George Bernard Shaw is commonly quoted:
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
PM Alliance published in their article, Communication Challenges of Cross-Functional Project Team that functional groups inherently perform with their common workflows realizing that they have not been practicing a healthy know-how of partnering with their counterpart groups. Why is this struggle a concern for Project Managers and Executive Stakeholders? As an experienced mobile telephony network engineer, configuring equipment for data and voice for Signaling System 7 (SS7) has offered a unique insight into the problems with the exchange of information. The human connection is frequently thwarted by assumptions, the fear of asking questions, and the lack of talent that can interpret the needs that are passionate concerns for all of the involved parties. How are computers related to the problems of human conversations with assumptions?
In a recent blog by dbhurley, The Danger of Assumptions, the author shared the pitfalls and how they can be particularly damaging to a community. It was interesting that their choice in prose was ‘open source’. The author shared their opinion that assumptions are frequently based on false information or misunderstandings that cultivate a cultural environment that harms reputations, generates resentments, and damages the image of the group. Although I do not know the author, this blogger struck an intrinsic chord with my question of why people seem to conclude that their presumptions are true. Is it nature that creates the tendency for us humans to be overconfident with our beliefs? Or is it a matter of our conditioning with the nurturing, or lack of, in our communities? In Computer Engineering we are taught that communication payloads are encapsulated packets and it travels through the OSI model. The journey of the packets through the network involves attaching and stripping language information so every layer knows what its role needs to be with the payload. There are no assumptions and any information that is not clear can be tossed as garbage. I believe that we should be looking at computer systems to understand how we can communicate to try to avoid assumptions. If we’re so good at building computer systems with this complex and detailed strategy for their relationships, how can we model our communication style to know what questions to ask to validate what we think we know and what we heard?
Without a clear path for the flow of information, sub-teams find it’s difficult to keep track of where their data has traveled and how they can go about keeping it current. In addition, if communications aren’t centrally managed or if stakeholders don’t feel the channels are working the way they should, they might begin to forward messages as they see fit. Obsolete information could end up almost anywhere, as could sensitive data that really shouldn’t be released until more scrutiny has been applied to the distribution list. Without a minimum of one designated contact person in each sub-team, this issue creates ongoing challenges as some groups are left to rely on inaccurate or outdated information.
In the Network Operation Center environment, while responding to critical alarms and outages, questions are vital. Targeted questions are crucial for mean time to repair efforts and frivolity is frowned on during the demands for fault analysis. Having performed in a fault analysis role, it was also our responsibility to collect metrics information to determine our mean time to respond to assess how long it took for us to get to the root cause. The phones would ring incessantly with requests for a status update from several cross functional groups. This activity can be frustrating when the network engineer is trying to dig into the cause of the problem because now they are too busy answering the phones to reply to the communication demands. I view this similar to network bandwidth trouble. Instead of, “What’s the status update for this outage,” we would have appreciated questions like:
- We know this just happened and you must be slammed, who would be the best person or group to call for our update reports for upper management?
- Have you isolated the problem and is there anything we can do to help you?
- Is there anything you need from us to help expedite the mean time to repair?
- Can we find your updates in the trouble ticket that has been opened for this problem so we don’t have to call you?
The communication storm escalates while the demands are made waiting for acknowledgments and replies from the resources responsible for isolating the trouble. The network engineers assume that the calling parties do not understand that their calls are impeding their investigative progress. Tempers flare and sometimes shouting ensues and sometimes it is assumed that the frustrations are insubordination or refusal to cooperate requiring upper management involvement to resolve the dialog conflict. You may be asking why there wasn’t a single point of contact? If you are, that’s a great question. Who should the point of contact be?
The illusory impression that clear communication took place was based on the assumption that the person they were speaking to was the proper point of contact. It was perceived that the network engineer was the right person when a Jack of All Trades would have been beneficial to field the calls for the team. That dedicated resource could also be responsible for keeping an eye on the update minutes to validate that the trouble ticket contains the right information that offers detailed information on the findings as the investigation progressed. The Jack of All Trades could interpret the data and summarize the information for cross-functional teams in the language they speak. For myself, as a Jack of All Trades and master of some, this is the benefit of my diversified talent as a result of several roles. There are few who can translate systems in various languages that multiple stakeholders understand. It is my belief that talent acquisition groups will find gold nuggets or diamonds with these types of talented resources. They are the codec. They are the language interpreters from executive stakeholders to field operations and they almost always know the right questions to ask and willing to avoid making assumptions.