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Author: Jennifer Bedell

Want better communication strategies? Mimic the airlines.

Yes, I said ‘airlines’.  Air travel sometimes comes with unexpected “adventures”. 

Instead of ruminating about your delayed flight or grumbling that your gate seems to be in another timezone, entertain yourself by spotting and analyzing processes.  I used this adult version of ‘I Spy’ to reflect on how we can apply airline communication strategies to our projects. 

Just in time communication

My recent flight from Toronto to Paris demonstrated the importance of variable communication methods and proper timing. As I was heading toward my gate, I heard a recorded voice say “Please have your boarding pass ready when entering toward gates x”.  That prompted me to look up just in time to see a sign with the same message.  Just beyond the sign was an automated checkpoint that would open only after scanning a boarding pass for an international departure.

As I was digging out my boarding pass, I reflected on how well this was done.  I was informed just in advance of the action I needed to take.  By receiving the message just in time, I knew exactly what I needed to do and I had context.  Imagine if I had been told only once at check-in:  “When you get to Toronto, there is a separate section for international travel.  When you get there, you will see an automated checkpoint where you will need to scan your boarding pass. Please be prepared to have your boarding pass ready to be scanned.”  After a few hours of flying and navigating my way through the airport, would I remember that?  Would it have made sense without context?

By delivering a just in time message that was clear and concise, there were no delays at the checkpoint. People who weren’t ready simply stepped aside so they could prepare.  Those who were ready, moved through quickly.

Do your stakeholders forget what is expected from them? Or do they complain that they didn’t have enough time to complete their tasks?  Consider the timing of your request.  Could it be delivered earlier or later?

Multiple communication channels

Before I heard that recorded message, I was walking with my head down, checking my phone for places to eat.  I had lots of time between flights so I wasn’t worried about getting to my gate quickly and I wasn’t watching for signs.  It was the audio message that grabbed my attention.  The volume of the recording was perfect for me and played as I approached the area so I had enough time to prepare.

Another traveler may have been engaged in conversation or may not have heard the message clearly.  The signs provided an alternative communication channel for those who are more likely to respond to visual messages.

By providing multiple communication channels, there was a better chance of reaching all people who needed to receive the message. 

I recently heard about a project where many team members repeatedly asked about the delivery schedule.  After the Project Manager posted a physical schedule visible to everyone, the questions stopped. 

Have you been frustrated by stakeholders not being aware of the information you’ve delivered multiple times?  Consider an alternate communication channel. 

Content of the message

The message the airline communicated was short and told me exactly what I needed to do.  Imagine if it included additional information that may seem appropriate, but not necessary at that time.  Would you stop long enough to listen to this message?  “Please be advised that we have recently installed an automated checkpoint for passengers travelling internationally. These checkpoints will streamline the security process. Please be advised that to enter this area of the airport, all passengers must scan their boarding pass and wait for the gates to open before proceeding.” While this information may be relevant, airport travelers are not wandering around reading long signs or stopping to listen to every voice that begins to speak.  (Think about what happens during boarding.  When the first announcement starts, everyone gets up to board, even though the announcement may have said “please do not line up as we are not yet boarding”)

By delivering a clear and concise message, people are more likely to hear and understand what is expected. Consider how you can apply this concept. Are your messages clear and concise? Do your communications convey the right amount of information in a clear manner?


Frequency of communications

Having successfully progressed to the international section of the airport, I was on my way to a European vacation.  But, this was not the end of my recent air travel adventures.

I had the privilege of sitting in a plane while experiencing multiple flight delays – each with a different root cause.  How do I know the root cause of each delay?  Because we were informed at appropriate intervals in an appropriate tone with just enough information (and in both official languages).

The first announcement came before we left the gate advising that maintenance personnel were fixing a minor issue before we could take off (this explained the maintenance personnel on board).  The next announcement assured us the issue was resolved and there would be another 15 minute delay while paperwork was being completed.  This was followed by a few more announcements as we waited for a spot on the runway. 

Under normal circumstances, we would have been on our way soon after lining up for the runway; however, this was just the beginning.  Due to snow and ice, we switched runways twice with delays on each runway.   During the delays, the pilot updated us every 15 minutes or when there was a change.

Communications were delivered as needed to keep us informed, but not so often as to annoy us.   By delivering regular updates, all passengers knew what to expect and how much longer we needed to wait. It didn’t eliminate the wait, but it did eliminate any speculation about what might be causing the delays.

Does inaccurate information circulate through your teams?  Consider timely and concise updates.

Tone of the message

As the delays progressed, the pilot became less formal and even began one of his announcements with an audible sigh showing us that he is also feeling the pain of the delays.  It was met with laughter by most passengers.  What a great way to put us at ease, give us a little chuckle and prevent tension from building.  The final delay was a coyote on the runway.  Our friendly, neighborhood pilot told us to look out the left side of the plane to catch a glimpse of the coyote as he darted away. 

As the messages progressed and the situation allowed, the messaging became less formal.  This built rapport with the passengers which made people feel more comfortable.

Are your stakeholders reluctant to share information with you?  Would they be more forthcoming with a less formal approach as the stakeholder relationship evolves?

Appropriate to the audience

In the above communications, I am speaking from the perspective of a passenger.  The tone, frequency, content, channels and timing of these communications would have been different for each stakeholder group (passengers, flight crew, paperwork, air traffic control, ground crew etc.) and delivered by the appointed messenger.

By tailoring the message to the audience, each stakeholder group receives information with an appropriate level of detail. The content and formality of the message delivered to the President of the company will be very different than what is delivered to a member of the project team.

While airport travel is not always as pleasurable as a trip to Disneyworld (unless your flight is to Orlando), we can still take lessons from those who spend their days moving millions of people.  Imagine if project communications followed these same guidelines?  All stakeholders would receive the right amount of information at the right time leading to a greater chance of success and on time delivery.