Managing geographically dispersed teams
By Nick Brook
What’s all the fuss about?
Why does communication stubbornly rank as a major concern of organisations that has cared to give it thought? Sources suggest it contributes to anywhere between a fifth and a third of project failures. If anyone still doubts the consequences of poor comms, example abound. Some incurred severe loss of life while others were expensive and just plain embarrassing.
“NASA lost a $125 million Mars orbiter because a Lockheed Martin engineering team used imperial units of measurement while the agency’s team used the more conventional metric system for a key spacecraft operation”
So suffice it to say, it’s a problem that persists.
Now, take this perennial problem and multiply it. We live in an age of the global economy and rapidly developing technology. While email, teleconference and video conference make comms convenient, it often feels unsatisfactory. Progress means we manage work across time zones, cultures and languages and we are ever more constrained from face-to-face and suffer interaction. What has been gained in efficiency is often felt to have been lost in effectiveness.
Shannon and Weaver decomposed the problem into three levels. This assists us in determining optimal solutions for our particular circumstances.
Level A (the technical problem)relates to the technology and how accurately can a message be given.
Level B (the semantics problem) relates to the medium and how precisely the message conveys the meaning.
Level C (the effectiveness problem) relates to the personal connection and how effectivelythe message influences the conduct of the recipient.
Shannon and Weaver also created a famous communication model , which we will discuss later. Now let us consider how we communicate.
Back to basics
So is the answer to increase the traffic of ever more complex emails?
Generally speaking, we should consider the mediums of ‘spoken word’, ‘written word’, ‘gestures and touch’ and ‘broadcasting’ (both spoken and written). A guiding principle is that these should be considered in combination.
Too much email is a common complaint but email can be used to excellent effect when used alongside other mediums. It is useful to think of all these mediums in terms of the Shannon and
Weaver’s levels (technical, semantics and effectiveness). Each medium has its particular pros and cons.
For example, an email may convey the message with excellent accuracy and precision. However, alone it may not influence the recipient to achieve the desired outcome. Conversely, a face-to-face conversation (without supplementary information) on a complex subject may be very convincing. The message may be imperfectly and only partially conveyed with details subsequently forgotten by the recipient. This is magnified by the obstacles of distance, language and culture.
Of these mediums, broadcasting is a good way of going through the motions of communication. That is, communicating without ensuring an understanding of the message by the recipient. Good communication imbues confidence, both in the recipient and sender.
This takes us to the next thing we should consider.
Feedback is the breakfast of champions
Communication is effected by a barriers, either singularly or in combination. The common barriers are as follows:
- Inappropriate medium;
- Assumptions and misconceptions;
- Language differences;
- Cultural differences;
- Poor listening skills;
- Use of jargon.
You may already have an inkling that Feedback is an important principle. In this context, it is used to overcome these barriers.
Exacerbating each of these are the constraints of time. This pushes us to send those ‘fire and forget’ emails, in essence broadcasting our message without eliciting a meaningful response. Allocating time within a pressing schedule and with other logistical constraints is not easy. This makes the efficiency of our comms paramount.
And annoyingly, even when you can actually see the message recipient, gestures can confuse or even offend. Shaking your head means “yes” in both Greece and Bulgaria and signifying two with first and forefinger by the unknowing in the UK has a good chance of raising eyebrows if not outright offence.
Shannon and Weaver modelled communication into four parts; that of Sender, Medium, Receiver and Feedback. Each of these barriers has the potential to interfere with the message in either, how it is conveyed (encoded), how it travels in the channel between sender and receiver (medium) or in how the receiver interprets what they have been told (decoded). Of course, the feedback has the potential to suffer in the very same way and so several iterative cycles may be necessary to convey the message entirely and with confidence.
Communicating to such an audience will require the provision of a high level of context to make up for the lack of relationship and allow situational awareness in decision making. Gaining a rapport over successive interactions is a tenet of such communication. There can often be trust related barriers to those perceived as ‘outsiders’ which certainly does not improve the situation. Also, the roles, responsibilities and lines of communication of the organisation may not obvious or even logical. We should ensure that the decision makers or those with sufficient status to communicate the outcomes are present.
In contrast, low-context cultures are akin that of the UK and typified by the following:
Knowledge and processes are more likely to follow systematic and accepted rules and can be transferrable.
Sequential thinking in terms of the treatment of time, activities, space and relationships.
More interpersonal connections of shorter duration.
Task-centred with ordered organisations with defined responsibilities.
It must also be noted that the treatment of time varies amongst cultures. Arriving early is both a convention and a sign of disrespect, depending upon in which part of the world you are. The latter is a sure sign of a synchronic culture, where a schedule is merely a guideline and the task is more important. Understanding of this will certainly prevent future misunderstandings.
The spoken word
Verbal communication can often suffer especially from barriers. Exact phrasing of what is said is often quickly lost to memory and thus the opportunity to reflect is diminished. It also puts into sharp relief the challenges of language ability and cultural differences.
It is important to structure the discussion logically and make a good introduction. Meetings should have good agendas that allow the attendees to prepare adequately as does allowing prior access to presentation slides and material. Using diagrams and the written word alongside verbal comms allows the recipient to read and reflect in their own time. However, sufficient time must be given to allow both verbal and written communication to be digested before moving on.
The level of detail should be balanced with clarity. It is essential that the message is conveyed slowly enough to be understood. Furthermore, it helps to present individual themes in short sentences as if writing bullet points with each theme tested for understanding before moving onto the next. You should also be conscious of your own accents and avoid colloquialisms.
Explaining the ‘why’ as well as the ‘what’ is important and especially in high-context cultures. Overall, be confident and strike the appropriate tone.
Feedback of the message is sometimes difficult to elicit. Engaging in ‘active listening’ encourages feedback. Reflecting is the rephrasing of the others message, focussing on aspects that were vague or unclear to give the opportunity for it to be reiterated. Clarifying is where an understanding is sought on selected themes within the overall message.
There are other aspects that should be considered that relate to avoiding ambiguity. At the very least, we should identify where effort should be directed in terms of eliciting feedback.
Differentiate responses relating to understanding, agreement and disagreement. For example, nodding may indicate understanding rather than agreement and do not take silence is the same as agreement.
Consider how ‘maybe’ can be interpreted.
Be aware that phrasing will be taken literally. For example, asking if delegates at a presentation are happy with its content may misinterpret that this is a question of general well-being.
Words and phrases do not always translate exactly and may be used differently in your audience’s native tongue.
I try to understand my audience and do not assume that good English equates with an understanding of the idiosyncrasies of the British’s use of the language. I usually take the opportunity to gauge understanding as early as possible and discussing commonly used phrases and their origins makes good small talk. It must also be appreciated that saying ‘no’ in some cultures is not as straightforward as you may think. Silence is not always the same as agreement. In some cultures, making a cogent argument and making a decision in the same meeting is unrealistic.
We may want to split a meeting into two for the purposes of ‘informing stakeholder’ and ‘gaining agreement’. Complex themes can be decomposed into smaller messages and communicated separately. This encourages incremental understanding and agreement but also feedback. I often arrange bite-sized themes within a message into bullet points. While not winning prizes for my prose, it is logical and understandable.
The use of translators is a must where language skills are low or mixed. Allowing spaces for translations and native language discussions greatly helps a collective understanding and thus ferment agreement. The use of a translator should be directed for especially complex or important discussion points.
Finally, I will reiterate, be sure of understanding and agreement. If unsure, seek clarification until there is no doubt.
Much of what holds true for verbal communication is equally as valid for the written form. Reports should consider the structure and include introductions and executive summaries. As with verbal comms, the target audience needs to be considered as should the way it is presented with thought given to simplicity and format. The content needs consistency of terminology and with abbreviations and acronyms properly explained.
Other top tips include:
The use of full sentences with thought to simplifying them as far as is possible.
Consideration of active voice over passive voice where possible.
The careful use of noun strings, i.e. “developing procedures to protect the safety of workers in construction” over “construction worker safety protection procedures development”.
Avoiding the use of ‘and’ and ‘or’ in conjunction, i.e. and/or.
Avoiding words with ambiguous or dual meanings.
Choosing the simplest verb forms.
Employing indicative mood.
Nominalisation of verbs to vary writing and make concise and formal.
Failure to consider this adequately has two main consequences. The first is that you do not gather together all or any of your required audience. The second is that your audience is insufficiently attentive or else the message is conveyed hurriedly. Time must be taken to ensure comprehension and ensure you have confidence in the outcomes.
Video conferences are evidently preferable to teleconferences as it allows a degree of feedback through body language. However, video conference suites may be at a premium and have limited availability across the recipients. Running a video conference with the sound turned down for those that have the facilities with all on teleconference in parallel, can be an effective compromise.
Personal computer based video messaging services is practical and convenient for relatively small numbers of attendees. All will need to have access to compatible software platforms.
The number of video conference facilities needs to take account of peak demand. Time zone differences tend to load all meetings into early mornings or late afternoons. This also limits the opportunity for verbal communication and it only becomes worse if time zones are split. For instance, 11am may be chosen to allow a joint UK/US/Japan meeting. This results in some attendees in their pyjamas at an unsocial hour while other attendees are working into the evening.
What are your general goals in effective communication? This very much depends on the setting and your particular role. I personally use comms to manage expectations while at the same time aiming to improve general consistency, timeliness and productivity. In summary the following are perhaps the most import elements to consider:
Be aware of the blockers to communication that are most pertinent to your circumstances. These can be both in terms of barriers and logistics and sufficient time should be set aside for the best results.
Ensure there is clarity of purpose in the message and that this is reconciled with the blockers to communication you are overcoming. It may be necessary to split up the wider objectives.
Using a combination of complementing spoken and written comms to ensure sufficient accuracy, precision and effectiveness.
Structure the message logically in whatever medium and consider the 8 “C”s.
Recognise cultural differences and tailor the style and etiquette appropriately.
Ensure the language and grammar is both correct and appropriate to the audience. Avoid the use of metaphors and colloquialisms. Remember that what is obvious to you may not be to even to an accomplished non-native speaker. If in doubt, simplicity is always best.
Include contextual information and the use of examples and redundancy to give more than one point of reference within the message.
Feedback is vital and should be given and encouraged in others. Specifically, use active listening as the recipient and encourage it as the communicator.
Overall how well you have communicated can be difficult to gauge. However, quickly and confidently converging on a common understanding is usually a good indicator.
Please let me know of your experiences and of what you think of this article.
About the author
Nick is a project engineering manager with over 20 years’ experience across a wide range of industry domains. When not trying to get his message across he spends his free time with his family and tinkering with anything from Land Rovers to Linux.
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