Your processes shouldn’t consist of trivial reminders of what your team already know. The important tasks should stand out against the noise.
Reduce the noise to make sure your message stands out from the background.
As humans, we have become pretty good at ignoring things when they become too repetitive. When you tell people, over and over, something they already know, they simply become numb to the message and, in some cases, can ignore it completely.
The same information can be made memorable depending on how we present it. So how can you reduce the noise to a minimum to make sure the most important things are not forgotten? And why is this lesson so critical when it comes to dealing with our business processes? Let’s deep dive into the psychology of stating -and forgetting- the obvious.
What Airport Announcements and Processes (Should Not!) Have in Common
I am at the terminal of the Stockholm airport, and it feels eerily quiet. People are walking in different directions, looking at the boards to see from which gate they will embark. There is activity all around me; people are chatting, trollies are rolling… kids are screaming, too, but for some reason, I am relaxed. Then it hits me: There are no announcements!
Every time I fly from the UK (and this often includes the transit from my house to the airport if I’m using public transport), I get incredibly familiar with (and annoyed by) hearing “see it, say it, sort it”. Not just once but over and over. It’s constant, it’s monotonous, and to be honest it’s condescending.
So, back to the airport. I’m sure everyone knows they should not leave their luggage unattended. Yet the speakers keep repeating the same message over and over, and to be honest, how many people are actually listening anymore? It comes in one ear and goes through the other.
But Sweden has no such condescending announcements. It seems in Sweden, people are able to find and board the plane without being notified when every plane in the airport is starting to board and they seem to know to take all their belongings with them without being constantly reminded.
I actually did hear one announcement. It was for someone about to miss their flight. I can guarantee everyone heard it then, too, as I noticed people lifting their eyes from their phones and books. What would have happened if we were in the UK? That’s quite easy to picture. If someone was to call your name through an airport announcement in Heathrow, you would probably miss it.
The noise is constant, and the message (whatever it is in this case, but probably still about unattended luggage or suspicious-acting travellers) gets inevitably lost. So, no matter how important a piece of information is, if it’s surrounded by communications played on repeat, it might never make it to someone’s ears. This problem is quite widespread. Unfortunately, it has also become relevant at our workplaces.
Harming a Process by Stating the Obvious
Your processes are being ignored! The fact is, when you tell people what they already know, and you hammer the same information over and over again, they become numb to the message. And what happens then? They just ignore it.
The aviation industry has recognised this issue in the checklists it provides to pilots . They design their checklists to only contain the information a pilot really needs and they go to great effort to make sure that the important points are not watered down by the obvious things. For example if a plane depressurises in mid-flight, the pilot will automatically be given a procedure to follow. The procedure starts with the pilot immediately descending to 10,000 feet. This is crucial as failure to do so might result in everyone including the pilot passing out. However the procedure does not have unnecessary but important steps such as “Land at the nearest airport” because there is no need. A pilot with a depressurised plane does not need to be told that, it’s obvious.
In a similar manner, our processes should also avoid containing meaningless information that people already know and remember. They should focus instead on the stuff that will get forgotten. Because that’s the most crucial part of this whole endeavour: It matters that certain things are not forgotten.
The whole point of setting up a process, for example, an aircraft depressurisation process, is to make sure you survive this scenario. You need to descend; that’s the first priority. But, of course, some processes are a little more obscure, so it’s important we really think about what things we need to include - and which steps are obvious and create noise.
Why We Want to Be Thorough
Our processes are usually filled with unnecessary clarifications. One reason why includes some of the simplest steps is because things that are obvious to us might not be so for others. We want to be helpful, and it might not occur to us that something we see as exceptionally important and requiring iteration might be evident.
There is a sign in Australia that reads “Danger, Crocodiles”. Right below it is the words “No Swimming”. It’s one thing to be clear, but… I don’t think I have to explain this one! The thing is, thoroughness should never come above wasting your team members’ time.
There is such a thing as too much information, and what might end up happening is that your desire to make sure everyone is on the same page might end up motivating people to ignore your process. You really should not need to specify that there is “Water on road during rain” (this is an actual sign), that “Hot beverages are hot” (also factual, and based on a fascinating case that is not as absurd as you might think) or “Please be aware the balcony is not on ground level” (painfully obvious as it’s pinned on an open fence). And When There Is Just Too Much Information
We want our processes to be efficient. Ideally, we even expect them to motivate people to follow a specific set of steps. One of the issues, however, is that if a process is too complex, employees start improvising. But if it is too simple, they might skip essential steps. So how do we find a balance between these two extremes?
One of the best ways in which you can measure the quality of your existing processes and make sure you create good ones in the future is to open up the game. To ask questions and get answers from those using the workflows. You should always make sure not just that your processes are embedded in your company but also that you are consistently evaluating them to quickly identify when something is not working.
It’s not always easy to cover the way things are currently done in your company or organization, but you would be surprised how much of what we do is unsaid and undocumented. And how much of what we have included in our specifications we can do without.
If you are creating a new process, you should always consider the things that you do not need to say. Unfortunately, information overload can lead to mistakes, as we will soon see. The Dangers of Overload
Since we started this article talking about an airport and then moved on to a decompressed cabin scenario where a pilot knew he should find a place to land and not continue the journey, let’s close this up with another example from the aviation industry. In this case, an aircraft manufacturing and repair company that, in a desire to be thorough, ended up causing irreparable damage.
In 2012, professor Satya S. Chakravorty covered a case where the use of sophisticated tools created information overload to factory workers - resulting in easily avoidable mistakes that put actual people in danger.
An aircraft manufacturing company had created hundreds of pages of training material. The employees of the company were expected to do extensive data interpretation and analysis, which, in a lot of cases, led to brain overload. Keep in mind that these people had to work with complex operations simultaneously every day, so the manuals applied not just to one scenario but multiple. The result of such a comprehensive but exhausting set of materials? Over time, operation performance slipped, and safety issues surfaced. The process was so complex, so obvious in some ways too, that people opted out of them and regressed to how they were doing things before the training manuals were introduced.
Fatigue, workload, and fear, as well as poor interpersonal communication and imperfect information processing, can easily lead to flawed decision-making. If you are manufacturing aircraft, this instantly translates into safety issues that could involve massive loss of life.
Now, most of us don’t manufacture aeroplanes, and our processes are not usually over a thousand pages long. However, this doesn’t mean there are no risks associated with information overload. Any business can see catastrophic results if they become numb to a process. You can lose clients, you can halt a production line, and you can simply exhaust your employees.
Effective communication is an active process, one that needs to be carefully maintained rather than left to chance. This is why leadership has to ensure that all the most important messages always stand out from the noise.
In many cases, this will translate into depriving your processes of the most obvious steps to allow people to focus on what’s important; on the things that should never, ever be ignored.