Guest Post by Malcolm Peart (first posted on CERM ® RISK INSIGHTS – reposted here with permission)
Good communication; the effective and efficient issue and receipt of the right information, by the right parties, at the right time, and in the right medium allowing both timely responses and decisions. It’s easy on paper and in theory but oftentimes the ‘noise’ in the communication channels are blamed for ‘bad’ communication.
This ‘noise’ is attributed to the distractions of an inadequate meeting room, noisy neighbours, a flaky internet connection, black & white rather than colour copies, decentralised teams, and even international time differences. But are these just excuses rather than real reasons?
Communication relies on many types of media in both formal and informal forums. However, in the absence of a decision-making computer, it is human intervention that makes or breaks good communication. Human emotions and reactions in the face of receiving or issuing information and making decisions are unknowns and therein lies a major risk with communication.
In a project situation people make decisions and initiate and react to communication, and communication is at its best in an open and transparent environment. All available information is communicable and optimum decisions and responses to situations may be made.
If all people are working in the best interests of a project rather than, perhaps, their own or their organisation’s commercial interests, then all decisions can be optimal. The transfer of information is effective and efficient and the resultant decisions can be the best possible. However, in the course of the progressive elaboration of a project where more and more people may be engaged, the scope expands, and the likelihood of project risks being realised as time goes by increases, then communication too can, and does become more complex.
Just as ‘good health’ cannot be taken for granted ‘good communication’ requires constant maintenance. Decisions may need to be modified as more complete data and information becomes available. The number of communications’ channels may increase with more views or opinions which can make communication and subsequent decision making more difficult. This then demands more efficient processes and procedures to maintain ‘good communication’.
In an ideal world with openness and transparency we always hope that communication will be good. But if, through the inefficiency and confusion that can occur between project participants, information is available but not communicated this results in mixed messages or mistakes which is, simply, ‘bad communication’.
Project teams should always be aware that bad communication is a major contributor to lack of success and even project failure. Should communication problems be realised then they should be escalated so that they may be addressed and fixed. The person(s) who escalates such problems should not, like the proverbial messenger, be shot for bringing bad news but should listened to.
The diagnosis of bad communication, just like that of poor or declining health, is a shock but can be addressed and, hopefully repaired. If it’s not addressed things will almost certainly get worse but repair of a project procedure and process is always achievable if there is a willingness to fix it and a positive attitude to actually doing it. Avoiding the symptoms of poor communication will, eventually result in bad communication and the health of the project will suffer.
Bad communication is a fact of life and results in poor decisions and causes project problems. But, if there is deliberate issuing of incorrect information, rumourmongering, or withholding information in an attempt to adversely influence decisions, or just plain covering up to protect oneself; this is the ugly.
Ugliness in the sense of communication is about dishonesty and misleading behaviour. Political correctness may label this as being ‘economical with the truth’ but effectively condones ‘terminological exactitudes’ if it is expedient in covering up a sensitive issue. Ugliness is objectionable, offensive and unpleasant and is created in an environment that allows dishonesty and promotes bad communication over good. But ugliness becomes hostile, sinister, reprehensible, and malevolent in an open environment where honesty is expected.
Ugly communication is a result of manipulative behaviour by one or more parties. Although this may be perceived to be in the potential ‘best interests’ of a party it is almost certainly not in the best interests of a project. It is also not ‘in good faith’ which is a cornerstone of many projects and contracts.
Making the Ugly Good
Good communication relies on an open environment and maintenance. If communication goes bad there must firstly be a willingness to recognise that the problem exists and secondly to fix it promptly and properly. An open environment promotes such actions but without such an environment there can be fears of blame resulting in communication breakdown, poor decisions and project failings.
When ugly communication occurs the ethical values of the instigators who knowingly propagate or allow such communication must be questioned and appropriate action taken. Such action, just like communication, should be effective and efficient but also expeditious.
Human frailties, opinions, egos and the fear of failure influence behaviour and theses are a real risk to communication. And just as information is power, controlling communication ethically in a positive environment will result in good communication. But, in a toxic environment of suppression, blame or dishonesty there can be more sinister repercussions which, unfortunately, is an ugly truth.
UK Chartered Engineer & Chartered Geologist with over thirty-five years’ international experience in multicultural environments on large multidisciplinary infrastructure projects including rail, metro, hydro, airports, tunnels, roads and bridges. Skills include project management, contract administration & procurement, and design & construction management skills as Client, Consultant, and Contractor.
Provision of incisive, focused and effective technical and managerial solutions for all project phases; identifying and dealing with troubled projects, and leading project recovery and change through hands-on interaction.