The consequences of poor communication

The view was amazing

She worked at the restaurant of the new Hyatt Regency – landed as a summer job. Not yet 21, she couldn't work the bar or serve alcohol, so she worked as the hostess.

But it gave her an amazing view. And because the restaurant was on the fourth floor, it overlooked the beautiful lobby.

The lobby was the talk of the town – mostly because it had walking paths – suspended in the air. People hadn't seen anything like that.

There she stood, looking out over the lobby when the unthinkable happened.

It was just after 7 pm when everything turned upside down. As she watched, the walkways (normally suspended from the ceiling) came falling down.

Structurally and architecturally speaking, it's exactly what happened.

Over 100 people died and over 200 were injured, back one day in Kansas City in 1981.

The mistake was ordinary

The collapse of the walkway at the Hyatt Regency in 1981 was, until the collapse of the Word Trade Center in 2001, the largest structural failure in US history.

But the mistake wasn't a conspiracy or planned act – like the terrorist act on 9/11. Instead, it was simply the consequence of an ordinary mistake.

Poor communication.

The culprit was clear

You can assign blame to the engineering company, which happened.

Or to the architectural firm, which also happened.

You can imagine suing the hotel or the landowner.

But in reality, the issue came down to poor communication.

The design company that proposed the design set it up one way. They created the design and had their own sense of why it would work. They believed in the design. How they designed it.

The contractor that had to build it, looked at the designs and had issues. So they made changes. To a design they didn't create. But they were fixing the flaws they noticed.

Sound familiar?

Ever been in a situation where someone designs things one way and builders make changes to it? In the world I live in – web development, design and product development – I see it all the time.

These are the consequences of poor communication

I write a lot about communication. But this may be the most important thing I tell you about feedback. Iterative design, like iterative development, only works when you circle back with feedback.

[Tweet “Iterative design and iterative development both require feedback loops to be successful.”]

Without the feedback loops, you have no idea if a tweak will create future problems.

In this case, the result of this poor communication was fatal.

Of course, I picked a particularly tragic version of what happens when teams don't communicate, but this isn't an isolated story.

At the end of the day, poor communication is a by-product of:

  • Not giving yourself enough time for feedback loops
  • Not believing there is something for you to learn from feedback
  • Not systematizing a process for regular feedback
  • Not making sure all the right folks are in the room at the right time

And when you fail on these fronts, you end up with poor communication. And when you end up with poor communication, you may end up dealing with the consequences – which can be serious.

Are you just waiting for disaster?

I regularly work with teams looking to improve their output and performance. More often than not, the folks that invite me in to offer some help start by asking what tools they should use.

Is there a special tool that will help distributed teams? Is there a tool that will help them plan better? Or keep each other aware of the tasks they need to focus on?

Unfortunately, tools don't solve the problem.

And in some cases, they can make matters worse:

You think a little info is bad.
Try dealing with tons of info. It can be just as bad.

But if tools aren't the problem, how do you make sure disaster isn't around the corner?

Let me share these three tips with you

Meet more so you can meet less. It's counter-intuitive but I find that daily meetings reduce all my other meetings to a tiny number. Before I had regular “pulse” meetings with staff, I was invited to tons of meetings. So many, in fact, that I wouldn't start my real work until the day was almost done.

Make the assumed explicit. There are tons of assumptions about who knows what within and across teams. I challenge people to take what they assume others already know, and own the sharing of that information. Even if, and especially if, you think they know it already. You'll be surprised by who didn't know something.

Poor communication is a choice. Whether it's motivated by fear, an unwillingness to have conflict, or anything else, not communicating honestly is as much a choice as communicating honestly. Inactivity is still a choice. And sometimes the costs and consequences are far worse than getting over the fear of being honest.