clear. Clarifying is very difficult to do if you have a confused audience. Many times this confusion seems to come down to a lack of knowledge, and a discussion on a detailed technology topic will move into “explanationland.”
Instead of thinking about knowledge, or how someone doesn’t seem to understand, I’d like to show you how to build a toolkit that uses a little science, a little common sense, and a standard way of approaching complex topics that will help you clarify and coordinate.
Building an IT Leaders’ communication toolkit
At Boomer Consulting, we are encouraged to read for both professional and personal insights. My reading ranges from quick business fables to more scholarly books. Every once in a while, I come across one that changes the way I think about the world.
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman was one such text. In it, Daniel Kahneman summarizes a lifetime of research into behavioral economics. In summary, our brains are wired with two parts, or systems. The first is a quick thinking interface to the world. This “fast” (or intuitive) system deals with the things we see, hear and do on a day to day basis. Walking to the park, opening a door, answering simple questions and enjoying some good food are all handled by the fast/intuitive system. In order to do this well, the fast system makes a lot of assumptions about the world that we aren’t aware of. Otherwise, walking, eating and talking would be very hard to do.
Behind the fast system is a deeper thinker (the “slow”, or reflective, system) that can be used to help deal with more complex situations. What do you want to eat for supper? This would be something handled by the slow/reflective system. This slow system is better at eliminating assumptions, but it requires focus and time that we often do not have. Think of the slow mind as your quality control center. It comes to play when you stop and think about what to do next.
You may ask at this point, what does research about how we perceive the world around us have to do with IT Leaders? This article will address a concept called attribute substitution, which, I believe, has a lot to do with why technology can be so hard to communicate about.
Swapping hard questions for easier ones
In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman talks about a bias that underlies a key element of human communication – questions. Attribute substitution occurs when a complex question is directed to an individual. The person interprets this complex question with their fast/intuitive system. Since the intuitive system is designed to process the world efficiently, it rephrases the question into something that the individual can answer without working too hard. Again, the fast system is handling things quickly.
There are three conditions for attribute substitution:
- The question must be complex in nature and difficult to answer from memory
- Another question must be easily “swappable”
- The substitution is not caught by the slow/reflective system
Let’s review an example that I believe everyone can resonate with – How would you solve world hunger?
Now, think about this question for a moment. What question are you ready to answer? This is an extremely complex, and often loaded question to discuss. Your reference point may be experience with a local food pantry, or with a trip to an area of hunger, or even past direct experiences with hunger. The question you are ready to answer may very well be “How do I feel about the hungry refugees I saw on TV last week?"
In cases of attribute substitution, you are personalizing the questions asked into something understandable. Until now, though, you may not have known you were doing it.
Where substitution can occur in technology communication
IT Professionals are passionate about some aspect of their work, and it often shows in great work performance. Where they (myself included) can run aground is understanding that other people’s reference point is not the same.
The accounting profession is in the midst of a “cloud” transformation. Not only do core services like email and document storage have online options, but the core tax and audit products now have options to run online. From an IT standpoint, this requires a broad range of solutions that cover many facets of a security landscape that the firm does not really understand. This is an environment that is ripe for attribute substitution.
Let me propose a question to the reading audience -- What should your firm do to protect itself from online hackers?
Again, think about this question for a moment. What question were you ready to answer?
Write down your question. What you write down will inform how you proceed to address the larger question of security in your firm. It will also be used to help determine what you may be able to understand about how you substitute difficult technology questions.
Clarifying complex technology questions
IT Professionals will often start with solutions (fixes) and then move to implementation (how to get the fixes in place). An example of this substitution might be “What solutions should I purchase to help protect us from online threats, and what research do I need to do?” If this was a real discussion, the IT professional would start talking from a base of known solutions, naming things like web filters or cloud security brokers.
If the person asking the questions is not involved in IT, the response can be overwhelming. Instead of starting with an answer, you should clarify what the questioner wants to discuss.
Here are a few clarifying questions that can avert instant attribute substitution:
- What did you hear, or read, that made you interested in this topic?
- Technology addresses part of your question – there’s also a people and process part. Who else should be involved in answering this question?
- What do you know about what we currently do in this area?
Using clarifying questions, you can help establish a common ground to address a common question. The initial question I asked involved you (as in you, the IT professional). In many instances, the substituted question comes out as “What am I doing?” in this area.
With clarification, you can move to a “What are we doing?” question to address. This clarification can move beyond just a technology based solution to big questions. The discussion may bring up training, HR, technical skills, common sense, financial insight, and other aspects into view.
After taking attribute substitution into account, you might be able to come up with this common question -- Where do we start addressing the question of security with our firm’s employees?
Understanding attribute substitution can be a tool unique to IT Leaders
IT is, by nature, a systems approach to solving problems. By understanding a research concept like attribute substitution, you can use these same system skills you apply to technology to elevate your communication skillset.
In addition, understanding attribution substitution can also help you when asking questions of others. If the response seems mystifying, ask someone to rephrase your question. You may be surprised at the results. From there, you can move forward from there to clarify and come to a common question to answer together.