Organizational Miscommunication? There‚Äôs a Good Way to Avoid It.

It’s all too easy for team members to misunderstand something. Effective leaders know the value of the “pre-brief.”

In a 1993 survey of 531 companies that had undergone major restructuring, the study’s authors asked the firms’ CEOs this question: If you could go back and change one thing, what would it be? The CEOs’ most frequent response? “The way I communicated with my employees.”

Having worked with senior executives not only in the private and nonprofit sectors but also across all levels of government, I’ve been struck by the number of public-sector leaders who are just as frustrated as those CEOs were because their messages don’t seem to stick. Here’s a stunning example:

On Jan. 13, 1975, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team played Davidson. Terry Holland was in his first season as Virginia’s coach. He had been Davidson’s coach until the year before, so he knew the opponent well. With one minute to play and the score tied, Virginia had the ball and Holland called time out. He outlined the play: UVa would hold on to the ball until the last 10 seconds (there was no shot clock then), and the point guard would pass the ball to Dan Bonner, the team’s captain.

But when 10 seconds remained, the point guard took a shot! He missed. Bonner got the rebound and scored as time ran out. But rather than celebrate, Bonner was furious. He grabbed the guard and yelled, “What the hell were you thinking?” The guard replied, “I was supposed to take the last shot!”

The play that Holland had given the team wasn’t complicated. Everyone else knew Bonner was supposed to shoot. But that’s not what the point guard heard (or, perhaps, wanted to hear).

There are multiple explanations for why the point guard didn’t follow the plan. Players were excited, running on adrenalin; the crowd was screaming; the point guard had been called on to take the last shot in some previous games. What could Coach Holland have done to prevent the mistake? What if, during the time out, he had asked each player to briefly state what he was supposed to do during the final minute of the game? Would that have seemed childish? A good idea? Waste of time? In fact, some of the most effective managers do just that in their own organizations.

Here’s an example. In some law-enforcement agencies before a major activity — say, a raid on a drug den — the team meets to conduct what I call a “pre-brief” (some call this a “brief-back”) to review the plan just before executing it. Each team member states where they’ll be, at what time, to take what action. Sometimes they include what’s going to happen just before they act. The exercise might take no more than two or three minutes. And it offers many benefits:

  • The team leader learns if anyone is confused.
  • It reminds everyone of their colleagues’ roles, which is critical if someone makes a mistake during the activity and others have to cover for them.
  • Team members can also review their Plan B — what they will do if something goes awry.
  • It’s action-oriented, and gets people warmed up for the task.
  • It increases accountability.
  • And the team can determine if there are any remaining issues before starting.

This short, simple and powerful exercise can be used in many settings. Some IT units use it when deploying a new piece of software. It can help conference planning teams the day before the event begins. And many managers use a variation of the pre-brief on Monday mornings. They hold a “stand-up meeting,” at which their direct reports review key events from the previous week and the major tasks for the current week. At a good stand-up meeting, the leader also asks if anyone needs some assistance for any important tasks. A pre-brief is similar in its focus on action, roles and accountability. It differs in that it focuses entirely on an immediate task at hand.

Managers and leaders who use their own version of a pre-brief know a fundamental reality about organizational communications: Many people don’t hear things accurately the first time. People may think they do, but there’s often a gap between what was said and what people heard. And that’s especially true during major organizational changes.

Pre-briefs can go a long way toward eliminating that problem. They can help you know whether what you said and what your team members heard is the same, and enable you to take immediate action when there’s a gap. Leading organizations in today’s turbulent environment is complex and challenging. Nothing is more critical than getting the communications right.

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