The attention to specificity in effective communication is well appreciated. Pantone has thousands of colors. Don't ask for blue. Ask for Pantone Grape Royale, 19-3518. Clarity saves time and money. But black holes of communication exist, even when we are being specific. They are the repository of questions that never get asked. When we rely on the certainty of what we know, we may cut ourselves off from what we don’t.
I know I love that new software that gives me remote control over the lighting, heating, and air conditioning in my house. Maybe the software works great with my new iPhone, but is the required wiring compatible with what currently exists—or will I need to make extensive modifications in my 150-year-old building? If you don’t ask, you might not know until it’s already been ordered.
Prepare a detailed requirements document, and responsible vendors will provide a detailed scope of work to match your needs. Specific and to the point. But the requirements document can be flawed if the right questions were not asked in advance. And the more specific they are, the greater the liklihood that your vendors will assume that you’ve done all of your due diligence in advance. When these mistakes happens, the client may well get what they asked for, but it may be a suboptimal solution, or worse. It may be no solution at all.
In “Just Ask Leadership: Why Great Managers Always Ask The Right Questions,” Gary B. Cohen reminds us of the following, which applies to leadership, just as it does to effective business communications:
History is not always a good teacher
What we believe to be the truth is often a product of having a bias. There are five biases that can unduly influence leadership and decision-making:
- Negative bias: When you have a negative experience, it has a larger impact on your memory and leads you to believe that certain roads are to be avoided, to a greater degree, than a quantitative analysis would demonstrate.
- Frequency bias: When you hear or see something repeatedly over time, you will be more inclined to believe it.
- Recent Bias: When making a decision, something you learned just recently will often carry more weight than information you learned a while ago.
- Attachment bias: Leaders can very easily become overly conservative and avoid making the right decision, simply because they don’t want to disrupt the status quo, which they helped achieve.
- Escalation bias: When you start down a path, you look for evidence to support your direction and at your peril, choose to ignore warning signs.
One obvious way to circumvent this problem of the unknown, or escaping our own bias, is to include an open-ended question in your requirements document, for example: Is this a complete solution, or are there additional [services, software, hardware, installations, etc.] necessary for implementation?
A second preventative is to include both your technical experts and your nontechnical users to prepare the request for proposals. One will complement the other, to search for a solution is a good fit for your organization.
For example, in requesting a content management system, or CMS, for your firm’s website, a technical response might specify the most robust system, but the nontechnical end-user may provide a more pragmatic interest on the way the CMS will be used by your staff.
Specifications documents can help avoid the black hole of specificity by using a number of different voices to identify various requirements: technological/engineering, design, usability, testing, end-use, and end-results.
Asking the right people to ask the right questions may help avoid costly and time-consuming results whereby you get what you asked for, but not what you need.