Thousands of years ago, a Hebrew story was recorded about an ancient building project called the Tower of Babel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tower_of_Babel). As the story goes, people on earth at that time came together to build a tower that would “reach to the heavens”. These people all spoke the same language, communication with each other was easy and the project progressed quickly and successfully. However, as the story goes, God saw that the hearts of the people were filled with pride and he was not pleased so he confused their languages so that no one could communicate with another. The project quickly fell apart and the people scattered around the earth.
So, what does this have to do with business and projects in 2014?
Well, there are quite a few parallels and lessons that can be learned! However, the lesson we will focus on here is the need for leaders to be excellent communicators. In today’s world of mega projects, global business and internet connectivity we have a world that offers unprecedented communication and connectivity opportunities. Yet, this also has resulted in unprecedented complexity as we are now dealing with an exponentially increasing speed and volume of communication through an overwhelming number of communication media.
I was talking with a business leader recently who told me he had 1700 unread emails in his inbox! This is absolutely insane! There is no way any person can function properly in their role with that much noise.
Back when I first started in the oil and gas industry (in the early 1990’s), the use of business to businesses email wasn’t available yet. Some companies had rudimentary internal messaging in place but the vast majority of business was conducted “offline” using “old fashioned” things like phones, faxes and face to face meetings. This meant that the pace of business was slower (and, arguably, more personal).
I can illustrate this with a simple example. Back in 1991 when we were bidding on a project, we would go to the customer’s site and spend time talking with them, they would give us a bid specification, we would gather drawing files and other data and return to the office to put together our bid response. Once that was together, we would print it and usually hand deliver it and meet with them face to face to review and explain our proposal. Many times this entire process took well over 6 weeks to complete for a $1M or less project just due to the fact that nothing was in electronic format or readily available. Because the speed of the bidding process was not extreme, there was ample time to fix things throughout this bid process if team members happened to get misaligned for whatever reason.
By 1993, email and the Internet were starting to explode and our clients began to email us the bid documents along with electronic copies of any drawings or data required. This resulted in significant time savings as trips to site to find information were not required and all the data showed up instantly in our inbox. However, the expectations associated with this increase in speed were also increasing exponentially. We now regularly complete bid responses in 3 or 4 weeks for $100M dollar projects. Or looking at it another way, we prepare a bid response in about half the time for a project 100 times larger and more complex!
In a large bidding effort like this, there is significantly more data to pour through in a much shorter period of time. This means putting many more people on the bid response team, assigning portions of the final document to multiple groups and then integrating everything together into one cohesive proposal before submittal. This is being done amidst an onslaught of emails, instant messages and text messages. Each of these messages potentially containing instructions and data that could make or break the proposal. If someone is tuned out even for a few minutes they could be heading down a path that is impossible to recover from within the tight time constraints of the proposal.
The chances now for a miscommunication that cannot be corrected before the submittal deadline is significantly higher. If there are people on the team that are misaligned in any small way, the chances of failure on the proposal is high . . . And this is just the bid process! We aren’t even looking at the operations of the overall organization!
So, what can we do in our organizations to properly handle this increasing complexity, exploding speed and unprecedented volume?
I believe the key is focused and clear communication and, as leaders, we need to understand the power of communication in our organizations. Focused and clear communication is very powerful and affects our organizations positively. Unfocused and conflicted communication is also very powerful but in a negative way and can inflict a lot of damage on an organization.
In addition to focused and clear communications,we need to ensure that we have clear channels of communication in our organizations that allow the unimpeded flow of information from the top down and from the bottom up. This does not mean that the CEO of an organization should be getting inundated with emails from the cleaning staff or cafeteria crew but it does mean that channels of communication need to be in place so that when the janitorial staff or cafeteria crew have some important feedback that needs to get to the leaders of the organization, that a clear and effective communication channel exists for this. And, similarly, messages from the leadership of the organization must have a clear and unimpeded flow to every area of the organization. Clear and consistent direction for the organization (not just bid teams!) needs to be provided by the leaders at each and every level of the organization and this needs to quickly and clearly filter down to the lowest levels to ensure that everyone is properly aligned.
Without focused and clear communication and clear and unimpeded communication channels, the organization will be at risk of fractured goals, fractured vision and fractured purpose at each level. This will result in everyone focusing on different things, “speaking different languages” and your organization will be at risk of failing as fast and as dramatically as the Tower of Babel