Both sales/business people and technical people need to change in order to facilitate better communication between them – almost everything we do in business involves some technology. We have to figure out a way to communicate with each other for shared success.
I’m around technical people all the time – this is by choice because it’s my company. I love the art of applying technology to business challenges. I accidentally landed in the print industry (didn’t we all?) so my day-to-day life is filled with looking at the business of print and how technology can improve it.
My natural inclination is to stay in the perspective of sales and business results. Nothing keeps this focus more front and center than running your own business, making payroll, and managing cash flow. I work with mostly technical people, but my natural inclination is sales/business – so this results in some very lively discussions.
In general sales/business people and technology people don’t communicate very well and I think I know why. Sales/business people don’t want to get into the technical details and technical people don’t want to talk about the “why” or the “what” because they are absolutely infatuated with the “how”. We open a discussion with a general statement like; “the business wants to reduce their labor costs in a critically complex business process.” Within seconds (not even minutes) the technical people are off to the “how” races. Diving deep into the technologies they will use, the integrations that are necessary, and the tools required. It’s like someone shot a gun off and said, as soon as you have the slightest understanding – solve it as quickly as possible.
It’s not a race and your initial understanding is incomplete because you lack the key ingredient to getting it right – context. You don’t get context by talking about web services, APIs, or xml, you get context by asking clarifying questions and making an investment into really understanding the “why” and the “what”. The best applications of technology to business problems aren’t great because of the “how” – they are great because they totally nailed the “why” and the “what”. When you jump to the “how” too soon, it’s very predictable what happens – you solve the wrong thing or you don’t solve anything or worse yet you make the whole thing worse! Sound familiar?
What do we do about this?
Sales/business people don’t wait to be asked clarifying questions; proactively give context about what you’re trying to solve. Don’t suggest how the technical people should solve it, just describe the problem, who it impacts, and why they need a solution.
Technical people, resist the urge to jump to “how”, speed doesn’t make you sound smart, it makes you sound reckless. You are jumping to a diagnosis before you know what the problem is, asking questions is the best way to make sure you understand. Ask questions and then reiterate in your own words what you think the business/sales person is trying to solve, for whom, and why. This is the best way to assure you are on the same page.
Don’t get trapped in the “we’ll just document everything and then everyone will be on the same page.” Documents don’t necessarily deliver context, they should, but most of them don’t. Technical people and sales people speak a different language, there are very few people who are fluent in both languages (this is the critical role of the product manager in software development), and so you end up with sales/business people writing documents that technical people think are useless. Then you get technical people writing documents that sales/business can’t understand and therefore ignore.
Communicate more. Have more conversations. Ask more questions. When sales/business people need a technical solution explain these three components: who you’re solving this for, what the challenge is, and why you need a solution. The “who”, “what”, and “why” will anchor the request inside context that is critical for the technical team to understand BEFORE they go develop a solution.
When technical people need to communicate their proposed solution to sales/business, don’t go into great technical detail, you do not impress anyone – you’re simply writing a document that your audience can’t consume. Your job is to reflect your understanding of the problem and then propose a solution that allows the sales/business people to understand the solution. Don’t go crazy into the details with the business. The business/sales people’s job is to approve your approach not comment on every single pixel placement or feature. Just like you don’t have full context over their job, they don’t have full context over yours.
Technology is such an integral part of almost every business decision, improving communication is a great way to increase your batting average for solving business challenges with technology. Couldn’t resist a baseball analogy – How about those SF Giants!