Over our 27 years in the field of performance improvement, “communication” is cited more than anything as an obstacle to effective execution. Communication can make or break your business. The challenge with identifying communication as the problem is that it is not a problem – rather it’s a symptom of something else in the business. Here are 5 permutations on the communication issue to illustrate what we mean:
- Direction of communication flow – In your business, does it flow primarily up and down along the functional silos? Or does it cross functions in the same way that customer relationships flow – among the various functions that collaborate to produce product and provide service? Does most of the word flow downward from the top? Do new ideas bubble up from within the business? Why? Do you rely on authority or personal influence in the way people interact in your business?
- The subject of communication – Are problems brought out into the open, or are they swept under the rug? Is communication edited for management consumption, or is there openness in the business to call things as you see them? Some companies have an overabundance of problem identifiers, but far fewer people who talk about solutions. What are your beliefs about who has the “right” answers to the problems? How much are the topics of communication lined up with your business goals? Do you or groups go off on rabbit trails, or do they stay focused on a narrow mission?
- The frequency of communication – If you don’t see people very often, you are likely to select only the major issues for communication focus. In general, more communication is better than less communication. Otherwise, smaller issues can fester until they become bigger – and costlier – to address. Frequent communication also contributes to relationship building among teams, which builds your capacity to perform well in the future. Do you really want to hear what your people are saying? Do you value the work product enough that you are willing to invest
more time in interaction with your team?
- The outcome of communication – When teams express that they waste too much time in meetings it often means that there are not sound processes around decision making, action taking, and accountability for follow-up. Sometimes the point of a meeting is simply to allow individuals the opportunity to ventilate. But more often the point of communication is to affect behavior in some way with the goal of obtaining a positive result.
- The mode of communication – Written communication is one way, even if it has become more and more instantaneous with email and texting in the workplace. One message at a time. Written communication is interpreted as less flexible – more of an announcement – and it can create a sense of command. Companies have cultural norms around what forms of communication are used for what. Often the ease of one-way communication makes it the default mode, but when overused, written communication shuts out negotiation and collaboration. It also loses the elements of nonverbal communication that contribute to better understanding. On what communication channel does your business rely the most – Phone? Email and text? Meetings? Webcasts? Are they serving your purposes to the extent that you need them to?
At its foundation – what do you communicate about, to whom, by what channel, and how often do you do so? Are you achieving the results that you want to achieve? Communication is blocking and tackling in running an organization. The problem is that some people think that it happens automatically and organically. That isn’t the case if you want to manage your communication processes within the context of your strategic intent.