Good Talk

Aug. 7, 2008
Invite Folks from Other Departments or Organizations In for an Informal Lunch-and-Learn Tour or Some Speed-Dating-Style Tabletop Displays
By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

It never hurts to ask, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. In many recent articles, I’ve found numerous users who say internal discussions among colleagues were crucial to the success of whatever project they’re working on. Seeking out, sitting down and simply talking with coworkers, between departments, and especially across plant floor and IT and management chasms, is a cornerstone in most, if not all, successful process improvement efforts. Best of all, face-to-face discussions cost little or nothing, unlike software and hardware. However, there’s one big snag.

Talking to people sounds simple, but it’s not. For many reasons, seeking out and interviewing people can be scary—and not the funny kind. There’s lots of fear that goes with trying to talk to other people. Fear of being rejected or ignored. Fear of being misunderstood or later misrepresented. Fear of becoming entangled and dragged down. Personal interaction often can seem pointless. I’d bet this is the reason that emails have replaced phone calls. 

For example, just over 23 years ago, I was sitting in a ’62 Ford Falcon in a small supermarket parking lot in Lakeville, Minn. I was assigned to do person-on-the-street interviews and take photos of whichever half-dozen local residents I could find. However, I sat in that car for 10, 20, 30 and finally about 45 minutes because I was freakin’ petrified. Who was I to go up to busy strangers, invade their space, disrupt their shopping trips and assail them for comments? However, not wanting to lose my $210-per-week paycheck, I eventually screwed myself up to doing my job, and I met a bunch of people who had nothing to say and a few very nice folks who kindly let me talk to them and take their pictures. Since then, I’ve conducted close to 10,000 interviews, and I’ve learned a few common-sense ways how to do it, even if it’s still a little nerve-wracking and not really much easier.

First, think about what you want to know from the people you want to interview. Second, learn something about them, their activities, expertise, department and organization. Third, write out some questions, and maybe send them along ahead of time, if possible. Fourth, and this the hardest part, just go up and say “Hi” or “Hey” or “Uh, excuse me,” and then “Would it be okay if I asked you a few questions?” Naturally, it’s like jumping off a high diving board, but all it really takes is a little teaspoonful of what-the-hell-type bravery. Not too difficult.

When subjects decline, thank them anyway, and move on to the next person fast. In process control or automation, I’ve found that every fifth or sixth person usually has some good input, which is way better than the general public. So, when the second or third or 12th person agrees to be interviewed, get their name and job title, and ask your questions. Next, pay attention, listen closely—which is the second hardest part—and take notes. As the conversation unfolds, ask new questions as they arise, and see if the person knows anyone else who could contribute. Finally, thank your subjects profusely.

While these methods are useful for traditional interviewing, many other interactive formats are available for fostering relations between people, departments and larger organizations—and, for once, I don’t mean the danged Internet or Web 2.0. On-screen presentations and meetings have their uses, but I think we could all use a little more down-to-earth face time, don’t you? So beyond the typical sales call or training session, invite folks from other departments or organizations in for an informal lunch-and-learn tour or some speed-dating-style tabletop displays. Then, layout some high-quality food, describe your everyday operations and challenges, and then ask if you can tour their area, too. If this doesn’t help with some existing process improvements, then I’ll bet it will point out the need for some new ones.

And, when you get done building relationships inside and outside your company, you can even use your new talking and listening skills at home on loved ones, family members, children, parents and grandparents. Talk about scary.