THINKING, NOT PROCESS
Let’s communicate like it’s a way of thinking, not a process
I love a good map. What pilot doesn’t?
When I read Tolkien as a boy, I spent a lot of time poring over his maps of Middle Earth. But not as much time as I spent reading his tales. While the maps had a certain beauty to them, they only made sense with the story.
We also love maps in Defence. We develop charts, road maps and functional flow diagrams to convey our plans, strategies and requirements. We use maps to communicate.
For example, the First Principle Review’s 76 recommendations include numerous references to road maps, plans and models. While making no mention of communication or relationships, the recommendations feature the words “process” and “function” eleven times each.
But organisation charts, models and process flows are poor ways to communicate. Like Tolkien’s landscapes, they make no sense without the overarching story. They do not inspire us or move us to action.
In Defence and industry, we treat communicating with others as a process. But effective communication connects with individuals as humans. It is person-to-person. It reflects passion, conveys emotion and demonstrates empathy.
Communicating with connection requires a way of thinking, not a process.
Here are some process-oriented ways we commonly communicate in Defence and industry that we should stop.
Stop communicating through PowerPoint
“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” US Secretary of Defense General James N. Mattis said in 2010.
PowerPoint was designed to be a visual aid for business presentations, and for this it can be powerful. Graphics and charts simplify and illustrate data. Memorable images amplify messages.
But the presentation slide evolved from a visual aid to a store of everything the speaker says and wishes they said. We still go to Defence conferences to find someone reading off their slides of eight 10-word bullet points.
This replacement of detailed notes is PowerPoint’s most insidious use. Particularly in industry, it is our favoured application for the preparation and sharing of briefs. Instead of being an assistant to the presentation, the chart deck acts as a read-ahead and a record.
Our use of presentation slides as briefs leads to over-simplification, as we try to squeeze our analysis into bullet points of incomplete sentences. By dividing the text into discrete pages of fixed dimensions, we break the flow of our argument.
Presenting briefs this way harms our ability to identify our key messages and express them clearly. The brief becomes a set of blocks which fit together imperfectly, instead of a story.
And every time we begin a brief by reaching for the slide template, we are harming our ability to think clearly. The disjointed, simplified nature of a presentation tool degrades our construction of compelling arguments.
Humans connect, slides don’t. As presenters we need to remember that we are the presentation and PowerPoint is the aid. As leaders, we need to stop asking for briefs in bullet points.
Stop communicating through talking points
The ever-present bullet point features in another blocker to effective communication: talking points.
Talking points are, by definition simplistic and one-dimensional. They are summaries of our position, meant to persuade or deflect counter-arguments.
“Talking points are the fluff that fills the gap where policy used to be,” says Peter Jennings from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). By their nature defensive, talking points reflect our aversion to risk and are “innovation killers”.
The use of talking points in Defence has expanded from media opportunities to speeches, meetings and internal engagements. In Defence industry, we often prepare talking points for senior meetings, so that executives can tout the benefits of our company and its products.
When we rely on talking points we outsource the story and surrender control of the message. Our communication becomes stilted and impersonal. We lose authenticity and connection.
Talking points are built on the premise that we can control a conversation and get our message across, regardless of what the other person says. This assumption denies our abilities to listen and develop a relationship with our audience.
Creating connections with others requires us to communicate to understand, not just to be understood. A conversation is more than only the two phases of transmitting and waiting to transmit.
We need to prepare for speaking opportunities by doing more than asking for talking points. We need to consider the audience and put ourselves into the conversation through stories. In this way, our communication will be more human.
Stop communicating through contracts
A contract is possibly the written form that is furthest from a story. It is a necessary evil in our laws-based economy, documenting the what, when, who, and how much of a commercial agreement.
Contracts do not reflect the way we communicate naturally, and they do not inspire. They frequently focus on outputs in the immediate term rather than long-term vision and outcomes.
This lack of vision is crucial in Defence’s rapidly changing environment. Technologies, populations and threats are evolving rapidly and interacting in unpredictable ways.
In this complex world, detailed requirements, statements of work and Key Performance Indicators are not flexible enough to ensure capabilities remain relevant. To succeed, we need to inspire through vision and purpose, not direct through detail and process.
More than this, by requiring boundaries and limitations, contracts only ever represent a fragment of a capability. They are two-way commitments, even though in the ADF every capability automatically involves at least three parties – CASG, the Capability Manager, and the contractor – and frequently many more.
Australia’s defence capability is provided fundamentally through relationships, not contracts. Defence’s recognition of industry as a Fundamental Input to Capability (FIC) reflects this. Defence aspires to be a Smart Buyer who establishes “trusted long-term relationships [with industry] that can better be relied upon to deliver capabilities for its Customers”.
This aspiration is still to be reflected in many contract-based relationships, but it is a start. In industry too, we need to rise to these relationships. Often risk-averse, particularly in low margin services delivery, industry frequently sees anything outside the contract as a cost.
Communicate with emotion and connection
Charts, models and processes all play a role in making Australia’s defence and security business work. But they do not reflect the way we connect as humans.
In Defence and industry, we often treat communication as a business process that can be flow-charted, standardised and implemented mechanically. PowerPoint slides, bullet points and contracts are all examples of a process approach to communication that is impersonal and impotent.
Effective communication is founded on a way of thinking that puts relationships first. These relationships are the bridge across which effective communication crosses.
True connection requires demonstration of emotion and empathy. It involves listening more, communicating to understand, not to be understood. A real connection is based on stories.
We can draw all the maps to guide our quest we want. But if we don’t connect with people and give them a reason to make the journey, the maps are useless.
This article is the second in a series on communication in defence. The next will offer some ways we can treat communication as a way of thinking and be more human in our connections.
Chris Huet has over thirty years of experience in public and private sector leadership and technical and creative communication.
He spent twenty years in the RAAF as an F/A-18 pilot before moving to consulting and business development.
Chris is also an award-winning spoken word poet and two-time TEDx presenter. He draws on practical knowledge and the latest research to help leaders speak more effectively, to inform, excite and persuade their audiences. This is the second of a three-part series which ran in ADBR in July-August 2018.