Embedding communication as core business
By Chris Huet
“Hi internet, ASD here. Long time listener, first time caller.”
With that tweet, the Australian Signals Directorate rose from the basement into social media sunlight. Led by Director General Mike Burgess, the organisation has shed its secrecy to engage with the world.
As the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s (ASPI) Michael Shoebridge commented, Burgess “knows that if ASD is to be a trusted, credible adviser to Australia’s business sector and to the public, then he has to demystify the organisation and engage in the public discussion.”
ASD is at the centre of our increasingly complex, rapidly changing and technologically challenging world. In this environment, communication is essential. It connects people and ideas. It is the key to agility, innovation and collaboration.
Effective communication is based on an understanding of how humans interact. It takes as its first step the creation of an emotional connection. Burgess knows that conversations create relationships which build trust. Trust allows us to develop understanding, share information and work together.
To succeed in our current environment, we must embrace communication with a human connection. To do this, we have to develop our communication skills at all levels. We have to take risks in the way we engage with others. We have to focus on relationships in our contracts and not on compliance.
Train Communication as a vital skill
The ability to connect with others is essential to Defence’s and industry’s success in complex times. We need to recognise this and include communication skills in all levels of learning within our organisations.
Communication should have the same training emphasis as project management, systems engineering and the Military Appreciation Process. We should be wary of the fad of STEM – while we need people with technically brilliant minds, their brilliance is useless unless they can influence, motivate and excite others.
Our communications training focuses on specific skills such as writing, presenting or working with the media. While these skills are important, they are not enough. An emphasis on practical application of techniques glosses over the underlying concepts.
To be effective communicators, we need to understand how we think, communicate and make decisions. Learning programs, whether formal training, coaching or mentoring, should develop the emotional intelligence of individuals, so they better understand themselves and others.
If we focus only on practical skills, we risk having perfectly formed communications that miss the mark. Being able to craft a catchy ‘star sentence’ for an interview is of no use if we don’t consider our audience and how they will respond to what we say.
We often ignore poor communication by our leaders, as if it is an unchangeable personality trait. We are reluctant to support each other in improving our ability to communicate. We need to break this cycle and realise that communication skills can, and should, be continually improved.
Encourage Rick-taking in communication
It is often an aversion to risk that prevents our leaders from connecting with their audiences. Although well practised in accepting and managing operational isks, Defence and its supporting industry work hard to avoid business risks.
Defence’s First Principles Review recognised there is “an organisational culture within Defence that is risk-averse and resistant to change”. Government’s central agencies feel that Defence lacks transparency and don’t trust its decision-making, and the same comment can be applied to Defence’s relationship with industry. For its part, industry mirrors Defence in risk-aversion, lack of transparency and inward focus.
We think that revealing our motivations, concerns and desired outcomes is risky. But it is precisely this sort of dialogue which would address the issues identified by the FPR. To be effective, we need to take more risks in the information we share and how we share it.
ASD’s tweet is an example of an organisation taking chances in its communication. It has chosen to be more transparent and engage its customers, supporters and bosses. This engagement is essential to ASD doing its job defending Australia from global threats.
Individually too, our leaders should be more vulnerable in their communication. We do our jobs better when we are more human in the way we speak, by revealing what moves us, telling stories and connecting with our audience.
We need to encourage more risk-taking in personal communication. We must remove the rules that force us to stick to authorised scripts and have our topics reviewed by probity lawyers. We must hold effective communication to be more important than approved communication.
More importantly, leaders need to model risk-taking communication that emotionally connects with audiences. Effective communication involves taking some risks. To succeed in this world, we need to understand, encourage and reward this fact.
Evolve contracts to be based on relationships
One area where Defence and industry are particularly risk-averse is in contracting. We focus on getting a good deal and making sure the contract is correct. We don’t spend enough time developing an understanding of each other’s motivations.
Paradoxically, by focusing on defining and minimising commercial risks, we increase the likelihood of poor delivery and conflict. Regardless of written agreements, organisations work together through individual relationships. If we do not spend time on these relationships, we will misunderstand each other, miscommunicate and increase friction.
Defence needs to evolve contracting models to be more flexible and relationship-based. Healthy contracts are characterised by trust based on a connection between individuals. We must recognise this and promote these connections.
Defence’s typical acquisition approach does the opposite and discourages relationships. It holds industry at arm’s length from release of the draft Request for Tender until contract signature. We often treat the negotiation process as an “us versus them” activity built on tension.
The first day of a contract is not the time to begin building trust. By then it is too late. Miscommunication, conflict and competing positions frequently characterise the first few years of a program that hasn’t spent time building trust before the work begins.
Relationships are built on a human connection. They require open and regular communication. This process needs to begin as a new capability is conceived and continue throughout its lifecycle.
Communication with a connection is critical to success
We operate in a complex and volatile world. To succeed we need to work towards a common purpose, respond quickly to changes and build resilience in our organisations. To do these things, we engage with each other, to share a collective awareness, collaborate and innovate.
To excel we need to communicate with a human connection that builds relationships and fosters trust.
The capability to connect with others grows from developing communication skills at all levels within our organisations. Learning must be more than practical writing or presentation skills. We need to work on creating emotional connections, listening effectively and tailoring our words to our audience.
Communicating with a human connection means we have to take risks, as organisations and individuals. Audiences are more likely to hear our message when we are open, share more information and reveal more of ourselves.
The same openness should be reflecting in our contracting structures and the way we approach negotiations. We have to favour relationships over requirements, from the beginning of a new capability.
Effective communication is core business. We must recognise this and continually work on connecting with others. If we work in our figurative basements, closed to others, we will fail in our vital work for Australia’s defence and security.
Chris Huet has over 30 years of experience in public and private sector leadership and technical and creative communication. He draws on practical knowledge and the latest research to help leaders speak more effectively, to inform, excite and persuade their audiences.
This article featured in the November-December 2018 issue of ADBR, and is the final part in Chris’s four-part series on communication in Defence.