Communicating for Change (this works at home too)

Jeffrey presented a case study to his masters-level students in a Human Resources Management class last week. The case was about a complete communication breakdown between two groups of workers in an organization: Engineers and Installers. Engineers sent a Work Order to the Installers telling them how to do a job. The installers did the job, but their work didn’t always match the Work Order – because the “engineers didn’t get it right”. The two groups never talked to each other. “It’s useless,” one man explained. “They don’t know what they’re doing.

The students, being HR-trained, had suggestions about bringing the two groups together and “facilitating” the communication to find out where the gaps are. This was a case I wrote, after working with the two groups. I was pretty sure these guys were not going to sit down together without some clearer understanding of the problem first.

The most successful insights for the students came when they worked on clarifying what – exactly – they wanted to accomplish. Reduction in installation delays and errors? Fewer customer complaints? Better feedback from installers to engineers?

The breakthrough in the real-life example was the same as the one in the classroom: it is important to get clear on what you want before you start communicating. Especially if the situation is tense or uncertain. When you know what you want, you can:

  1. Start with completion to erase some of the issues from the past. In the example, the Installers sent a message – via the Director – to acknowledge that they had not been providing feedback on the Work Order specifications and how they were different from the actual on-site requirements for installation.
  2. Propose a new way of communicating or operating. In the example, the Installers started sending Engineers an “error report” itemizing the differences between what the Work Order said vs. what the actual physical requirements were for installation at the new site.
  3. Talk about whether this feedback is useful and what other changes might improve the results. This is where you have to know what you want! Without a clear measure of success, your communication experiment will likely go nowhere.
  4. Each “side” can ask for specific changes, make promises to operate in new ways, and they can come to an agreement about how to work and communicate going forward. In the example, the two groups worked together to update the Work Order in a way that supported the use of new installation technologies.
  5. Complete the change by acknowledging where things started – the “Before” picture – and where they are now. The idea is to put a finishing touch on the situation in a way that lets everyone see that something has been accomplished.

This works at home too. A friend told me this morning that she had gone through these 5 steps (it’s just the “Four Conversations”, using a Closure Conversation at the beginning and the end) with her mother-in-law. “You’re right about needing to know what you want,” she told me. “I thought I just wanted to express myself, but that wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere. What I really wanted was an end to holiday guesswork and annoyances on both sides. Now we have a new agreement about when and how we will do our holiday get-togethers this year. It’s sort of a miracle!”

2 replies
  1. David Sapper
    David Sapper says:

    Great insights on many fronts…it’s helpful to be aware of the different conversations, we’re having. I especially appreciate your points about getting clear on desired outcomes and the importance of sequencing the conversations.

  2. Laurie Ford
    Laurie Ford says:

    Thanks – Jeffrey and I used this model to create an agreement that we don’t have to “surprise” each other for birthday gifts. We each say what we want and the other one delivers. It works! I get dinner at the Refectory every October. 🙂

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