Communication is Hard and Critical

Humans are not innately-great communicators, but we can be better and the success of our projects depend on it. So if we’re not investing in communicating better, we’re not investing in our success.

Words mean different things to different people. Our minds don’t all work the same. We come from different cultures and life experiences. There are layers of differences between us, each one making communication more difficult.

But one thing is common among humans: we are selfish. We see the world from our unique perspective and because of the differences mentioned above, we struggle to understand how information is received by others, or must be received by others, in order to gain alignment.

I don’t know that communication can or should be easy when people first come together. Perhaps it is the difficulty of understanding one another that brings us closer together, allowing us to break through those differences to understand the world more holistically.

What I do know is that it is possible to make communication more effective. It’s possible to become better at getting a team all on the same page and moving in lockstep. It’s also possible to align leadership with the front lines.

1. Align at a High Level
Start by aligning at a high level. All of the companies or teams we’ve seen in disarray are in that state because there isn’t alignment on the basic principles, objective and goals.

No project should start until those are clear. It would be like playing a game of soccer with no lines or goals. Just people running around aimlessly fighting for control of the ball. But to what end?

From leadership, to the front lines, everyone needs to be aligned with the principles that drive decisions, the objective of the mission and the specific goals by which we will determine our progress and success.

Start there and don’t move on until those are clear. How do we make these clear?

We Simplify.
We make them super simple so that everyone involved can understand them, no matter their level within the organization or life experience.

We Use Analogies.
We draw comparisons to commonly understood situations in order to ground everyone in the principles at play.  This helps to define the end result which does not yet exist and, so, may be intangible to some.

We Draw Pictures.
We communicate through senses, using words, pictures or drawings and design (clean and simple decks) so that audible and visual learners are grounded and grasp the key points.

2. Root Out the “Devil in the Details”
Great, we’re agreed on things at a high level. At this point, it’s easy to think we are all on the same page. We are not.

We’ve done our best to clearly communicate, but this is where all those differences mentioned above come into play. This is also where all the known unknowns and unknown-unknowns come into play.

We need to get down into the details, sort through the various unknowns and keep everyone aligned as we weave our way towards a solution one-step-in-the-process at a time. How do we move the project forward while keeping everyone aligned?

Be Specific.
We make words matter. We must choose them carefully and attempt to avoid any confusion over what is meant. For example, “Fast” can mean different things to different people: how fast? Use numbers and examples, as numbers are more specific and leave little to the imagination while examples make the intangible tangible.

Show the Math.
We are transparent with the information uncovered, bring people along through our thinking and progress in order to illustrate how we came to each step and the final solution. We don’t want to be debating answers; we want others to validate and build off of our equation.

Create Tools to Communicate.
We create detailed communication tools designed for everyone involved, the responsible team and those who need to evaluate or use what the team creates. Sometimes these can be a single document; but because we’re diving into the details to show our math, most often this means one document for the immediate team and one document to communicate outwards– taking into account the needs, perspective and level of understanding of others.

3. Map Back
Rooting out the devil in the details is often referred to as being in the weeds. I tend to describe it as urban combat, going from house to house ensuring the city is properly mapped and clear of any danger. It’s easy to get lost, wind up in the wrong neighborhood, get pinned down or distracted.

This is not the fault of those going house to house. The natural tradeoff to being on the ground is that we lose the perspective from above. This is why it’s important to regularly map back to that high-level alignment.

Check Back-Up
There’s a reason the military flies drones over combat zones; and before that technology existed, they used blimps and hot air balloons. People on the ground need a perspective of the forest while making their way through the trees. Just the act of checking back up forces teams to step back, compile data and form a vision greater than their daily point of view. The perspective back down is the second benefit. The alignment between those two perspectives is the third.

Humans only have a 135-degree field of view, seeing less than 38% of the field of play. Add our world view, prejudices, fears and desires to the equation and we’re accurately viewing less than a quarter of what is happening. We need to triangulate our view, relying on the people above, below and next to us to provide an accurate map in order to determine the best path forward.

Start at the Beginning
There is something magical about the moment of conception. There’s a bit of lightening in a bottle that happens. The dots come into focus and become connected. There’s clarity–at least for a moment–because that clarity naturally fades as projects progress and the team wades through the weeds. It’s critical to document that clarity at the start of the project and return to that point of clarity regularly. The lightening might be gone but the clarity should still exist, providing the grounding and re-centering that sent you on the journey to begin with.

Communication is not easy–may never be easy–but we can be better. We must be better. Our project and culture depend on it.

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