Root causes of poor communication have little to do with ‘communicating’

I have been coaching a client through a particularly sensitive piece of communication this week, which has highlighted some insights that I thought might help you also.
This case highlights how delivering communication is the easy part, while the strategy and problem solving that drives the right messaging can be hugely challenging. 
​​Let me unpack the situation for you as well as our solution.

The situation was politically fraught

Clive is a consultant helping solve a range of productivity problems in a large organisation. 
He is a gun problem solver and regularly called in to help leaders solve difficult problems.
This one was highly sensitive: he had a tough message to deliver just before performance evaluation and bonus time.
To add to that, his ‘client' was two people with conflicting agendas: a Chief of Staff who needed a team's performance to improve and the team manager who was the cause of the problem but who would need to be positively engaged in the solution.
And, of course, it all had to be sorted yesterday.
Ultimately, the message was that the team manager needed to lift his game so that the team could deliver critical work on time. 
The team needed greater clarity around resourcing, work allocation and priorities.
So, what to do? Here is how we tackled it.

The solution required a mix of skills We used a mix of clarity, care and discipline to craft a proactive and constructive message that left nobody in doubt that improvement was needed. 
We first got absolute clarity on the message that needed to be conveyed, even if we were not going to deliver it ‘straight up' and blunt. The ‘blunt' story was deductive and looked like this:
The team needs stronger leadership if it is to start delivering
  • The team isn't delivering because they have allowed themselves to be over run by un-prioritised and unstructured demands
  • However, the leader needs to step up so the team can take control of their priorities and their time
  • Therefore, we recommend helping the leader step up
CareWe thought carefully about the issues facing all players:
  • How to act with integrity as a consultant aiming to add real value?
  • How to respect the Chief of Staff's situation: she needed the team's performance to turn around pronto.
  • How to deliver a tough message in a way that maintains the relationship with the team lead so they are willing to step up?

Discipline: We held firm to storylining principles so we delivered a constructive recommendation that kept the team leader onside.
  • Focused on what was happening rather than the person causing it (it was tempting to rant!)
  • Offered solutions rather than labouring problems
  • Made sure the story structure was tight so that our reasoning was compelling while also being kind.
Here is what the story looked like after we finished:
Changing the operational approach will enable the team to manage conflicting demands and deliver on its priorities more easily.
  • Three conflicting and chaotic work stream makes it very difficult for the team to deliver critical work on time
    • Open-ended demands from SMEs and the GM make both planning and execution difficult
    • Unstructured demands without upstream prioritisation makes prioritisation very challenging
  • However, changing the team's operational approach will give greater control
    • Clarifying upstream priorities before allocating work to the team will reduce distractions
    • Embedding a specialist in each major project will improve resourcing and focus
    • Coaching the team so they can better understand Agile ways of working will help the team plan and deliver
  • Therefore, we recommend changing operational approach
    • Embed a specialist in each major project
    • Segment responsibility: one deliverable, one owner
    • Rationalise governance participation
    • Coach the team on best Agile practices at key milestones of each project
    • Coordinate with Agile ways of working

Putting the ideas on the paper and having the conversation were the easy part. 

Solving the people and business aspects of the issue was much harder!

PS In case you are not familiar with the term ‘Agile‘, it refers to a popular project management approach.
Davina Stanley is Managing Director of Clarity Thought Partners, and founder of The Clarity First Program. She and her business partner Gerard Castles collaborated to write the The So What Strategy which offers a simple strategy for communicating clearly as well as the seven most commonly used storyline patterns in business.