Alex Leonov's Blog

How good is internal communication in your company?

The most positive answer I got so far was “sometimes it’s okay”. Most answers range from “bad” to “terrible”.

At the same time, whenever you look at position descriptions, communication skills are required from everyone and everywhere. Where does the mismatch come from?

Y u no understand?

We speak differently during the day. With our team, our guild, people from our role or profession, with our buddies, we speak one language. We get along fine.

The trouble starts when we need to ‘cross over’ to the people in another department, another floor, another team, another line of business. In all these cases, we face language barriers.

language barrier n. [ˈlæŋɡwɪdʒ ˈbærɪə] - absence of communication between people who speak different languages

How can this happen? “We all speak English(Spanish/Chinese/…)!”, you might say. Let me tell you a story.

Long time ago in a galaxy far, far away we were creating a piece of software that had grids in it. One of the requirements was to ‘enable grouping of rows with the same cell values’. Sounds easy? Sure thing - who doesn’t know a typical ‘group by’ interface - a plus sign that expands and collapses on demand. Or so we thought.

It turned out that for our customer ‘grouping’ meant ‘merge cells vertically if they contain the same values’. You can argue that we should have had design mock-ups. But that’s not the point.

We used the same words, and we meant different things.

In the end, we had to re-code the grids.

How is this important?

Imagine a typical service desk. What’s getting measured? Probably, it’s throughput: how many tickets did the team go through and resolve?

Now, stop for a second, and think: what are the customers measuring? The same thing that you measure when the power goes out and you wait for the electrician to turn up. Customers virtually always measure how long they had to wait.

Here you have a team that gets measured. Productivity-focused managers say that the ‘throughput’ is important; customers say that the ‘lead times’ are important. In a situation like this, it’s easy to see where the conflict comes from.

Management wants this team to ‘perform well’ according to the throughput metrics. Also, management wants team to ‘perform well’ in order to satisfy customers. Sounds familiar?

Same words, different meaning.

When the meaning is not shared throughout the organisation, then the value it delivers is in danger.

What happens if such miscommunication is not fixed?

Let me share a story with you. It is about a good change initiative around process automation.

The change was conceived, designed, developed, and put in production. Sadly, most users were reluctant to use the ‘new thing’. Why? Often, ‘automation’ means ‘less manual work’. ‘Less manual work’ morphs into ‘less work’ in people’s heads. ‘Less work’ quickly turns into ‘less jobs’, and everyone is simply afraid to lose their position.

If people were told from the beginning that the company needs to increase the amount of services it provides, and there are no skilled candidates available - and the only good way ahead was to enable existing staff to produce more without working more, then there would be no fear, no problems, and a quick and universal adoption of the change.

Sadly, that wasn’t the case. The initiative was on ‘life support’ for a better part of the year, until people were forced to comply. And nobody was happy.

About this, what do, can we? Unavoidable, language barrier, is?

The answer is in the title of this article: talk.

Communication, especially across boundaries of role, profession, industry, and culture, is a skill. And your skills get better only when you practice.

It’s not easy.

It requires patience, and a will to understand another person. It’s not ‘active listening’, or nodding your head every time a word comes from customer’s mouth.

It’s ‘putting the fish on the table’ and admitting that your senior management team cannot really talk to your middle managers. It’s taking the first step to resolve this issue. Getting external mediators and facilitators, if need be.

It’s encouraging everyone to speak up, and controlling your urges to tell people what to do before they ask you.

It’s building bridges between people’s minds, and lighting the spark of shared understanding throughout the organisation.

So, next time, when you have a miscommunication, look at your counterpart, smile, and say, talk to me!