“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw
I cannot confirm exactly when he said this (I didn’t look all that hard), but Shaw died in 1950, so, it’s been awhile.
What would he think now? Could he possibly have imagined that something so fundamentally true pre-1950 could become exponentially more true by 2014?
So, let’s look at the state of the illusion specifically in organizations:
We are creating too much noise and delivering too little signal. Sending it in an email does not make it communication. Your message has to be valued, read, and understood by the recipient to become communication. Many of us are overwhelmed by bloated inboxes full of irrelevant emails and don’t feel like sorting through it all to find out what is actually important to us. Most of us don’t have time anyway.
“More than half of the email we receive is not a priority to us.”
“We are twice as likely to read unimportant email than important.”
“We tend to reply to the unimportant emails first.”[i]
We are wasting time, energy, and money on poor communication. For many, checking email no longer facilitates our work; it is our work. The ease and expediency of sending an email creates an illusion of easy and expedient communication, but the reality is quite messy. It’s ironic that as initiators of communication we rely on email, and as receivers many of us hate it. Regardless, alternately using and hating it is consuming our workday.
“On average employees spend more than half their workdays receiving and managing information rather than using it to do their jobs; half of surveyed workers also confess they are reaching a breaking point after which they would not be able to accommodate the deluge of data.”[ii]
Poor communication leads to distrust, dissatisfaction, and disengagement. For most organizations, this reality is clear, but effective communication has remained illusory. And, the impact on our employees and partners has been acknowledged across industries. Research on physicians, for example, shows that they are generally distrustful of hospital management, feel uninvolved in decision-making, and are disillusioned with the level of communication they receive. And, the best-practices and strategic recommendations from across the industry start with developing clear and efficient communication channels.[iii]
In sum, communication is critical, but most of us work in a land of illusion.
So, what can we do to improve?
Be intentional: We have to start taking communication seriously and strategically rather than treating it as something that just happens. We should think about the communications element of everything we do and treat it as fundamental to our internal and external operations.
Use the right tools: We need to create and invest in new tools specifically for communication, specifically for our organization. We’ve overwhelmed email. Intranets are stagnant repositories. Social media and social media-ish collaboration tools are noisy and are inundated with messages by a few overactive users – losing their communication value. We can do better if we just concentrate on communication.
Focus on implementation, change: We have communicated so poorly for so long, it has become accepted. So, improving communication is also about changing expectations, processes, information flow, and accountability. It requires focus and effective change management. It requires communication.
I have worked on committees, in communities and in schools, with truly brilliant, intensely motivated, and incredibly creative individuals. And, I’ve watched and felt as all of us over time ended up as less than the sum of our parts, looking around at each other like we are sedated, wondering why we still come to these meetings, like we don’t have something else to do with our time.
And, I simply don’t understand why/how otherwise strong leaders accept becoming members of committees that end up:
Now, I have also sat on some great committees, and it is these positive experiences that really highlighted for me how to make a committee work, so that bringing leaders together can be powerful rather than neutralizing.
So to start, here are a few red flags (sadly from lived experience) that might inspire some critical reflection on your committee work:
Red Flag: When I ask you what you do as an organization, collaborative, or initiative, and you lead with how many committees you have…
Red Flag: When I ask you what your committee does and you tell me when and where it meets…
Red Flag: When I ask you how long you have been on a committee and you can’t really remember…
Red Flag: When I ask you who else is on the committee and you include the people who used to, or only occasionally still, show up to the meetings…
Red Flag: When I ask you what a typical meeting is like and the long, meandering answer you kindly attempt to offer can be summed up by “we talk about stuff”…
Whether you enjoy working through committees, volunteering to serve on them, or you reluctantly have them imposed on you, it’s important to be mindful that they are merely means; they are not ends. A committee is not an outcome. It’s not a product.
A committee is an operational tactic, not a strategy.
So, here are a few thoughts on how to start and end a committee so that it serves its function and doesn’t linger:
The two most successful committees I have been a part of followed these four key recommendations. The ones that have not (and they are many) have ended up lost, without focus, evolved into “standing” committees and, perhaps most humorously, rebranded themselves as “working groups” without making any real process adjustments.
With all there is to accomplish in our schools and communities, we simply cannot afford to let our leadership die in committee.