How Can I Know What I Never Knew?

A couple of weeks ago I shared “Mickey’s Ten Commandments” – ten things you can’t forget when you design a theme park – developed by one of Disney’s quintessential Imagineers, Marty Sklar. I did so with the admonition that audit can learn from anywhere – even theme park design – and with the idea that there cannot be any better teacher than Disney. I also promised I’d be back with some specific thoughts on those ten commandments.

Well, here I am.
 
Now, it is not my intent to go through each and every one of these commandments. However, I’ll warn you right now that it may, indeed, happen. I jumped into the list in order to start my pontifications, and the very first commandment struck a chord.
 
Mickey’s Commandment #1 - “Know your audience – Don’t bore people, talk down to them, or lose them by assuming that they know what you know.”
 
There are a couple of quick lessons here. The first – “don’t bore people” – I’m going to skip because I just did a riff on that one for The Internal Auditor. (I didn’t write that one because of this list, but serendipity can be an amazing thing.) If you are so inclined, you can find my thoughts on the subject in the magazine.
 
The next easy one is that, for internal audit, our communications spread across a vast array of people – from clerks to supervisors to professionals to managers to directors to CEOs. We have to be cognizant of the individuals to whom we are communicating. We have to recognize the dangers of speaking down to any of these people. There is no one, no matter what their position, that likes to be talked down to. But, similarly, we have to be sure and give everyone enough information. Nothing can tick off a muckety-muck more than having to ask a question everyone assumes he or she already knows. 
 
All of this is important. Knowing how to communicate is key to our success. But, you know what? Neither of these was my big takeaway. No, the big takeaway really impacts anyone who has more than a few moments experience either in the organization or in the profession.
 
The big takeaway is this: It is easy to forget how much other people don’t know. It doesn’t make them “dumb”; it just means they don’t know.
 
A few years ago another manager and I were talking, and she was lamenting the lack of knowledge exhibited by her direct reports. They didn’t know claims, they didn’t know how to document a worksheet, they didn’t know how our agents worked, they didn’t understand how to interview someone, they didn’t know who reported to whom. I was commiserating (read that as, I was agreeing with her from a position of ignorance) when it suddenly hit me.
 
I asked the manager, “You know all these things, right?” She answered, “Of course!”
 
I then asked, “How long have you worked for the company?” (It was a rhetorical question, I knew the answer.) “You know the answer,” she said (see, I told you it was rhetorical), “Ten years.”
 
“And all our new people have worked here…what, maybe two years?”
 
And there was the trap we had both fallen into. Because we know something, we forget other people don’t know it. And, speaking strictly for myself, I have to constantly remind myself that new people are coming in without my 30 years of experience. I have to reflect on how little I knew when I first came in. And I have to remember all the mistakes and stupid things I did. 
 
Was I a loser? Well, maybe, but that’s a discussion for another day. However, I was definitely fresh-from-college, never-done-more-than-play-in-bands, read-a-few-textbooks inexperienced. And I was lucky enough to work for people who understood how little I knew (how little anyone in my position would know) and did everything they could to share their experience, trying to make me that much better.
 
So, while Mickey’s first commandment has a lot of different things to say about communication, the big one I’d remind anyone with even a hint of grey, white, or bald in their hair (I’m starting to suffer from all three), rather than curse the empty darkness you think you see in those around you, remember what people don’t know and help them know it.

Posted on Nov 19, 2012 by Mike Jacka

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