David Olney
12 June, 2023

The human brain is an amazing organ, but it has some major limitations, which we need to work with if we want to succeed in business. Most people can hold between 5 and 7 bits of information in their short-term memory <www.simplypsychology.org/short-term-memory.html#:~:text=Most%20adults%20can%20store%20between%205%20and%209,of%20%E2%80%9Cslots%E2%80%9D%20in%20which%20items%20could%20be%20stored.> for between 15 and thirty seconds. After that, they move on to the next 5 to 7 bits of information that are relevant for the next 15 to 30 seconds.

Consequently, if you want to succeed in business, you need to make sure that your people and customers only have to think about immediately important and interesting things, rather than having to focus on repetitions and unclear goals.

When I was rapidly accumulating knowledge to teach clients and university students complex problem solving, I found that the most effective organisations and institutions had long since realised that systems should support people’s talents, rather than burdening them with steps that reduce their awareness and autonomy. For example, when Sidney Dekker <sidneydekker.com/> writes about safety in the airline industry, he focuses on the development of systems that provide scaffolding for people, rather than reducing them to the mechanistic level of the system. Meanwhile, in the case of High Reliability Organisations <psnet.ahrq.gov/primer/high-reliability> such as aircraft carriers, medical emergency departments, and nuclear power plants, people are acknowledged for noticing and reacting to unusual events, rather than rewarded for rigid adherence to inflexible processes. In short, people in these environments are very well trained, and are supported by robust and evolving systems, which results in high performance and high quality outcomes under consistently hazardous conditions.

When I began working as a Business Development Specialist and a Marketing Strategist in the conventional corporate sector, I encountered a distinct set of issues and circumstances to those I had become familiar with in the high-reliability world. In most corporate settings I have experienced, there is either insufficiently developed systems and processes to support people, resulting in a huge cognitive burden that leads to too many unnecessary errors, or the system and processes are overwhelming and inflexible, resulting in mistakes because people have no room to move around the burden of the system.

If there aren’t good enough systems and processes to scaffold people, they spend most of their time just trying to remember how to get the basics right, and they eventually hit cognitive overload and lose motivation along with productivity. If the systems and processes reduce people to the level of a talking head, then they don’t do more than the system lets them, which means an inevitable increase in errors, entropy, and customer dissatisfaction.

From a customer’s perspective, either extreme will result in an unpleasant experience that inspires a lack of confidence in your company. If your people have scattered attention and are hesitant about what happens next, a customer is going to wonder what is wrong with your company. If your people have to follow an inflexible process and can’t respond to the person they are dealing with in real time, a customer is going to wonder why they are dealing with a company that won’t acknowledge and respond to their unique needs. In either case, your company is going to lose future business and gain a reputation for being unresponsive and lacking customer focus.

The best solution to these problems is to deliberately develop supportive processes and systems, which scaffold your people. If an event happens frequently, or there is a consistent set of options to choose between, or there are a couple of good answers to the same question, then automate it, build it into a dashboard, write it into a script, or lock it into long-term memory through role-play and scenario training.

Your people will perform well when they have everything they need in front of them and at their finger-tips. When your people don’t have to think about what to do next, they can think about how to do their best.

Remember, your people can only remember 5 to 7 bits of information for between 15 and 30 seconds, so give them what they need to succeed. If your people have the current event in front of them, all of the options to choose from, and only have to click “next” to get the next screen of relevant information, then they can focus on actively listening to your customer and responding to them in a thoughtful and immediate way.

Systems and processes should provide your people with a stage on which they can perform, rather than surround them with a cage that reminds them that they aren’t trusted and supported to achieve great outcomes.

For the benefit of both your people and your customers, let your customers know what is going to happen next: tell them what is going to be discussed, how long it should take, that they are welcome to ask questions, and where we are trying to get to. In the terms of the Sandler Selling System <www.sandler.com/sandler-selling-system/>, this is known as an Up-Front Contract. By telling your customer what is going to happen next, you are reducing their cognitive burden and increasing the chance that they will relax and trust what is being said. This is especially important, because confused and uncertain customers don’t make decisions, and definitely don’t spend money. You would hate it if you thought you were going to be ambushed, so don’t make your people deal with customers who feel like they might be ambushed.

When your people and customers know what is going to happen next, they can focus on building rapport and finding a mutually beneficial outcome. Systems and processes that provide this clarity for your people and customers benefit everyone equally, as well as giving your company an advantage over its competitors.

Building supportive systems and processes that benefit companies and their customers takes time and effort, and is a lot of fun. I enjoyed learning the theories and history behind creating systems that reduce cognitive burdens, but nothing beats putting this knowledge into practice with clients to help their companies grow.

If you would like help to develop systems and processes that reduce the cognitive burden on your people and your customers, which empower your business to grow, then please get in touch with me via the contact form below.

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