What Project Teams Can Learn About Communication from Aviation (2 of 3)

Principles and techniques to enhance communication

In addition to helping us understanding the types and factors involved in poor communication, aviation has adopted certain principles and techniques that we can incorporate into our project management teams.

Processes, procedures, and checklists

Putting in place processes, procedures, and checklists helps to standardize communication and prevent incorrect, absent, and late communications. Everyone should have a written process (that is followed) to clarify who does what when, and who communicates what to whom, and at what times and circumstances. For example, every time that the design document is completed, the product manager should send a communication to the team outlining potential issues. Even if projects do not follow the exact same steps, there should still be an accepted methodology and process that includes communication expectations. Aviation uses processes, procedures, and checklists extensively that include how and what information is exchanged when, and the specific communication roles.

Shared responsibility, overlap, and the communication loop

One reality that needs to be drilled into the consciousness of every team member is that communication is a shared responsibility. There should never be information communicated by only one person within a single communication. People make mistakes and perceive things differently, which is why you need to practice communication overlap where both the sender and receiver are responsible for over-communicating the same information.

If you have ever listened to air traffic control at a busy airport, you will discover a good example of a communication loop. A controller will issue an important instruction to a pilot. The pilot performs a read-back of the instruction back to the controller. The controller communicates back to the pilot to acknowledge or correct the read-back. Both parties take responsibility for the communication and overlap the communication of the message to prevent a mistake of omission or perception on the part of one of the parties. This is intentional and has helped to reduce incidents where information was heard or understood incorrectly in the past.

In our project teams, our communications are probably not going to look like this:

“Development personnel, you are cleared to start coding. ”

“Roger, project manager, development personnel is cleared to start coding. ”

But the principle should be there. The project manager sends information, the development personnel communicates the information back, and the project manager has the opportunity to acknowledge or correct it. In another example, a client may send us an explanation of something that they want (let’s say they want a certain report). We should not assume that we understand what they want (there are many times when I have thought I understood what a client wanted, but realized too late that they had an entirely different picture in their head). We should communicate back and re-articulate the same thing in our own words. We may even send a screenshot or mockup (evidence of understanding) of what we think the report will look like, and look for them to acknowledge or correct our communication. That’s a communication loop, and it should happen whenever information is exchanged.

Ask questions

When we are requesting information, we need to ask questions to deliberately try and contradict a bias or expectation that we may have. Otherwise we will tend to “hear ” information that corroborates our bias and disregard contradictory information. For example, we may sincerely believe that what we are building is what a client wants. This does us no good if we do not ask contradictory questions. For example, we may show them evidence of what we are doing and ask them if this differs from the picture in their head, and how they interpret the requirements. We should do this early and often.

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Mark Kenny

Mark Kenny is a project management practitioner, business owner, and aviation enthusiast. Mr. Kenny has spent over 16 years working in various capacities in the project management field. He has studied and written on lessons learned in other team disciplines, such as aviation cockpits. Mr. Kenny is currently the President of Hippo Solutions which helps make project management teams better. His team at home includes his wife and four children.