If communication is a problem, close the variance

Oakland Athletics’ Moneyball technique key to bridging gaps as technology evolves

If communication is a problem, close the variance
The Oakland Athletics’ baseball success in 2002 wasn’t solely based on the genius of general manager Billy Beane, but rather the theoretical work of William Edwards Deming, according to a social scientist. Credit: Keeton Gale (Shutterstock)

Using the theory behind the successful book Moneyball can help increase engagement and productivity across North America, according to Mary Donohue, a social scientist and founder of Donohue Learning in Toronto.

Moneyball was (about) using the difference between what coaches believed and what the data said to build a better team,” she said at a recent SCNetwork event in Toronto.

However, the Oakland Athletics’ baseball success in 2002 wasn’t solely based on the genius of general manager Billy Beane, but rather the theoretical work of William Edwards Deming — the “father of modern productivity,” said Donohue.

It was Deming’s transformative manufacturing theories that propelled Beane and the A’s to success, she said.

Deming’s theory got off to a slow start. In the early 1950s, he approached the major U.S. automakers of the day and urged them to improve their production methodologies. He was resoundingly rejected, said Donohue.

However, Gen. Douglas MacArthur approached Deming and requested he present his theories to companies in war-torn Japan as the country attempted to rebuild its infrastructure. There, Deming’s advice was widely accepted, and the effects still reverberate today, she said.

“He transformed how they manufacture cars… and revolutionized how cars were made,” said Donohue. “(Deming discovered the) most important tool in manufacturing, communication, artificial intelligence, anything — if you reduce the variance, you build a better product.”

For example, while Ford mass-produced automobile transmissions to a one-eighth variance, Japanese companies improved that to one-16th — making for a slightly more expensive, but longer-lasting vehicle, she said.

“Closing the variance was the most important competitive edge they had.”

Practical application

Within today’s workplace, technology has aided the diversity of communication methods, while the quality of that communication has exposed generational divides, said Donohue.

For the past three years, she has worked to apply Deming’s variance theory to communication methods.

“Right now, conversation is your product,” said Donohue. “Teams having conversations are the only way you can now create.”

But technology is stifling successful conversations at work, with email chains, stagnant meetings and misunderstood text messages each playing a role.

Many North American workplaces are in crisis mode, with failed communications causing cracks in long-standing cultural frameworks, she said.

Executives are spending 40 hours a week in meetings or reviewing email — leading to copious amounts of overtime, general exhaustion and poor communication techniques, according to a survey of 7,500 North American workers by Donohue.

The roadblock is technology — as technological communication avenues have grown, engagement rates have dropped, she said.

“As we saw the use of technology increase, we also saw disengagement increase,” said Donohue, noting that by 2020, her analysis shows nine of 10 teams will not be engaged with one another.

Companies are creating communication technologies that workers don’t want, making for an increased rate of variance, she said.

Communicating via technology lacks proper social cues, creating different emotional responses than a face-to-face water-cooler conversation typically would, said Donohue.

For instance, quick, inaccurate email messaging, low follow-through rates, and assumed messaging “are slowly tearing apart your workplace culture,” she said.

“You have to learn to retrain your brain. We’re not spending any time on this. We’re developing all the technologies in the world… but we’re not teaching our brains how to use that technology. It’s just an assumed skill.”

Generational differences

The issue stems from the mammalian brain — where gut feelings, instincts and anchor moments are stored, according to Donohue.

“Anchoring moments are how you frame solutions to your problem,” she said. “And each generation has different anchoring moments based on their introduction to technology.”

For example, baby boomers grew up watching TV — a one-way communication device — while generation Z has been raised in the smartphone era, said Donohue.

Each generation naturally prefers a different communication style. But as the tech options become smaller, the gap in understanding only grows, she said.

“What we’re trying to do is figure out how to find the variance and close the variance in teams.”

Once a manager is able to self-identify a preferred communication style, she is better able to understand her team’s tendencies. From there, managers can attempt to close the variance and drive productivity, which subsequently builds trust and improves engagement, said Donohue.

Technological solutions can aid managers in interpreting data such as daily emails, texts and meeting summaries which inform on team connections.

Generations can generally be grouped into descriptors that include similar anchoring moments, work styles and communication preferences, she said.

Growing up in the shadow of the financial crisis, generation Z workers are most motivated by money; millennials crave work-life balance after being raised by parents who were more prone to be stuck in the office.

All of these lead to differences in generational tendencies in terms of communication, collaboration and creation.

To improve productivity and engagement, managers would be wise to understand the preferred communication styles of staff, especially as technology allows for unique barriers such as a refusal to answer email — an act that would seem unreasonable in a face-to-face conversation.

The traditional approach to social media as a work distraction doesn’t work for millennials, according to Donohue.

“What do most of us do at our workplace? We say social media is a waste of time — ‘You’re not focusing on work; you’re not doing this’ — Yet that’s how they create.”

As for generation Z, they grew up being treated as a group, but are placed in solitary cubicles when they enter the workforce and are then told social media use at work is inappropriate — actions that lead to high disengagement and low trust rates, she said.

“You’re ripping out their mammalian brain anchoring moments.”

If communication is your workplace problem, closing the variance is the solution, said Donohue.

“Close the variance between teams, create standards and patterns based on anchoring moments in your mammalian brain, and you’ll increase your productivity 11 per cent, increase your engagement 34 per cent, decrease your stress 34 per cent,” she said.

“You’ll be 34 per cent happier because you won’t be sitting in those meetings going, ‘Is anybody listening to me?’”  

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