Listening: How a Dog became a Cat & other ‘Tails’

Today is Thanksgiving, and aside from wishing you a safe and happy holiday, I thought I’d have a little fun.  Everybody’s talking turkey, so let’s talk about dogs and cats instead…

“There’s a reason we have two ears and one mouth”.  That old proverb is admonishing us in a subtle way; listen more and speak less.

Jack Russell Terrier Snarling --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Many years ago, someone told me a great story about a design team, tasked with making improvements to a client’s dog.  A long narrative follows about how the various team members come up with all sorts of creative ideas about what they can do to accomplish this goal.  To make a long story short, by the time they’re done, the dog’s design has been improved so much that it’s now a cat – a really fantastic cat!

The team is thrilled, and they can’t wait to present the results to the client.  But when the client sees the cat, he says, “You’ve done a great job here, but what I asked for was a better dog.”

Whether you’re an attorney, a technology professional – or somewhere in between – it’s important to always remember that somebody is your client – or customer.  Highly-skilled individuals forget this sometimes.  It can be a product of hubris, but I’m not concerned with that.  I’m referring to the more common reason; the perception that your audience won’t understand what you’re saying or doing.  Complex activities go on behind the scenes that can be very difficult
to explain to someone outside of your particular field of expertise, so why not just do it, get it done, then get back to them when you’re finished?

The Leaning Tower of Pisa, Tuscany, Italy

What other two disciplines are in danger of exhibiting this train of thought more than law and technology?  Contrary to
popular belief, a trial does not seamlessly take place like it appears on Law & Order, and techies don’t shout “I want tactical and database assimilation by 0-900!” – at least not that I’ve experienced.  Your computer won’t say to you, “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” but your IT Manager might.  If you adopt an ivory tower attitude toward e-discovery under these circumstances, you may find yourself in the Tower of London instead.

EDD (electronic data discovery) may require so many human resources with such specific skill-sets (IT, Management, Inside and/or Outside Counsel, Consultants, Paralegals, Tech-Support) that the risk of mis-communication – or complete lack thereof – becomes great.  You forget to listen carefully, and worse, refrain from going back to
the source for more input and guidance when necessary.  Attorneys refer to this as ‘assuming facts not in evidence’.

The line becomes blurred.  Who is the client?  It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that – for most of the parties involved – the company itself is the client!

I solve this problem by assuming that everyone is my customer; and this may include everyone inside of my department as well.  It’s true if you think about it.  Anyone I owe a deliverable to technically is my customer – even if we work together.

Keeping this in mind helps me remember that I have four primary goals:

  1. Understand my tasks – if I don’t, keep asking questions until I do
  2. Perform them competently and efficiently
  3. Deliver exactly what my customer requires by the agreed-upon deadline (or find and present suitable alternatives if conditions outside of my control delay or prevent a deliverable from being met)
  4. Communicate clearly and concisely with my customer at all stages of the project – even if the news is unpleasant.

Following this simple formula will hopefully get you through the ‘dog’ days of litigation.

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