Statistics reported by The Standish Group in its CHAOS report always seem to conclude the same thing: Most IT projects are failing. The predominant reason: communication breakdown.

Consider this. Business documents, including reports, proposals and requirements definitions, normally appear in business English and have likely been formally vetted and thoroughly proofed before distribution. But as the documents are prepared and their contents executed, people gather, provide and receive input using the spoken word and their own specific use and interpretation of the English language. It is in these spoken situations where the real risk of misunderstanding is most likely to occur.

This article examines the causes of communication breakdown and offers a solution.

The Analysis

Communication breakdown comes in four flavors. It involves:

  • Use of the English language.
  • Communication mechanics.
  • Personal factors.
  • Workplace factors.

The Use of the English Language

English is said to be one of the most difficult languages to master, yet it predominates in global business. English is known for being highly nuanced, colloquial, synonymous and vague and has many words with a variety of meanings depending on context, the person speaking, the local slang and cultural or regional diversity. Many communication errors happen due to mispronunciation, mistranslation and miscomprehension or misunderstanding of words. And many people are embarrassed to say; “I don’t understand.”

Communication Mechanics

Communication takes place between people, and it’s a two-way street. Both parties are responsible for speaking and listening during a conversation. The one speaking must speak clearly, making the subject lucid and comprehensible to the listening party. He or she is further obligated to make sure the listening party receives the message, using such questions as, do you know what I mean, or is this clear? The other party is responsible for listening, and he or she must allow the speaker the opportunity to express his or her point. The recipient of the message must confirm that he or she understands what has been said, and then ask questions if it’s not clear: Here is what I understand.

Herein lays the first problem of communications — interruptions. In technology terms it’s called “duplexing” — the movement of data packets in two directions simultaneously. Hence, even real life communications is only single-threaded. In other words, it too requires interruption. The speaker who is interrupted often feels cut off, not respected and mentally frustrated. Depending on the speaker’s emotional intelligence, he or she may not handle interruptions well.

Personal Factors

Personal factors such as home life, personal issues and personality traits greatly affect how a person functions in the workplace — either poorly or effectively. Communication style makes its way into the workplace, and, unfortunately, we all bring our personal factors with us to work each day. It’s difficult for the brain to separate the two spaces.

Brain dominance theory has taught us that the left brain is known for logic, sequence, math, analysis and scientific thinking. The right brain is known for language, creativity and the arts. Most people have a dominant side or region. Thus, if they’re communicating with a person with a dominant region different from their own, the two parties tend to have a challenge understanding one another.

If you think of the brain as having quarters, there are two more viewpoints. The front part of the brain is dominated by words and text, the rear of the brain with visuals or pictures. Some people understand things with pictures. If one party is visually oriented and the other is textually oriented, each might have a hard time understanding the other. If a person is right-brain dominated with a text-based preference and the other is left-brain with visuals, misunderstandings can crop up. In a typical fast-paced business setting, where the variables include a mixture of people, personalities, brain dominance, culture and age demographics, communications can be quite complex.

Finally, when you add another major factor — emotions — into the mix, you begin to enter dangerous waters. People’s perceptions of power — who has it and who doesn’t — can have a huge impact on how they communicate. Usually it affects them on a fear basis. Some people may be reluctant to speak up at a meeting if they consider themselves to be lower on the totem pole. They may be intimidated by a powerful business manager who monopolizes the conversation but lacks the depth of knowledge in the details. Sadly, those quiet people may be the most knowledgeable participants on the subject under discussion, but their wisdom is lost.

We are all emotional beings. To be effective communicators, there needs to be more democratic fairness in the dialogue, with all participants given the opportunity to express their views and ideas.

On a side note, I believe hierarchical, one-way communication radiating from the ivory tower of management method is outdated. Today’s workplace of highly educated information workers requires more openness, mutual input, democracy and negotiation in decision-making.

Here’s an example. Management usually has veto power over decisions that affect money or risk. But the facts, figures and logical rationale used to make those decisions add up to a process that requires ample time and dialogue. Many lower status workers with high engineering knowledge need to be consulted. This requires the proper parties to have equal “air time” and democratic input until the time comes when management must make a decision.

Workplace Factors

Everything in relation to productivity boils down to dollars and time. Time is money. Most businesses focus their efforts, human or otherwise, on pursuit of the dollar in fixed time slots such as the month, quarter or year, which has a short-term focus. However, the people running those organizations may have forgotten the importance of the much-needed skill of personal communications and the investment of time that it requires.

Computerizations may handle mundane processes that are high in volume and low on complexity, but the really complex things are done by people, simply because they have intellectual agility or adaptability. Most computer technologies lack the human capability of understanding nuances, such as complexities that are not easily translated into binary digits. Most human rationalizations start from the point of view, “It all depends!” Hence, all business results are directly affected by human intellectualizations, communications and work efforts. This surfaces particularly in the business requirements gathering stage of a project initiation or analysis. If you don’t get the requirements right and you don’t have sufficient input from team members, the project is doomed to fail, whether by metrics of schedule, cost or quality — due to communication breakdown.

The Solution

In the end, management must take responsibility for the outcome of a project or its financial feasibility. That also means management is responsible for the dysfunctional teamwork and communication breakdowns. We must slow down. Also, many team members don’t assume their responsibility, but abdicate risk to their co-workers.

To begin to remedy this dysfunction, the first thing that should be done is to implement an emotional intelligence assessment program of team members. Second, there needs to be a program of coaching and training for those with low scores in emotional intelligence. Third, leaders — such as emotionally intelligent project managers — can be used to resolve disputes among team members. Currently, not many have the authority to hire and fire, so they must resolve the disputes through negotiation. Team members with dysfunctional communications don’t take their leader’s coaching and mentoring seriously.

Also, we need to examine our use of e-mail and learn how to communicate on a face-to-face basis, allowing for the dynamic form of communications to unveil the truth and accuracy in our intentions as we work together as a team.

When management begins to measure project outcomes in terms of long-term profits, deals closed and project success rates and stops focusing on the clock, options and share prices will see improvements in communication and teamwork. Workers are now intelligence workers. Management needs to tap into their intelligence, adding training in the area of emotional intelligence when needed and removing the stress of inappropriate performance metrics. In my 25-year career I have discovered that the most successful projects were the ones where respect for everyone’s point of view enabled mature and open dialogue and trust building to work through the project challenges. Quality takes time. That’s how great companies are built.