#006 - Why clear communication is so critical
Welcome to Issue #006 of The Forcing Function - your guide to delivering the right outcomes for your projects and your users.
🤔 Made me think: Keep focused on the long-term view.
👨💻 Worth checking out: Where "10,000 steps a day" originated from + my favourite pair of casual shoes.
How being a clear communicator is critical to being successful as a business analyst.
In March 1977, blinded by dense fog, KLM 4805 starts its take-off at Los Rodeos airport. 30 seconds later, it collides with Pan Am 1736 - taxiing down the same runway.
In November 1989, speaking off-the-cuff, Günter Schabowski unintentionally accelerates the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In both cases, unclear communication was a major contributing factor.
How miscommunications shaped history
Tenerife Airport Disaster
Of the 644 passengers and crew in the two 747 airliners, 583 died. 45 years on, it remains the deadliest accident in aviation history.
A major cause of the accident was the ambiguous radio communications between the airport control tower and KLM 4085. The tower believed that the plane was holding on the runway and awaiting take-off clearance. KLM 4085 believed that it was cleared for take-off.
Today, air traffic instructions are standardised to minimise misunderstandings. Specifically related to this accident, instructions now:
Must be read back to confirm receipt and recognition - not just acknowledged with "OK".
Limit the use of the phrase "take-off" only when actual clearance is given or revoked - not in any other scenario such as lining up for take-off.
Require the phrase "line up and wait Runway 09" when the aircraft is instructed to enter the runway for departure but take-off clearance is not yet granted.
Fall of the Berlin Wall
When Gorbachev began to introduce social reforms, it galvanised public sentiment for those reforms to go further and faster. To quell discontent in East Germany, the German Democratic Republic decided to relax some of their oppressive border controls. They intended these changes to be minor and to be rolled out in a controlled way.
How Schabowski communicated those changes upended those intentions.
At the end of what was an otherwise routine press conference, Schabowski read out the updated travel rules. Unfortunately, whether by design or by accident, he was unaware of the underlying details. Critically, one of those details was that the changes would only apply from the following day.
So when Schabowski was inevitably asked when the changes applied, he didn't know. Instead, he ad-libbed "Das tritt nach meiner Kenntnis … ist das sofort, unverzüglich. Translated: "As far as I know ... from now, immediately."
Minutes later, East Germans poured towards the Berlin Wall demanding to cross over. The rest is history.
Miscommunication in projects is not unusual
On every project, I'm constantly engaging with multiple stakeholders. They work in different areas, have different viewpoints, and come from different backgrounds.
So it's unsurprising that misunderstanding, misinterpretations, and mix-ups abound.
Communicating precisely is not the same as communicating accurately.
As this simply visual shows, there is a key difference between accuracy (hitting the centre of the target) and precision (hitting the same spot repeatedly).
How does this apply to communication? Below are four statements about today's weather. Let's compare how useful (or not) they are for a stakeholder who wants to know if it's sunny in London.
It's raining in the UK → Neither accurate or precise which is worthless.
It's raining in London → Inaccurate but precise which is misleading.
It's sunny in the UK → Accurate but imprecise which is somewhat helpful.
It's sunny in London → Both accurate and precise which provides the answer they're looking for.
And going back to our two historical examples:
Tenerife Airport Disaster: With the ambiguous radio communications, the instructions and the readbacks were neither accurate nor precise - thus causing the deadly accident.
Fall of the Berlin Wall: With the press conference, the travel rules update was accurate but was imprecise - thus causing the accelerated collapse of this border.
Context matters but accuracy reigns supreme
A constant challenge is communicating with each stakeholder with the right information and the right level of detail. Too often, the emphasis is on fetishising details and adding as much precision as possible. But if you're not accurate, then the level of precision doesn't matter.
A good question to ask yourself is: what serves my audience better - more precision or more accuracy?
"It is better to be approximately right than precisely wrong."
Warren Buffet | Chairman and CEO, Berkshire Hathaway
With that all said, you may now think your goal is to be highly accurate and highly precise all the time. You'd be mistaken. Context matters and you should tailor accordingly.
From their step-by-step process maps, a front-line user needs a high level of accuracy and precision. Whilst a senior executive still needs accuracy but far less precision for their executive summary.
If the process map isn't precise enough, then the front-line user will make mistakes and won't know exactly what to do. If the executive summary is too precise, then it ceases to be a summary and isn't as useful to brief the senior executive.
In both examples, if the process map and the executive summary aren't accurate in the first place, then both are useless to their stakeholder.
Understand your audience. Imprecision can be forgiven. Inaccuracy rarely is.
🤔 Made me think
Keep focused on the long-term view.
One of the tenets of good investing is to avoid reacting impulsively to inevitable market turmoil and uncertainty - both by remaining disciplined and maintaining a long-term perspective.
This has parallels with what you choose to do when your projects hit turbulence, when your plans aren't going to plan, or when your career is going awry.
Choose to stay focused on what matters to your long-term outcome.
“More money has been lost trying to anticipate and protect from corrections than actually in [the corrections] themselves.”
Peter Lynch | Fund Manager, Fidelity Investments
🧑💻Worth checking out
🔗 Do we need to walk 10,000 steps a day? (BBC): After getting Mum a FitBit for her birthday, it was funny to learn that the 10,000 step target comes from a Japanese marketing campaign for a pedometers. It's because the Japanese character for 10,000 (万) looks like someone walking!
👟 Mizzles Wool Runners (Allbirds): A random find in NYC, I've been wearing these shoes for the past 8 months and they are now my favourite pair. Lightweight and comfortable, they also stand up well to the inclement UK weather.
🖖Until next Thursday ...
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For now, thank you so much for reading this week's issue of The Forcing Function and I hope that you have a great day.
PS: Thanks to P for reading drafts of this.