24 May Communication Breakdown
Dear Christian Radio,
Communication is the one constant in business that facilitates success. It is the lifeblood of any organization. Nonetheless, good communication practices elude many in the workplace. This is unfortunate, since communication influences everything in business—internally and externally. Good communication is often made out to be harder than it has to be. In truth, effective communication is not hard, but it does require a discipline that is uniformly adopted throughout the organization.
Improving communication begins with understanding what communication is and is not. People tend to think of communication in terms of e-mails, letters, memos, and person-to-person exchanges. While important, those things are simply ways in which we communicate. Communication is a relationship. Real people are central to any exchange, which means human emotion plays a role in the communication process. This is where the complexity of communication begins to emerge. Take project management—something with which I am deeply familiar—as a near perfect example. Projects require the talents of multiple parties. Each person involved in the project arrives with their own strengths, weaknesses, personal preferences, and, of course…personality quirks. Even the simplest project is its own ecosystem full of wants, needs, egos and apathy. There is a real psychology to managing all of these things well. It begins by addressing common failures. Doing so can make the seemingly complex task of communication manageable for all.
When communication begins to break down, it’s rarely instantaneous, but rather the culmination of small details which were missed along the way. The good news is that there are workable solutions to most communication issues. By resolving some of the more common mistakes, you can quickly improve how your organization communicates. Here are five communication breakdowns that—when corrected—will dramatically improve your organizational flow saving time, heartache, and money.
BREAKDOWN #1: Your projects lack a clear leader.
Every project requires a clear leader. This person has the unchallenged authority to make decisions and get things done. He or she also has all the facts or at least knows how to get the facts quickly. Often referred to as Project Managers, these individuals are responsible for navigating a project from its beginning to its end. Every team and every project needs one…and only one.
A committee almost always spells disaster for any project. As the saying goes, too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth. While there may be multiple people assigned to various tasks in a project, it must be the project manager who oversees the entire process. Having a single point person is critical for keeping a project on task.
Conversely, a project without a clearly defined leader is akin to a rudderless ship. These poorly led projects drift aimlessly for months or eventually get torn apart when they encounter obstacles. Someone has to be in charge. Create a clear chain of command before starting any project and you’ll have easier sailing.
BREAKDOWN #2: You start projects without having all the facts.
Failure to provide clear upfront direction to your team is the number one cause of delays and missed deadlines. In journalism, reporters practice the “Five Ws”— Who, What, When, Where, Why. There is also an “H” thrown in for the occasional How. They apply these questions to every article they write. These questions reduce confusion by getting everyone on the same page. They are excellent questions that require answers before launching any meeting, project, task, or strategy session.
Here are a few sample questions to consider:
- Who is leading the project?
- Who is our target audience?
- Who are our partners?
- What are we creating?
- What are we trying to say?
- What are we trying to accomplish?
- What is the key message?
- What are the key deadlines?
- When do we start?
- When is it due?
- When will it end?
- Where will it be used?
- Where will it take place?
- Why are we creating this?
- Why should our audience care?
- How will it be used?
- How will we know we’ve succeeded?
- How much will it cost?
BREAKDOWN #3: Your directives are painfully passive.
Good communication is about being clear and concise with the message. This requires being direct. In Christian circles, direct is often mistranslated as rude. So, what these organizations end up with is passive communication. These are vague, soft-pedaled directives that create chaos, confusion, and discord. Here’s the problem: direct communication is authoritative instruction or direction…a directive. However, passive communication masks those instructions as open-ended questions, liberal timelines, and indefinite or optional participation. The person making the request believes he or she has been kind and polite in delivering the message; however, the message’s true meaning is left to interpretation by those receiving the message. All humans interpret information and requests differently—do not leave the destiny of your important project up to the multiple interpretations of others. People want to fulfill your expectations, so make yours clear! In short, don’t leave your team in limbo with unclear requests…it’s a surefire recipe for disaster.
Here are some examples that will help you see how you’re communicating:
- PASSIVE – Just get me something in the next few days.
- DIRECT – John, I need a draft copy of your blog (in Word) by 5 pm, tomorrow.
- PASSIVE – We might do that another time.
- DIRECT – John, your plan requires some additional thinking before we can implement it.
- PASSIVE – Can someone send me that spreadsheet we’ve been working on ASAP?
- DIRECT – John, attach your team’s June Inventory Report (in Excel) here. I need it by 3 pm, today.
- PASSIVE – Can we meet sometime next week?
- DIRECT – Team, let’s meet next Tues. at 10 am or 2 pm (1 hr). Topic: Diaper Drive. E-mail me your preference.
- PASSIVE – One of us can do it for you.
- DIRECT – Bill, please pull the June Inventory Report (Excel) and forward it to me by 2 pm. #Urgent
Notice in the examples above that the person tasked with the responsibility is always addressed by name. What’s more, both message types are similar in length, but the level of detail and clarity in the ‘direct’ message is profoundly improved…I even managed to work in a please. Finally, the “Five W’s“ have application here as well…do you see them?
Be direct. Be clear. It’s okay to be nice but better to be concise.
BREAKDOWN #4: You’re all over the place.
We live in an age where communication is not just abundant…it’s downright ineffective. A basic smartphone offers multiple texting and video options—it can also be used as a phone. There are several popular and user-friendly project management applications, and for those who simply can’t let go of the 90s…sigh…email. What you choose to use for your organization is your call, but what is important is that everyone communicates in the same place. Too many channels of communication break the system. So, when it comes time to review a plan or pull a project together, your communication’s timeline is scattered across the four winds of time.
The solution is simple: choose one singular method of communication for your organization. Any communications that take place outside of that official channel must be manually added to any relevant project, task, or discussion.
One thought: if you’re still using email as your primary means of internal communication, you’re losing ground to your competitors. If you are a large, complex organization, I would strongly recommend you look into Asana. If your company is small or more straightforward in its day-to-day operations, I would suggest trying Basecamp first.
BREAKDOWN #5: You make everything a priority.
It’s easy to confuse being busy with being effective; however, if everything is a priority, nothing really can be. That’s because when everything is important, nothing important can get done. Whether it’s a lack of focus or a means of trying to keep teams on their toes, many organizations default to an endless barrage of meetings, urgent projects, and/or last minute requests that simply undermine success. In reality, less is often more. Too much of a good thing can quickly become very bad for a culture that is desperately trying to do the right things.
Team members quickly realize the system is out of control and try to hold on for dear life. Eventually, they find their footing by exploiting cracks in the system, or they simply burnout and move on to what they hope will be a better run organization.
Taking a long, hard look at your organization’s daily, weekly, monthly, and annual operations will help you recognize patterns that might be adversely affecting your culture. Poor organization at corporate, department, and team levels will most certainly have a negative impact on communication. In many ways, the two go hand in hand. Assuming you’ve already addressed breakdowns 1-4, reducing workloads, increasing lead times, and eliminating unnecessary or repetitive meetings will free your team up—giving them the best chance to excel. For larger companies, hiring a traffic manager(s) to oversee schedules and help organize the day-to-day chaos will improve your success rate across the board.
The list above is only an introduction into a much larger world of better communication. When standardized, the solutions offered will revolutionize the effectiveness of any organization.
Dear Christian Radio…
1) Be a Leader – Assign an organized and capable leader to each project your organization takes on.
2) Bring the Facts – Ensure that your team understands the assignment before it starts.
3) Be Direct – Be clear and concise when issuing directives. Be polite, but don’t be passive.
4) Establish Your Channel – Every organization needs one primary method of communication. Choose wisely.
5) Be Realistic – Don’t overload your team(s) with busywork. Put new systems in place that will enhance productivity.
John invites you to share your questions and comments at [email protected].