I heard this story told about film director, Cecil B. DeMille. I don’t know if it’s true or untrue, but the story beautifully captures how poor communications delay progress.
Mr. DeMille spared no expense to part the Red Sea for his epic production of The Ten Commandments. Actors, engineers, horses, and assorted other animals were everywhere. The dust, heat, and noise were ferocious. Finally, everyone was ready to go and DeMille called out, “Roll the cameras” and “Action.” After he finished shooting the scene, DeMille called to a cameraman on a high cliff to check on how that part of the filming had gone. The cameraman reportedly yelled back, “Ready when you are, C.B.!”
If the story were true, DeMille should have checked to see if the camera was rolling before shouting “Action.”
You should do the same. Check first to see if your message is received and correctly understood before going into action. Ask people what they heard and what they plan to do, and keep repeating the message in different ways to reinforce your point.
JUST THE FACTS, MA’AM
Seeing and Doing Make for Believing
In the 1980s a top U.S. producer of roofing materials decided to improve its operations. Since it was prohibitively expensive to ship such materials to the United States from Asia, the division president often visited noncompeting plants there to get ideas.
On one trip to Japan, the president discovered something unexpected. While using the same equipment that his company employed, the Japanese manufacturer was able to operate a production line with 8 employees rather than the 30 that the U.S. manufacturer used. The president returned elated by the opportunity to reduce his costs. But when he told his manufacturing chief what he planned to do, the man said, “Baloney!”
So the president took the manufacturing chief to Japan. The man immediately grasped the point, turned to his boss and said, “You’re right!” The two came back and told the company’s plant managers to make the change. The plant managers said, “No, no, you don’t understand what you saw. What you describe is impossible.”
Back to Japan again went the president and the manufacturing chief, along with the plant managers. Soon, the plant managers were floored. They said, “You know, you are right! But the guys at the plants won’t believe it. Let’s make a videotape to show the shift supervisors.”
The documentary was made, and the shift supervisors watched it. “Nonsense,” they said. “It cannot possibly be true. You missed something when you made the video.”
The division president said, “We’ll go to Japan one more time. But on this trip, I’m going to ask the Japanese to let us operate one of their factory lines for two weeks. We’ll man the operating line jobs and see what happens.” Back to Japan they went. The American executives and the supervisors worked on the line for two weeks. Then, and only then, was the division president able to make the change to eight-person lines. In this case, seeing and doing created belief. No amount of talk could make the message credible.
No News Is Not Good News
Some managers are ingenious at conveying a message. Others make no attempt to pass on important ideas and information. While employees do not react well to poorly conveyed messages, they are usually angered by feeling that management doesn’t care enough to even try. Lack of communication is viewed as disrespect.
Other executives try to take the high road and end up at a dead end. These jovial people are so eager to be liked that they try to build relationships by avoiding conflict. Critical problems go unaddressed and organizational results suffer. Employees learn not to trust these glad-handers who put jobs at risk by keeping problems from being discussed.
Overcoming Hostility and Establishing Relationships
Sometimes hostility and competitiveness induce a communications stall, such as during a negotiation involving people who don’t know and trust each other. Changing the ground rules can help. Focus first on getting acquainted, and everyone soon has a sense of what perspective each person brings to the situation. Each person then listens with respect, and progress follows. With a positive atmosphere for communications, organizations work better.
The most successful managers describe how they cannot communicate too much, too often, or in too many ways. Focus on ways to communicate easily, effectively, and efficiently, and you’ll soon discover 2,000 percent solutions bursting out all over.
Build on Success
Using sources such as employee surveys and individual feedback you have received, select a few examples where communications have worked better than usual. Then ask these questions:
Why were these particular communications more effective?
How can these lessons be applied to other communications?
How can the same results be achieved more easily and effectively?
What was missing from the problematic communications?
Focus on Effectiveness: Results Are Where the Rubber Meets the Road
Look more broadly for successful communication models by asking questions such as the following:
Who is or was the most effective communicator you have ever heard?
Why was she or he effective?
What aspects of that effectiveness can you capture for your organization’s communications?
Here is a list of items to consider as key elements for effective communications:
Reduce the number of messages.
Simplify the messages.
Provide powerful experiences along with the messages (like the trip to Japan described in this essay).
Establish many more regular channels and patterns of communications.
Get more feedback on how well the message is being understood.
Increase the frequency of repeating communications.
Compress the frequency into shorter periods of time.
Vary the delivery by using different formats.
Add indications of the message’s significance to underscore your point (yelling “Fire” in a crowded theater in the presence of fire and smoke will quickly empty the room).
Change the leaders’ behavior so that they walk their talk.
Adjust rewards and feedback to emphasize the message.
Have more people spread the message (ideally everyone in the organization spends some time communicating one-on-one – both talking and listening – to everyone else to reinforce the message).
Copyright 2007 Donald W. Mitchell, All Rights Reserved