I was recently reflecting on how crucial communication is both on projects and in organisations generally. I was reminded of a rather frightening experience I had a few years ago, which really illustrates the importance of appropriate communication. At the time, I was working with a global financial services company and was travelling by air to a meeting in Barcelona, Spain.
We were about half way through the two hour journey, and I was alternating between focusing on some work and staring out of the plane window. All of a sudden, and without warning, two things happened:
- The seat-belt signs illuminated
- There was an announcement over the intercom from the pilot, which was announced with incredible and undeniable urgency:
“Would a senior member of the cabin crew report to the flight deck immediately. I repeat: A senior member of the cabin crew to report to the flight deck immediately“.
Passengers were panicking. What could this mean? Was the plane going to fail? Were we losing altitude? Had an engine blown up? Were we going to “ditch” into the sea? My imagination went wild — and I’m sure the same thing happened for other passengers. The cabin was transformed into a cold, quiet waiting room as each passenger tried to make sense of what was going on.
We waited for what seemed like hours. In reality, it was probably only 5 or 10 minutes. Then the tension was temporarily broken when a further announcement came from the intercom:
“This is your Captain speaking. We’re extremely sorry, but due to a technical issue with the plane, we’re unable to land in Barcelona. We’ll be flying back to London and landing at London Gatwick. Sincere apologies”.
Technical difficulty? My mind wandered further. Perhaps I’d watched too many aircraft disaster movies… But we were over half way through the journey. What could possibly go wrong with a plane that means that you can’t land in one airport, but can in another? Would it be an emergency landing? Are there any other risks? What on earth was going on?
Resolving the panic
The tension in the cabin was visible. More time passed. The cabin crew could sense the tension and acted accordingly. They resolved the misunderstanding. Finally, two things happened:
1. Cabin crew came around to answer any questions. The air steward explained to a concerned passenger in front of me that there was no risk at all; it was actually a navigational system that was broken. The decision was taken to fly back to London because that’s where the engineers are based who would fix the faulty navigational unit.
2. The Captain made a further announcement over the intercom to confirm that we’d be making a normal landing (not an emergency landing)
Any misconceptions, panic and “stories” that I had been writing in my head were now resolved and removed. I had understanding, clarity and I could relax again.
What this means for projects and organisations
Project and organisational change can be scary for some stakeholders — particularly if they think they might be negatively impacted. When there’s no communication, people (completely understandably) fill that void with informed guesses, rumour and suggestion. They draw conclusions based on what they can observe (much as I did on the plane as explained above).
However, inadequate communication can be just as damaging. The communication has to be appropriate for the audience whilst also being appropriately timed. When the Captain made the first announcement, he told the passengers about the outcome of the technical difficulty, but didn’t explain what had happened and why. We didn’t need vast amounts of detail, we just needed to know we were safe. Without this confirmation, we’d make our own guess.
In organisations, we can improve communication by:
- Considering the audience: Consider what the audience wants and needs to know. How can we best get this to them at the right time, at the right level of detail. This involves tailoring the message to the audience. Remember: The cabin crew may need more information than the passengers. Think: Tailored Message + Appropriate Media
- Validate understanding: It’s important to consider how to validate that the communication has been understood. It’s crucial that communication doesn’t inadvertently compound existing misunderstanding.
- Ability for feedback and questions: How can the audience communicate their views and questions to you? What mechanisms will you provide?
There are many other helpful practices and questions as well, but these three are crucially important.
To finish the airplane story: I’m pleased to confirm that we landed safely, and I flew to Barcelona a few hours later. However, I try to always keep sight of what this taught me about communication.
I hope you’ve found this article interesting. What are your views and experiences of communication on projects or in organisations? Do you have any tips, tricks or comments? I’d love to hear from you, please go ahead and add a comment below, and if you like my blog, please subscribe.
About the author:
Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analsis can bring.
To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit www.blackmetric.com