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How to improve your communication and problem solving skills for business

by Laura Aitken-Burt March 27, 2017

In line with our Question of the Month survey research, we found that people valued communication and problem solving skills highly when looking to develop their career. Undoubtedly, these are vital to business as creating strong team ties will help with information exchange and working through difficulties, especially now within in a changing landscape.

Businesses in general have also become more collaborative; a study published in The Harvard Business Review last year found that ‘‘the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more’’ over the last two decades and that, at many companies, more than three-quarters of an employee’s day is spent communicating with colleagues. With so much emphasis on communication during an employee’s daily life in business, there is no doubt that this skill is going to continue being of high importance.

So we’ve put together a few things to think about and examples to help improve these abilities in the professional world.

The importance of the Pyramid Principle

Communication is something we all know we have to be good at in business, but are you really thinking of the way you structure information? Why not try 'the Pyramid Principle' for effective structured communication when giving instructions or presenting information?

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McKinsey uses this term for their structural communication methodology. Essentially, this means starting with the answer to the problem you are solving, crisply and directly (the top of the pyramid). Only then, when you have given the briefest and clearest response to the basic problem, should you present all your supporting reasons for why the client should pursue your advice.

CEOs are busy people and want you to get to your point quickly – using the Pyramid Principle may help to seal a deal.

Active listening and non-verbals are just as important in communication

Communication is not only about staying in touch regularly with your colleagues on projects, whether managing them or in a junior role. It also means asking questions, listening effectively and taking care over your non-verbal signals as well.

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An easy way to avoid ambiguity is to clarify, paraphrase or summarise after a conversation to ensure both parties are on the same page. Examples of summary questions include: 'So what you're saying is...?' 'So what you need from me is...?' 'So in summary what we've agreed is...?' These techniques will help your overall communication improve.

Logic trees vs innovation

There is some debate about the most effective forms of problem solving in business; should it be done through a clear step by step process or should creativity be more involved? We think it comes down to the problem at hand. Sometimes 'logic trees' are useful in order to give employees some clear direction in the case of common problems or to monitor solutions and their effectiveness.

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At other times, 'logic trees' may stifle the ability to come up with more innovative solutions and open forums for collaboration should be available to access. This comes back to communication being key in order to facilitate this.

Millennial emphasis on communication

The growth of millennials means they are making up larger proportions of business workforces. A recent study by McKinsey showed that young employees are keen for both transparency and immediacy in their communication with managers. It is desired for this to be a two way conversation between the higher and lower echelons of a company followed up by immediate action.

McKinsey advised companies to put "put communication on steroids" which our respondents perhaps have picked up on in their own experiences.

Tech firms often lead the way in this regard with many engaging in ‘microfeedback’ platforms to ask questions on specific topics. This generates a pool of ideas and information from across the company and leads innovation. It also creates a new level of visibility that has changed the way business works and provides a dynamic atmosphere of continuous improvement driving the company forward.

Communication helping commitment

There is also evidence to suggest that staying more in touch with the thoughts and opinions of employees helps to retain talent within the company.

Google's communication and problem solving success

One case study came to mind when we thought about communication and problem solving – the success of Google's workplace culture. Google has created an immensely successful collaborative atmosphere that unites the entire company. The Google way of attacking problems is to foster a culture of communication and problem solving throughout. Its hierarchical structure is 'flat' with managers being very hands on that they don't feel like separate authority figures. The lack of top down hierarchy cultivates a more open atmosphere for employees to voice their opinions and new ideas in various ways.

In fact, Google's office rules even lists a 'pitfall of managers' as 'too little time spent communicating.' One particular example of Google's culture at work comes from 2002 where CEO Larry Page printed out some results from Google's AdWords engine and stuck them in the office kitchen saying 'THESE ADS SUCK'. In many companies, a CEO writing such a harsh criticism on someone's project in a communal space would be seen as humiliating and arrogant. But at Google, it was not seen as an attack on the people involved but rather an attack on the problem, framed like a challenge and to inspire other colleagues to think up new ideas to solve the problem. Within 72 hours a team of engineers had come together and formed a great new solution.

Employees feel like they are all part of one big Google family where everybody mucks in to help each other. When Larry Page posted the note, it wasn't poor communication, but rather an example of an excellent communicative and collaborative problem solving focused culture coming together that didn't need any further instruction – employees knew their mission and purpose. Google’s global dominance shows that this approach is clearly working.

So despite a focus on technological advancements and Big Data trends, fundamental human skills remain to be the emphasis for improving career development for good reason. To improve communication and problem solving, we can help drive business forward and be better in our professional lives.

Interested in improving more of your career skills? Read more from the Consulting Skills Hub and use the filters on the right-hand side to narrow your search.

Find out more about how people responded in our January Question of the Month research article, READ HERE

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