blog

Can You Hear Me Now?

Its all-to-often that during meetings, people make numerous decisions and aren’t communicated out. Maybe a new strategic direction was set for a few teams or its time to experiment with agility, we’re going to try OKRs, or a new set of people are being brought on. The decision could be anything, but I guess that one of those probably fits a simple set of criteria.

There was a lot of feedback that people didn’t know this was happening.

When that moment happens, it usually means quite a bit of time needs to be spent clarifying what is actually happening instead of the rumors and speculation. The longer that speculation continues, the more likely it is people begin to act on that speculation. The more they act on speculation, the more likely it is that a new truth permeated the organization.

For a leader, it is tough to recover when that happens. As the saying goes, “You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.”

So, what is a simple way to find out if this is happening and shore up communication gaps? Some of the things we want to be aware of when we try to investigate these things are that as a leader, we have a strange ability to have impacts well outside of what we can predict. So, how we find this out is as important as what we find.

Some things we want to keep in mind is that our investigation needs to be about the process as much as possible. When we go find out where things break down, it is tempting to say that some individual is to blame. Since we’re learning about where communication can be improved, putting people on the defensive is unlikely to improve communication or transparency about it.

I was with a leader the other day, and after discussing several important issues affecting a team, I asked, “How will what we’ve decided here be communicated?” The room went silent. Eventually, the executive in the room said, “I’m not sure how to go about communicating this.”

The room was very comfortable making decisions that would impact dozens of people, but they were stumped when asked about how they’d communicate about those decisions. I find this to be more common than not.

Here’s what I recommend to try for leaders. Before we worry about the quality of our decisions, let’s make sure we know how to communicate throughout our organization what those things are.

What decisions have you made?

Here’s the first step. Think back from today backward. What you’re looking for is any decision that might affect more than ten people. Pay attention to that word might. What I’m after from this step is to become aware of the decisions more than anything else.

A decision to have tacos for lunch doesn’t likely impact more than ten people. A decision to start a new team does.

Find those decisions that have more impact. List them and the date you think you made that decision.

Bisect your org

Ok, fancy words aside looking at the decisions think about how deep into the organization your decision goes. So if you make a decision that impacts the on-the-ground teams we want to know that.

Now, what I want you to do is look at how you thought those people furthest away from you would find out about this decision. It doesn’t matter what happened yet. Just take a minute and write down the groups/people and so on that you thought would communicate this. You may find that you thought you were going to do it. That’s fine.

Many leaders leverage their organizational hierarchy for this. So your reports would then communicate the decision to theirs, and so on.

Once you have that list of hops, we are ready to go.

Yours may look something like this:

Me -> Jane -> Rob & Bill -> Teams 1-10

We are going to choose the one at the end of the chain to start.

Investigate, cut, and repeat

Here’s where how you do this matters a lot. We are about to go to the people furthest away who are expected to know the decisions and find out if they do.

Do not ask a yes or no question like, “Do you know about X?”

That will feel like a test, and you can fail tests.

Instead, open it up a little. “I’m curious what you’ve heard about X.”

That may still put people on guard. You can explain that you’re trying to improve your ability to communicate decisions in the organization, and you’re curious if you’ve been successful making sure people know what decisions you made.

Then listen.

You’re going to hear a lot of rumor and speculation likely. You’ll hear things that originated as that decision but have since morphed and mutated.

If you thought there was one step from you to them, this might be a tough moment for you.

Let’s assume you realize they don’t know the decision. Thank them for their time and give them a chance to ask you some questions.

Pull out that map you made of how you thought communication would flow. Pick the middle spot and repeat. Every time you find a no, go back to the map, pick the middle spot between the next two places, and investigate again.

This approach will help you begin to pinpoint where the breakdown occurs.

Adapt

Now, there is a very high chance that the first time you do this, there will be a very high amount of breakdown. The first place you look to make a change is yourself.

Here’s the riddle to work:

“What did they hear?”

This riddle is different than you recollecting what you think you said. You may remember what you said verbatim, but what people hear in their heads from those words may be entirely different.

So, form a plan about how you’ll adjust your communication. Establish traceability after your change. See what is happening. Leverage your 1:1s throughout the communications chain to shore up and share what you’re finding.

Close the gap by communicating directly.

Close

I spend a lot of time and client’s money closing these gaps. Often I’m brought in because of my expertise in agility. We tend to value high-bandwidth communication, and so much of my time is filling gaps in communication.

The changes some leaders perceive when communication starts becoming effective is night and day. Developing your capability to communicate through your org can relieve months of churn due to miscommunication.