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Volume 9, Issue 32;   August 12, 2009: Long-Loop Conversations: Anticipation

Long-Loop Conversations: Anticipation

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In virtual or global teams, conversations are sources of risk to the collaboration. Because the closed-loop response time for exchanges can be a day or more, long-loop conversations generate misunderstanding, toxic conflict, errors, delays, and rework. One strategy for controlling these phenomena is anticipation.
The USS Indianapolis on July 10, 1945, off Mare Island

The USS Indianapolis on July 10, 1945, off Mare Island. Mare Island (which is actually a peninsula), in California, was the site of a US Naval shipyard. On July 26, the Indianapolis delivered to a base on Tinian, parts of the bomb known as Little Boy, which would be used against Hiroshima. She then left for Guam, and after departing Guam, she was attacked and sunk by a Japanese submarine. She did send distress calls, three of which were received, but which were tragically ignored, because one commander was drunk, another had left orders not to be disturbed and a third thought the message was a Japanese prank. Over 300 of her crew of 1196 died in the attack, and of the 880 who went into the water, all but 317 were lost to sharks. For years after the sinking, the Navy maintained that no distress calls had been sent because the ship had been cruising in radio silence. Her commander, Captain Charles Butler McVay III, survived and was rescued, only to be court-martialed and convicted of "hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag." His sentence was remitted and he was returned to active duty, retiring in 1949. Still, disgraced, he committed suicide in 1968.

Even though the distress calls were received by three separate stations, all three failed to act on them properly. Redundancy as a strategy for maintaining communications reliability is not always adequate to the task. Photo courtesy U.S. Department of the Navy, Naval Historical Center.

When the closed-loop response time between you and a distant correspondent is a half-day or more, communication can feel like a frustrating hindrance to progress. But anticipating the little problems that arise in complex conversations can make discussions far more productive. In the long-loop environment, preventing problems in conversations takes a lot less effort than fixing them.

What must be anticipated is sometimes far from obvious. Here are some examples.

Anticipate anxiety about message delivery
Both recipients and senders can become anxious about delivery, especially when the messages travel in unreliable media such as the Internet. Moreover, in crisis environments, important messages can go unnoticed in the crush of other traffic.
Establish protocols about acknowledging message arrival. Protocol tiers that depend on the level of urgency of the communication environment are especially helpful.
Anticipate misunderstanding
Long-loop conversations often cross cultural or linguistic boundaries, which enhances the risk of misunderstandings. But even within one culture and language, the long-loop environment limits not only the exchanges that focus on the immediate task, but also those intended to clarify ambiguity or complexity in the conversation itself.
Assume that misunderstandings will occur. Be generous with detailed examples of the points made in your conversations. Avoid the little tactics we all use from time to time to conceal our own limited knowledge or understanding.
When the message is urgent, go slow
The probability When the conversation
is urgent, the only way
to communicate fast
is slowly
of misunderstanding escalates with the urgency of the conversation, because people tend to take less care in their communications.
When the conversation is urgent, the only way to communicate fast is slowly.
Anticipate politics
Organizational politics influences the ongoing work of most collaborations. Even though two organizations might be contractually bound to collaborate, opinions about the wisdom of the choice to collaborate can vary. Moreover, people often have conflicting commitments, and priorities do tend to change with time.
Consider political phenomena when formulating risk plans. Politics can be destructive or constructive, but even when constructive, there can be costs, some of which might fall unevenly on different organizational efforts. The effects of organizational politics on your own effort will be less harmful if you remain alert to this possibility. Keep a clear head, free of anger and frustration, when political interference does occur.

Finally, and paradoxically, anticipate the unexpected mishap. Even though we can't know what specific unexpected mishap might occur, we can be fairly certain that some unexpected mishap will occur. When significant unexpected events happen, we usually feel that they happen at the worst time. In reality, significant unexpected mishaps do happen at all times, but we notice them only when resources are inadequate to address them. In the long-loop environment, communication, the one resource that's most important for dealing with unexpected mishaps, is almost always inadequate. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: False Consensus  Next Issue

For more suggestions for the long-loop environment, see "Long-Loop Conversations: Asking Questions," Point Lookout for June 10, 2009; and "Long-Loop Conversations: Clearing the Fog," Point Lookout for June 24, 2009.

For more about the sinking of the Indianapolis see Charles Maier, "For the Good of the Navy," in Insight on the News, June 5, 2000.

303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsIs your organization a participant in one or more global teams? Are you the owner/sponsor of a global team? Are you managing a global team? Is everything going well, or at least as well as any project goes? Probably not. Many of the troubles people encounter are traceable to the obstacles global teams face when building working professional relationships from afar. Read 303 Tips for Virtual and Global Teams to learn how to make your global and distributed teams sing. Order Now!

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In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution, and look at how we get from the beginning to the end. Available here and by RSS on July 5.

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