The best leaders and project managers I have seen are those that can differentiate between relevant and irrelevant information quickly, so time is not wasted unnecessarily. It is those individuals, whom through their line of questioning, determine from another person – ‘what is the thing you want?’.
Do not confuse what I am about to say as an excuse for poor stakeholder engagement, or buy-in. This article is geared towards organisations and teams which operate in high tempo environments, experience stressful positions and require streamlined communication in order to survive.
My previous role within the military was one characterised by high and low tempo periods. Due to the nature of high tempo periods, time becomes short to make accurate and well-reasoned decisions often concerning the allocation of resources, and judgements about personnel safety. But what struck me as odd was a phenomenon I can only describe as ‘rambling’. As people got stressed, they felt the need to justify their question prior to asking it. But why would you be saying more when there is significantly less time? – it doesn’t make sense. It only creates more stress. It took me a long time to realise what was happening, but after having reasonable time to deliberate on the phenomenon I think I have figured it out!
As people become stressed they internally perceive the stakes to be higher. In turn, people tend to transition into a self-protection mode (either physically or professionally) – this is seen particularly in the military where individuals are assessed routinely on their technical skills and their ability to operate complex/complicated systems under trying circumstances. As a result, people rearrange the way they ask their questions in such a way that they begin with the justification before asking the question. You might have experienced this before when someone opens with a massive preamble about a problem and all they really wanted was to ask for something simple like a signature for something you already knew about. This is the same issue on a graduating scale.
On one such occasion I was helping run operations in a large scale military exercise. A person (whom I have the highest respect for, particularly their technical ability and their integrity) was ten minutes into a ramble and unbeknownst to them – time from my perspective was very short! I had to ask directly:
“What is the thing that you want?”
They looked at me somewhat shocked as to the bluntness of the question, but I continued,
“If you had to describe in 50 words or less how I can help you best, what would you say? As I have to leave for a meeting.”
Their reply – priceless.
“Can I borrow your computer for a couple of minutes.”
My reply – and a quick pat on the back later.
Our relationship since that time has never been better. There was no massive social blunder, no awkwardness, just professional courtesy. Since that time, it dawned on me – how many hours of other people’s busy lives I have needlessly wasted by asking questions in the wrong way.
In certain circles within Defence, a technique called Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) is utilised. It directly addresses this problem – it formally requires the individual to rearrange their correspondence in such a way that the question is the first line read on the document, brief or presentation.
I seek approval to move item X to area Y?
- The item needs to be serviced
- Replacement items are inbound
- The item will no longer work with system Z which will be introduced in June.
The result is the decision maker is queued towards the problem early, and can actively consider the justifications without getting lost in the data.
Please note, when I refer to direct questioning, I am not implying one has to be rude, or unapproachable – quite the opposite. I am suggesting that a strong team with well rehearsed lines of communication should be able to circumvent the need to talk unnecessarily in times of extremis, or high stress. Team members should be confident in asking questions directly, and leaders should be comfortable in their team members’ abilities. Those teams that can achieve this level of operational ability are routinely the same that outperform their competitors.
Now I am not suggesting that Nirvana can be reached in terms of perfect communication, but I would suggest that there are certain things we can do at our level to improve our communication when it counts the most:
- Think before you communicate – What is it you want? Be prepared to explain why if they ask. Rehearse your question and answer.
- Don’t be afraid to ask the direct question – ‘What is the thing you need from me?’ or ‘Please describe exactly what you see me doing to help you?’
- Train your personnel – Encourage people to be confident enough to ask direct questioning.
- As a leader, be approachable and explain your intent – If you have to ask someone to be direct with their question also explain that you are not being rude and you appreciate direct questioning as it helps you problem solve more efficiently.
- Reinforce the correct behavior.
In my own experience, I have seen this work very effectively. Not just within Defence but across a multitude of different agencies. By cutting out the white noise I think I have significantly improved the way in which I communicate. My team members have also adopted the same line of questioning, to a point where it has become habitual. Give it a try!
We have taken many of these lessons and incorporated them into The Eighth Mile Consulting.
We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.