When teams and organizations fall short of expectations, team communication is often cited as a root cause. Communication failures are a phenomenon that I encounter frequently in my work as a trainer and consultant. Recently, I assisted some senior executives in developing a plan. We spent several hours collaborating to produce a well thought out and detailed course of action. Near the end of our session, I asked a simple question, “Have you considered a communication plan to inform the rest of the organization about what you are doing?” The question hit them like a bombshell. Not one of them had considered such an important activity. Communicating planned activities is important to any organization. Yet, as obvious as that need may be, I encounter team after team that fails to include such a critical activity when they plan.
Although communicating outward to inform others is often forgotten, communicating within a team is often taken for granted. In the Information Age, we have a myriad means of instantaneously communicating with each other – e-mail, text, chat functions, VOIP, social media, etc. But, more is often less. In spite of the limitless forms and channels of communication, teams and organizations are still very poor at this fundamental activity. The vast array of communication channels are only an asset to team and organizational communication if they are utilized with discipline.
Why is more less? Well, we humans are a gregarious bunch. Given an opportunity to communicate with others, we will take it. That communication may not always be clear or relevant, but share information we will. Consider the explosion of activity in the social media realm. But, that is only part of the problem. As network theory demonstrates, we are hyper-connected within small groups, organizations and as a global culture on the whole. The more people there are, the more communication connections there may be between those people. In a small group of just two individuals there is a single connection. However, that may be multiplied many times by the different channels of communication that are available. In other words, two close friends or family members may communicate via e-mail, text, telephone, and in face-to-face communication. That’s four possible connections between just two people.
There is a simple formula that computes the number of connections between any given number of people, N(N-1)/2 where ‘N’ is the number of people. Don’t let the math scare you. Let’s say that a team of 7 people needs to communicate with each other. The formula is, then, 7(7-1)/2 or (7 x 6) / 2. That means that a group of seven people have 21 single lines of communication between each other. Now, multiply that result by the different channels that you might use and you can easily see that as the number of people on the team and the available channels of communication increase, the simple act of communication becomes a bewildering and tangled array of connections. For example, if you double the number of people on the team to 14, the number of single-channel connections explodes to 91 which is more than four times more than a team half its size. Is there any wonder why communication may fail in under such circumstances?
Modern military units manage just as many people and perhaps even more channels of communication, yet still manage to communicate effectively. The techniques that military organizations utilize provide an excellent example of good communications because they are practiced with discipline in rapidly changing and often chaotic and dangerous circumstances. How do military units and organizations such as ships, aircraft, and special operations teams do it? They utilize disciplined communication procedures and protocols. Most companies or other non-military organizations do not require the same rigorous communication discipline as I will describe, but the simple techniques that such units use can provide good guidance to improve communications in any organization.
Imagine communications aboard an aircraft carrier that operates 24/7/365 in a combat zone involving the efforts of about 5000 crew members. Before the internet age and e-mail, there were multiple forms of communication aboard such a ship. There were vast telephone system that work just like any hard-line system in a typical office today. There were also radio telephones that were encrypted for secure communications between ships. There were sound-powered phones that functioned even when electrical power was lost. Unsecure ‘walkie talkie’ radios were also used. Now, in the ‘information age’ those forms remain and there are many more thanks to technological advances. But, does such a proliferation of communication channels among so many people negatively impact execution of operations? Of course, even military organizations suffer some of the same communication overload issues as everyone else. But, it is important to recognize that operational effectiveness and mission success do not suffer, while everyday communications are carried out with a much greater degree of clarity and purpose. How is this possible?
Military organizations use some of the following techniques for building high-performance teams:
Hold formal briefings prior to executing a plan. Formal briefs that follow a standard structure provide an opportunity to exchange information in a disciplined manner to the entire team through a single face-to-face channel. Since research demonstrates that as much as 80% of communication is non-verbal, briefings provide the best means of communication. When you get ready to execute, forget technology and take a few minutes to get face-to-face!
Hold Execution Gap (X-Gap)℠ Meetings. Get the team together on a regular basis for 15-30 minutes and address the status of each of the action items in your plan. For things that are falling behind get a succinct explanation of why and address those issues immediately by assigning additional resources and taking new actions. Have those X-Gap meetings face-to face if possible. Otherwise, use online meeting applications so that the team members have as much natural human interaction as possible. Conducting such meetings over a conference call is the least desirable means because attendees can tune out and attempt to multi-task during the call. Multi-tasking and other distractions are the bane of effective communication.
Utilize communication brevity. Military-style communications are short and sweet, especially during dangerous and complex operations. Get to the point. Unless you are providing a detailed report that can be studied when recipients have the time to do so, stick to the facts and clearly outline actions that need to be taken. How many emails do you have in your inbox that you will probably never read because of the time it will take to read them?
Identify purposeful communication channels. How will you communicate emergent or critical information and provoke timely action? Use the quickest and most reliable channels for the most important communication tasks. For most organizations, e-mail is not one of those channels unless the red exclamation mark you can click with your mouse really means it’s an important message and recipients know they need to pay immediate attention to it. There are limitless ways to identify various levels of importance for messages. Use them and nurture a culture where such identifiers are respected and not abused.
These simple techniques can help teams and organizations improve overall communication by getting people face-to-face, reducing the number of connections and channels, and adhering to communication protocols with discipline. The goal is not to increase the amount of team communication, but to reduce the chatter and to better organize your available communication channels. Contact us to learn more about our team building seminars to improve your team communication.
Will Duke is a retired Naval Officer and Master Practitioner of the Flawless Execution methodology. He is the co-author of The Debrief Imperative (Premiere, 2011) and Down Range: A Transitioning Veteran’s Career Guide to Life’s Next Phase (Wiley, 2013).