Saturday, March 25, 2017

Get NEAR - Reduce Communication Debt

In a recent post, I introduced the topic of Communication Debt as a pressing problem within many organizations. You might be are aware that you are suffering from communication debt, yet you may not know how to tackle it.
Here's a model to help you get a grip:

Level 1: Reasons

Very often, we encounter that people discuss the tasks they are (expected to) do, yet either fail to discuss why it is important - or use bogus reasons to avoid more time-consuming and/or meaningful discussion.

Lack of reason results in religious actions, i.e., where tasks are completed devoid of deeper meaning or with a vain hope of success. The more reason debt exists within an organization, the more work is being done where nobody can truly explain why it's done. Oddly enough, reason debt results in an insecurity of what would happen if we stopped doing it - the status quo is preserved without reason!

Level 2: Assumptions

We all make assumptions, all the time. Every decision we make is guided by our underlying assumptions. When our assumptions differ, our conclusions differ. What looks good based on assumption A might look stupid based on assumption B. Inconsistent assumptions can tear relationships - and therefore, entire organizations, apart.

For example, I might assume it's better to have one person have only one task at the same time, while another manager X might assume it's better to give multiple tasks to people in parallel. The way we would organize work within our sphere of control would vastly differ.
In my discussions with X, I might accuse him of causing overburden waste and X might accuse me of capacity waste - because we have different assumptions, which are caused by different understanding and different chains of reasoning.

Unspoken assumptions may result in an actor doing things that another person highly disagrees with. Until we communicate our fundamental assumptions and discover why we assume what we do, we will be hard-pressed to align.

Level 3: Expectations

Expectations decide whether our actions are considered "successful", and different expectations lead to different results. Misaligned expectations often result in blaming, resentment and frustration.

As a simple example: If X expects fast results, they might accept any kind of makeshift clutch as long as it somehow "works". Y might expect high aesthetics and a level of comfort. When working with X in the same way as with Y, X will be disappointed - and when working with Y in the same way as X, Y will be disappointed.

Missing the communication of expectations makes it impossible to meet them without resorting to assumptions (moving the problem to another level without solving it). Many organizations have learned to minimize expectations, because they have not learned to align them.

Level 4: Needs

Not talking about needs results in fickle, unstable relationships - yet it's often considered "unprofessional" to spend time discussing needs. This is a very odd situation, as discovering each other's needs is fundamental to relationship building and provides the basis for any kind of negotiation.

Uncommunicated needs result in misunderstood requests, while communicating needs helps build trust and understanding. This is as true for work relationships as for private relationships.
Yet, we tend to be abysmally bad at understanding each other's needs in a corporate environment.

For example, when I say "I need a hammer", this might go through demand management, order management, vendor management and purchasing - after hours of negotiation, I end up with a bargain bin sledgehammer (at an unbeatable price) - while my original intention was to fix a poster to a wall with a few thumbtacks: my problem might have been solved with a pack of blue-tack instead.
I didn't need a hammer, I needed a way to fix that poster ...

Misunderstanding needs results in a misinterpretation of expectations, we resort to (misunderstood) assumptions and we resort to (misunderstood) reasoning for our action.

Instead of fixing this kind of communication gap, people resort to abusing communication in order to create sufficient leeway so that they can meet their own needs, often to the detriment of mutual relationships.


The longer an organization exists without fixing their communication debt, the more misunderstanding about needs, expecations, assumptions and reasons exists - every day bringing people further apart.

When you want to have better communication, get NEAR. Align needs, expectations, assumptions and reasons.


  1. Thank you so much for this article Michael. Communication debt came to my concern and I wanted to find some writings about it to talk to my organization about it. Amazingly I only found two articles, one of them is yours.

    1. Mazen, thank you for asking.
      The idea of Communication debt is mine, and I didn't have much time to elaborate on it yet, although that has been on my to-do list for a long time.
      I'm curious about who else picked it up, though.

      If you want to know more, please feel free to reach out via Linkedin -