The Most Common Failing in Business

The following blog post was originally posted to LinkedIn on 7 April 2015.

During my career I’ve encountered dozens of processes, agreements, work packages, projects and changes that have, for one reason or another, failed. Whilst the contributing factors varied, there was one that has almost always appeared somewhere in the chain of events responsible for the failure. A deficiency in communication.

How often have you discussed with colleagues about “if only someone had mentioned “ or “I can’t believe no one spoke to me about “? Certainly more often than you would have liked I’m guessing.

Communication allows for the sharing of not only facts and information, but also concepts, ideas and philosophies. All have their relevance, time and place to support getting what needs to be done actually actioned on time and in the right way.

Elements of Communication

There are numerous ways to improve communication and I’ll cover a few below, but the first thing to do is to get an idea of what it is that needs to be communicated. Hopefully there’s a why associated with it as well, but as experience tells us, we can’t know everything and so maybe the reason for the communication is simply to see if there are potential benefits in sharing that information.

Once the content has been identified, it’s just a case of the story literally “telling TALES”.

[T] - Type

We take in information via our senses, so some consideration should be given to the type of communication that will be used. This will then help determine the channel(s) to be used. In the majority of cases, text, images and sounds will make up a typical communication. There may be some cases where smell, taste and touch are important to the communication, but in these instances, the format may very well be directly dictated by that.

Give some thought as to how the type of communication will affect the medium. Images are going to rule out audio only calls for example, but can be very useful in quickly communicating something.

[A] - Author/Audience

You need to figure out who needs to be involved in a communication. Who will initiate the content and who will receive and contribute the content? This again will likely have direct impact on the channels used for a communication.

[L] - Location

The author and audience may all sit next to one another. They may work in the same building, campus or city. They could even be spread out across an entire nation, continent or even the entire globe. Each brings with it an obvious variation.

A whiteboard message could work in a single office, whereas a single conference call would be pointless. But this could be flipped around for say a national communication. However neither of these would work on a global scale where timezones have a significant impact.

[E] - Egress

Communications need to be released. Timing can be very important to ensure that everyone communicates content in time for it to be useful and even in a way such that everyone feels they are being involved in a timely manner. Late communication can be just as bad as no communication at all.

[S] - Synchronicity

Communications are of course two way - one way is simply an announcement and that’s not what we’re talking about here. Therefore the back and forth options are important.

Synchronous communication is one where the interaction is real time or as close to as possible. Examples might be a face to face discussion or a phone call.

Asynchronous communications are ones where the response time is completely undetermined. An example could be an e-mail or forum post where the audience and authors pick up and respond to content when they can rather than immediately.

Using the Communication

Once the communication is under way, use it. Seek input. Weigh up any factors that might affect decisions. Then communicate back the results and apply them. This communication back closes the loop and is a way of thanking people for their contributions (of any type) and explains any rationale in how the content has been used, any agreements made and if this generates actions for people it should define them clearly with expectation, time lines and how to communicate completion.

One thing I would warn against is open ended discussion on something that requires action. Set a reasonable deadline for contribution and then summarise and archive it. Only re-open it if a change in circumstances really warrants it. If not some contributors may assume that it is not a high level of consensus that is sought, or even a unanimous agreement.

Author: Stephen Millard
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