Chaos reigns in the absence of clear corporate communication

IT’S SAID that sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you. It’s not totally true. Communication, particularly miscommunication, can actually kill you. In March 1977, 583 people perished on the Canary island of Tenerife when a KLM Boeing 747 crashed into a PanAm Boeing 747 on the runway. It was…

IT’S SAID that sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you. It’s not totally true. Communication, particularly miscommunication, can actually kill you.

In March 1977, 583 people perished on the Canary island of Tenerife when a KLM Boeing 747 crashed into a PanAm Boeing 747 on the runway. It was the world’s worst aviation disaster until the twin towers tragedy in Manhattan in September, 2001.

There was fog. The PanAm jumbo was ahead of the KLM flight, but the KLM captain thought the control tower had cleared him for take-off, so he pushed forward the throttles and surged forward down the runway to take off – hitting the Pan Am aircraft in the middle, splitting it apart.

The KLM skipper was the Dutch airline’s most senior captain and their chief pilot – but the crash was mainly his fault. It was all about communication, or in this case, the failure to communicate effectively and the truth is we communicate badly all the time, the only difference is we don’t have the body bags to show for it.

Email is my pet peeve, for the simple reason that for many people the physical act of sending seems to imply that the message has been received, comprehended and will now be actioned. It’s also probably one of the worst enablers of failure-orientated management; a toxic combination of box ticking and passive-aggressive compliance by jobsworths.

Often, it’s weirdly worded into the bargain yet sent with the implicit belief that the message will be understood as if the recipients will do so magically, without the necessary context or technical comprehension.  It’s a highly a highly dangerous assumption to make. As clinical psychologist and executive coach Mark Feitelberg – who also happens to be my friend and former colleague at UCT’s Graduate School of Business always warns: “in the absence of information, fantasy reigns”.

But what about other forms of communication? What about ill-communicated strategies? Strategy, I’m sure you’ll agree, is one of those suitcase words with probably 500 possible meanings depending on the number of people you speak to. Imagine setting out the strategy of your company’s turnaround to your 50 top executives, but 75 interpretations leave the room when you’re finished your presentation? The only guarantee you have is that your company will hit the wall – spectacularly.

So, in a country with 11 very different official languages, at least as many conflicting cultures and a past defined by division and downright distrust, how do we communicate to be understood? Can we even? Yes, to be informative we must be ViSUU – Visual, Shared, Understood, Used.

We start on the premise that information should be visual, because then we all see it the same way. The Japanese have been doing this for years. It’s a fantastic way to simplify complex concepts, which can then be refined by words.

All too often, though we dive straight in with words, immediately ask if everyone understands and then dismiss them afterwards. Because the core concept hasn’t been cemented, who knows how many different interpretations leave the room to further morph through individual fantasies of comprehension? It’s like the children’s game of broken telephone, but on steroids.

Visual communication cuts this right down, using diagrams and pictures, showing consequences and causality right up front.

The second aspect of effective communication is to make sure it’s shared as widely as possible from noticeboards to, yes, emails information must flow, not stick in people’s heads. You need to create a framework of understanding, which you talk about when you meet. The third aspect is to make sure it’s understood, to verify that the information you intended to convey, has been conveyed and comprehended.

You dare not imagine people understand it because you’ve told them once – that’s a classic error of hubris, especially in a society such as ours with its polyphony of tongues and clashing cultures. So far so good, but what if no one acts on the information? Precisely. If nothing happens, it renders all the visual story telling and the sharing and the comprehending totally meaningless.

But here’s the bottom line, who’s responsible for all of this? Simple, you are. If it’s your message, the onus is on you to ensure that the information you are conveying, is comprehensible, is being shared and indeed is being comprehended and then acted on. If you fail to achieve the first three, you can’t enforce the last part – otherwise you’re as bad as those corporate dullards who blithely turn around to you in a meeting and say: “but I sent you an email”.

Years ago, I worked at Outward Bound, taking executives into the wilds of the Lake District where they could hone their leadership and decision-making skills in survival like environments. It was great fun. We would assign a benign, terribly helpful fellow to every syndicate named Tom. One of the syndicate members would invariably ask Tom to take the Land Rover down to the lake and park it. Tom would do just that – parking in the lake.

The syndicate members would be aghast at his stupidity, but Tom was doing what his role required because TOM stood for Totally Obedient Moron and his job was to teach those executives not to fantasize that they’d communicated because they’d said something that they understood in their own mind.

So, you can’t send an email and say “it’s your fault, you didn’t read it,” because the responsibility on understanding is on the communicator not communicatee. If you send it but don’t check that it’s not just been received but also understood then you’re at fault, not the recipient.  You have to positively check, positively confirm.

Finally, none of this is useful unless it is used.  I think we get a dopamine rush sometimes from just standing around a problem and being able to understand and articulate it.  But we live in an activist’s world.  We have to commit to the uncertain path of actions.  This is what truly matters.

Start applying the tenets of ViSUU today: make your communicating Visual, Shared, Understood and Used. When you do there’ll be less buck passing and far more accountability, because you won’t be ticking boxes so no one else will be able to either.

We could all do with a bit more of that during our current communication cacophony.

  • Jon Foster-Pedley is dean and director of Henley Business School Africa: a triple internationally accredited business school; the number 1 business school in the world for the potential to network (Economist 2017); and, the number 1 business alumni school in Africa for executive education (FT 2018), as well as the Number 1 MBA business school in South Africa as rated by corporate SA (PMR.Africa 2018, 2019).

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