By Stephen R. Balzac
Sept. 1, 2011
“Is the product done?” a certain manager asked during a product review meeting.
“It is done,” replied the engineer building the product.
“Are there any problems?”
“There are problems.”
“What is the problem?”
“It does not work.”
“Why doesn’t it work?”
“It is not done.”
I will spare you the transcription of the subsequent half hour of this not particularly funny comedy routine. The manager and the engineer managed to perform this little dance of talking past one another without ever seeming to realize just how ludicrous it sounded to everyone else in the room. It was rather like Monty Python’s classic Hungarian-English phrasebook sketch, in which translations in either direction are random. In other words, the Hungarian phrase, “I would like to buy a ticket,” might be translated to the English phrase, “My hovercraft is full of eels.”
It was extremely funny when Monty Python performed it. As for the manager and the engineer, well, perhaps they just didn’t have the comedic timing of Python’s John Cleese and Graham Chapman.
As it happens, “my hovercraft is full of eels” moments come about far too often. What was unusual in this situation is that it involved only two people. Usually, considerably more people take part. Thus, instead of a not particularly amusing exchange between two people, there is an extremely frustrating exchange involving several people. The most common failure to communicate is the game of telephone: as the message passes along the line, it becomes increasingly distorted.
What I hear from teams over and over is, “We are communicating! We send email to everyone.” This is where the hovercraft starts to fill with eels. Broadcasting is not really communicating: effective business communications require a certain amount of back and forth, questioning and explaining, before everyone is on the same page.
Who talks to whom? When you send out an email, do questions come back to you? Or do people on the team quietly ask one another to explain what you meant? While it’s comforting to believe that every missive we send out is so carefully crafted as to be completely unambiguous, very few of us write that well. Of that select few, even fewer can do it all the time. Particularly in the early stages of a project, if there are no questions, then there are certainly problems.
When someone else asks a question, either via email or in a meeting, does everyone wait for you to respond? Even worse, does Bob only jump into a thread if Fred jumps in first? Who is Bob responding to at that point, you or Fred? Are you still addressing the main topic or is the hovercraft starting to become eel infested?
It can be extremely frustrating to ask, “Are there any questions?” and receive either dead silence or questions about something trivial. It can easily become tempting to assume that there are no questions and just race full speed ahead. However, until employees figure out how much each person understands about the project and how you will respond to apparently dumb questions, they will be cautious about what they ask. Their curiosity is as much about one another and about you as it is about the project. How that curiosity gets satisfied determines whether you have productive conversations or a hovercraft that is full of eels. In the former case, you get strong employee engagement; in the latter case, you don’t.
If you’ve been working with a team for some months, or longer, and people are still not asking questions then there are really only two possibilities: either your team is composed of professional mind-readers or you are about to find a room full of those pesky eels. No project is ever perfectly defined from the beginning. Questions and debate should be ongoing throughout the development or production cycle. A lack of questions tells you that there is a lack of trust between the team members and between the team members and you. When trust is lacking, so is engagement.
Now some good news: remedying that lack of trust isn’t all that complicated. It does, however, require a certain amount of persistence and patience.
Start by highlighting each person’s role and contribution to the project. Why are they there? What makes them uniquely qualified to fill the role they are in? Be specific and detailed. If you can’t clearly define their roles, you can rest assured that they can’t either. Questions come when people are clear about their roles. Disengagement comes when people are not clear about their roles.
Prime the pump with questions. Demonstrate that you don’t have all the answers and that you need the help of the team to find them. Give each person a chance to play the expert while you ask the dumb questions. When you set the tone, the others will follow. Communications start with the person in charge.
Separate producing answers from evaluating answers. Collect up the possibilities and take a break before you start examining them and making decisions about them. Brainstorming without evaluating allows ideas to build upon one another and apparently unworkable ideas to spark other ideas. Pausing to examine each potential answer as it comes up kills that process.
Encourage different forms of brainstorming: some people are very analytical, some are intuitive, some generate ideas by cracking jokes, others pace, and so on. Choose a venue where people are comfortable and only step in if the creative juices start to run dry or tempers start to get short. In either case, that means you need to take a break. Intense discussions are fine, heated discussions not so much.
Initially, you will have to make all the decisions. That’s fine, but don’t get too comfortable with it. As trust and engagement build, the team will want to become more involved in the decision making process. Invite them in: that demonstration of trust will further build engagement and foster effective communications. Effective communications, in turn, builds trust and engagement.
Having a hovercraft full of eels isn’t the real problem. The real problem is what a hovercraft full of eels tells you about the trust, engagement, and communications in your company.
Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author, and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. Steve is the author of “The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” published by McGraw-Hill, and a contributing author to volume one of “Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play.” For more information, visit www.7stepsahead.com. You can also contact him at[email protected].