Is your team distracted? Get back on track with clear communication and task shedding
A few years back we worked with a terrific sales team. Being millennials, they used live messaging for everything, sharing new leads and information, giving each other encouragement and congratulations—a stream of positive reinforcement and a constant flow of shared information. Yet when they sat back and looked at what was happening, they realized the cost of that interaction may have outweighed the positives. Yes, the new information was coming ‘live’, but was it distracting them from their immediate task? Yes, they were responding to each other and changing their course in real time, but was all the information relevant and clear? And was it thoughtful or reactive, helpful or unnecessary?
Keep communication and minds on mission
There are times for chewing the fat, and teams love them. But not when everyone’s under pressure to perform. When there’s a lot going on, a lot of it uncertain, you can’t afford long rambles and you can't afford short statements that are unclear. Clear, concise statements also help you and those around you to keep focus. Ramble on, and people switch off. No matter how important your message, it won’t be heard. And you may be taking up the time or phone line for more critical stuff.
Everything has to be clear, concise and certain. That’s especially the case when people are tired or under stress. The other challenge is that as much as 80 percent of human communication is nonverbal: the tone, gestures, body position, and facial expressions. That’s the value of a face-to-face meeting, or being in each other’s line of sight when you’re on an operation. So if you don’t have those visual clues, you really need to get the tone and words right, over the phone or on the page.
There are some clear rules that can help keep your communication and minds on mission.
- Work with hard data, not assumptions. When task saturation is hitting you, it’s amazing how an opinion or assumption can morph into a ‘fact’ on which other people’s decisions are based. ‘How long have we got?’ can have only two answers: a number, or, ‘I will find out.’ If Someone then wants your opinion, they’ll ask.
- Your own jargon is OK. What is convenient shorthand within the team may well be jargon outside it, but the team should still use it. Pilots use terms like ‘inbound’ to mean ‘I'm On my way, on time, with no issues’, or ‘tumbleweed’ to mean ‘I have absolutely no situational awareness, and something bad could happen any time soon’, or ‘ballistic’ to mean ‘I am out of control and something bad will happen any time soon—stay away!’ That assumes, of course,that everyone knows what it means: it is part of the team’s language, part of its standards.Technical terms weren’t made up to be vague or confuse people. They are created to describe a specific thing in context, more efficiently than before. In the military, those terms are chosen so that when used in the same situation they don’t sound the same. We reduce the chance of mishearing someone, of making mistakes because of an accent or a crackling line. So, ‘commit/abort’, or ‘affirmative/negative’ rather than ‘yes/no’, which are so short they might be lost in a crackling line.
- Cut the chatter. Fighter pilots support each other by saying only what they have to say, no more, and then get off the radio. That keeps ideas clear and lines free. In business and at home,in most situations, that may come across as abrupt. But remember we’re talking about communication within a team that is focusing on a mission. If you’re on a family road trip and it's time to turn off the highway, just make the call!
- Decide on simple patterns for both one-way and two-way communication. For example, in two-way communication, agree on how to check you’ve made contact, that the other person is listening, and that they have heard you. Pilots aren’t shy in asking for a repeat back’ to make sure the word has got through: not the whole sentence, but a coreword, phrase, or paraphrase. Similarly, agree on a simple structure for one-way communication like emails, if they’re more than one line. Put the point of the email and the desired action at the top, and structure everything else below. If it’s information about an event or process, use your friends ‘who, what, and when’. Set your own rules, whatever they are, and stick to them.
Refocus and shed
It has always taken self-discipline to stay focused through our daily cacophony of personal and work plans, meetings, calls, and emails. That’s even harder now that we have a glued-to-hand smartphone with its world of alerts, distraction, and temptation. So it’s become ever more critical to be able to cut through that task list, and shed whatever you don’t really have to do, now.
Most time-management approaches follow similar themes (and Flex is no exception). We set that out below, but if you prefer your own, go with that. The real difference is with Flex you have wings, there to help keep you focused, shed tasks, and do the tasks you can’t. If you need to, work with your wingman to problem solve how to shed tasks, and how to tap into other resources.
Each day or more often as needed, refocus on what you have to do, and what you can shed. Here is the way we prioritize things:
- Must do. Things that the law, your boss, your standards, or an emergency require you to do. You may not like them, you may rather do other things, but there’s no avoiding these, so best do or delegate them as quickly and as clearly as possible.
- Should do. Your core job. The missions you’re on, that take planning and diligence,and that your performance will be judged on—by you, your family, your boss, or your partners. Plan your days and weeks around these.
- Nice to do. These would definitely be worthwhile in the perfect world, but not at the expense of your core job. Things that contribute to the plans of others, to your learning, to your relationships. Do them by all means, but in gaps that emerge in your core program. The ‘nice to do’s are a real trap
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