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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Thursday 6 September 2012

Communicate Details: the Devil's In Them

Throughout his term in office, Rob Ford has been frustrated.  People aren't doing as he asks, attention isn't being paid to the things he thinks are important and people are constantly niggling him over little things like his driving habits.  It's all such a waste of time; don't people get that time is money?  Then, there are all these paperwork technicalities bureaucrats and lefties are getting hung up on.  He hasn't time to read through reams of detailed Acts - he's busy.  When he was elected Lord Mayor, was it not implied that he gets to do what he wants?  It was Ford's business-like "cut the gravy" approach that won him the spot in the first place.
In assuming that politics was like business, Ford made a grave mistake; he took that to mean he was wholly in charge and made the rules, rather than the reality, which is he essentially became first among equals with the same voting rights as anyone and an established code of conduct to follow.  When Council challenges him, they represent factions within Toronto, just as he does.  When the private media speaks out for or against, one must assume they have an audience hungry for their perspective, otherwise they'd go bankrupt.  His definitions of conflict of interest don't matter; the collectively established ones do.  If, as Mayor, Rob Ford has an agenda to push forward, it is through painstaking, time-consuming consensus-building, not a lordly decree, that he can make things happen.  
Ford, a businessman and a football coach, is used to being the man in charge with his say so being gospel.  He has demonstrated a dogged, bullish approach to getting things done and, to his credit, seems fully committed to his world view.  Keep It Simple, Keep Your Head Down and Plough on Through.  Time is money.  It's an old-school, Industrial Age approach; he who as the gold, makes the rules.  The early bird catches the worm, or something.  Those beneath you, staff or functionaries, have to do as they're told or accept their walking papers
A growing part of staff responsibilities includes doing the boss' homework for them; figuring out applicable rules, sussing out important (but only top-level details) and synthesizing them into 1-page notes or sparse, 5-page power point decks.  Even the sussing out of new markets and new opportunities is being downloaded to line staff.  Is it any wonder Generation Y is beginning to ask, "we're doing all the work, what do we need you for?"  For those who don't strike out on their own, there is mounting pressure to simplify and cut out all but the most salient details.
I have sat in on government, private sector and NFP communication planning meetings where the same themes have come up; the person we're going to be communicating to (not with) has little time and is exposed to so much information, we need to get right to the essential points quickly.  This holds true in campaigns, too - voters are busy and don't have time or interest; we have to hit them only on the issues that resonate with their lives and do so quickly.  There's so much anxiety about hitting the right buttons that a lot of content, context and resulting consequence is falling through the gaps.  If I focus strictly on, say, the impact of specific policies on education, am I getting public feedback on economics or health care?
The people at the top feel pressure to get more done, faster; they're too busy to stop and read the fine print.  The people under them feel pressure to cut the fine print and message only the points they see as salient.  Red tape gets in the way of productivity; having to follow rules inhibits, delays and discourages success.  More than one government or private interest has come to the conclusion that it's far easier to bully, shout down, ignore or undermine partners than to take the time to build consensus with them.  Of course, more than one government has found their rushed policies being questioned for broader legality.
Picture this top-down, KISS approach in school.  A professor assigns a broad theme for an essay topic to their class, but makes it clear the end product has to be a one-pager that is so boiled-down that a 6th grader could read it.  The students get one shot and any consultation they have to do, it won't be with the teacher, because they're too busy.  Or, picture students stood up to their teachers and said, "look, I'm paying your salary, here.  You're not going to waste my time with technicalities of red tape, research and the rules of good grammar.  Your job is to rubber-stamp my paper and get out of my way so I can get back to my paper route and make money."  Schools are training grounds for the real world, after all - if that's the sort of approach we want, that's what we should prepare our kids to do.
Of course, we would berate both teachers and students for putting such a lack-lustre effort into their work.  The role of a student is to learn as much as possible, build a salvo of knowledge that can be loosed on the real world; the job of a teacher is to nurture students along that journey, helping them build skills and attain practical understandings of various fields of human endeavour.  If we applied our current real-world methodology to our schools, there would be no time for research, analysis, synthesis, review - or comprehension.  The whole process of making sure no stone is left unturned, no connection is ignored (ie, learning) would be discarded in favour of developing message sound bites. 
How useful, how informative do you think those one-pagers would be?  How well prepared do you think students would be to absorb information, connect dots and present detailed arguments to back a given position and bring something new to the table?  Not very.  If a student took the approach to their studies that we seem to be encouraging in our government and private sector planning processes, they'd get failing grades and be sent back to the drawing board.
Planning in the absence of facts is an exercise in futility.
Which brings us back to Rob Ford.  In his constant, singular-focus busy-ness, Ford has broken the law, defied social conventions and wound up in court as a result.  Sure, he has people steadfastly behind him equally frustrated with rules and consensus - but there seem to be more lined up against.  All the things he could have done if he'd planned ahead, taken time to get background, paid attention to what his partners interests were and attempted to communicate, not message, are lost. 
The lessons here are not new; if you want to go fast, by all means go alone.  If, however, you want to go far, move forward together.
Oh - and the devil is always in the details.

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