The Human Factor

The Human Factor

We all know the tragic story of the Boeing 737 Max. The fleet is grounded since the crashes that revealed faults in the way pilots had to react to a particular emergency. Boeing had assumed certain responses and timings which turned out to be wrong in practice. How was that possible given the heavy responsibility to ensure safety above all other criteria for getting an aircraft licensed?

It was possible for a very simple reason. What seems obvious to you may not be obvious to me. You see it everywhere. Legislation that is badly drafted, computer instructions that are incomprehensible to customers. I once even saw a policeman apparently wave traffic on in both directions at a crossing in New York. He fled the scene as cars crashed into each other at speed.

Most misunderstandings are fairly harmless. Inevitably some are disastrous. How can we check the way people are going to read or hear what we say correctly? First, what is their normal language? If different from the one they are using for a certain communication, how does it sound to them? In noisy surroundings, how can you check what they’ve heard? More strikes are started in factories by noise causing misunderstanding when a supervisor shouts at an employee to get his attention. The employee thinks he is being publicly reprimanded.

Obviously the best way to confirm communication is to get the other party to repeat it. Ask them to tell you what it means, not simply to repeat it. If a mechanical instruction is involved, demonstrate first then let them do it to show you they know how. It is important that they do this in such a way that shows they understand why as well. Knowing why you do something is as important as knowing what you do. All this is well known in management communications but scantily observed. Boss after boss gives instructions that are not understood and so not executed.

Today’s communication problems are exacerbated by the welter of them reaching us. Many people have shut down receiving emails because they simply can’t keep up with the incoming flood. The amount of information reaching me by one medium or another is today probably 1,000 times the amount I received in 1951 when I started work in London. Small wonder that we misunderstand some of it and do the wrong thing with it.

Even the aids we rely on to help us cope can be a cause of trouble. We all know of the spell check that converts a perfectly sensible word into gobbledegook. Maybe Directors of a company know what they’re reading about in their annual reports. To the average investor they can mean nothing. Missives from Banks are especially incomprehensible – to the point where I have heard people suggest that is what they mean them to be.

Mostly the consequences of these errors are little more than a waste of time for the consumer. But for companies dealing with nuclear plants, medical drugs, technology using algorithms and robots, they can be disastrous. At each step of the way a human being has to read, understand and obey an instruction. Given the rightly required diversity in business the scope for error is greater than ever.

The essence of good communication is that it is as short as possible. Lawyers can turn a simple instruction into a page of meaningless caveats. When they do, we should always have the human version of the communication. Here’s a good test of what you are saying. Ask a teenager to tell you what it means. Teenagers are at a stage when misunderstanding is part of their makeup. Very little of that is intentional. If a teenager understands you, you are home and dry.

Here’s another tip to improve what you have to say. Look into a mirror and, without reading from a script, say what you want the other person to comprehend. Better still, do a selfie video of yourself saying it. If the result is not understandable or seems odd, repeat the exercise until it is totally clear. Put a link to the video on YOUTUBE so people can see what you want to say. You’ll build a small but dedicated fan club that way too.

Interesting that mass media advertising was the first thing that demanded excellent, clear communications and today Social Media make exactly the same demands.

Personally, I don’t think they are as good at it today as they were then.

But, clearly, I am biased.