Communication Problems are actually Process Design Problems

When working in teams, small slip-ups and sometimes big goof-ups are often justified by “communication problems”.

Justin Roff-Marsh, proponent of his highly effective Sales Process Engineering methodology that incorporates the techniques from Theory of Constraints into the sales process – has written an excellent article on his Sales Process Engineering blog, where he explains “Why the term ‘communication problem’ insults your team members and retards the performance of your organization“.

Justin claims that humans are remarkably good communicators as compared to other creatures, and have proven their ability to communicate effectively in complex environments that have very small margins for errors, such as operating theatres or airport traffic control. Hence, justifying errors as communication problems prevents us from investigating and resolving the root cause.

Process design is the real problem

As he says,

In my experience, almost all the issues that are conveniently classified as communication problems are actually process design problems. And, in most cases, the problem is that a hand-off is necessitating the transfer of complex information from one person to another.

He gives the example of a sales process for a built-to-order product or service. Here, a sales person interacts with the customer initially to understand the requirements, and then hands-off the specifications to production. The errors resulting in such a situation is due to the need to transfer complex information between the sales person and production.

The proposed solution

In such cases, it’s important to recognize that complex information (almost by definition) cannot be transferred from one team member to another without information loss. Therefore, it is incumbent upon management to redesign the process so as to ensure that either:

  1. These hand-offs are eliminated
  2. The requirement to transfer complex information is eliminated

For the first approach, he suggests introducing a third person such as a project manager, who partners with the sales person and later provides the specifications to production, thereby providing continuity in the process and eliminating the hand-off.

For the second approach, he suggests that complex information should be converted in the form of easily quantifiable conditions which need to be satisfied. This implies that one can conver the complex information into a set of measurable parameters which can be evaluated to meet some prescribed conditions.

Milestones and Forms

In the On2Biz workflow model, the sales workflow is modelled as a sequence of milestones, where each milestone is a verifiable intermediate outcome in the process. The following diagram illustrates a sales workflow, with various individual projects at various stages of completion.

Sample Sales Workflow

Sample Sales Workflow

Each milestone can be assigned to a different person in the team. The following workflow chart illustrates the role assignment and workflow rules:

Sales Workflow Chart

Sales Workflow Chart

As illustrated above, On2Biz automatically generates alerts wherever there is a hand-off from one person to another. In addition, On2Biz has a provision to attach a customizable form to each milestone. The form can contain parameters that capture any complex information along with validation, ensuring that no important information gets lost during hand-offs.

The following screenshot shows milestones from an actual workflow implemented in On2Biz:

Milestones with customized forms to capture information

Milestones with customized forms to capture information

As seen above, each milestone has additional information captured in the format specific to that milestone. For example, the first three milestones are completed by Jacob and Sanjay, who are the tele-sales and field sales executives respectively. If converted, they hand-off the project to Misha, the accounts person. At the converted milestone, they fill in the form containing the required information for accounts to carry forward the project seamlessly. Further, Misha hands-off the project to Kavita, the creative team member, but ensures that all payment details are filled in the cheque banked milestone.

This illustrates how, by creating a properly documented workflow, the errors that can creep up due to hand-off of complex information can be avoided as per Justin’s recommendation.

For more information on the On2Biz Workflow Model, visit

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