Failure to Communicate

Transformation requires changing how teams are structured

In 1960, the US was woefully behind the Soviet Union in the space race. The Mercury Redstone Launch Vehicle was NASA’s bid to get ahead and put a man into space first. In the first unmanned test flight however, the rocket lifted a mere 4 inches off the ground.

The evening of April 23, 1986, a nuclear reactor near the city of Pripyat was undergoing a test. A series of cascading errors led to an uncontrolled reaction, causing an explosion exposing the core. The Chernobyl accident resulted in the evacuation of over 300K people, exposing them to increased cancer risks, and cost $235 billion in damage.

On September 23, 1999, NASA sent a spacecraft to Mars to study Martian climate and atmospheric conditions. They lost contact with the Mars Climate Orbiter. most likely burning up in the atmosphere upon insertion into a proper orbit around the planet.

What was the common theme among these incidents? It was a failure to communicate.

In the case of the Mercury-Redstone launch failure, two electrical cables separated in the wrong order. Why this happened was touched upon in the book Team of Teams by Gen. Stanley McChrystal:

“The interface failures exposed an inherent problem: independent small groups were very effective at exploratory work, but trouble erupted when the projects of the disparate teams had to be integrated into the vehicle going into orbit.”

The situation at Chernobyl went deeper than the issues that arose during the evening of the accident. However, a culture of management arrogance and a lack of listening to the warnings from engineers meant critical signs were missed that could have prevented the explosion and the ensuing deaths and chaos that resulted.

NASA discovered in the analysis of the missing Orbiter that a critical metrics conversion in the software was never tested. One system provided the calculation in pounds of force while another system assumed the metric unit of newtons. This resulted in the trajectory calculation software using incorrect results positioning the spacecraft too close to the surface for stable orbit.

The ability of humans to communicate is the hallmark of our species. It is not just to alert of us danger or avoid catastrophe. Communicating is how we learn, collaborate, and innovate. Why then is it still a struggle to communicate effectively in organizations?

Each of the disasters above highlights a facet why of communication failures occur:

  • Silos — the Mercury-Redstone failure was due to teams being isolated from each other with no direct collaboration
  • Control — Chernobyl was the result of a hierarchical command and control organization & blame culture
  • Information — the lack of information and assumptions that resulted in the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter

Last week I shared thoughts on the contradictions in management culture and the differences in static and learning organizations. Of the four core challenges in transitioning to a learning culture, collaboration among teams seems deceptively easy to address and is the one many organizations gravitate towards when pursuing wide-scale transformation.

Collaboration is often thought of as a technology problem. There is a long history of tools and platforms created to solve the problems in lack of effective communications within and across teams. It started with things like Lotus Notes, then Microsoft Sharepoint, and then a series of SaaS tools all meant to keep the flow of communication going.

Today we are awash in communications technology from email to chat to tools that orchestrate our work. There are knowledge bases, ticketing systems, workflow tools, and project management platforms. Communications is the easy challenge to solve.

At least that is the theory in the minds of executives when they purchase these platforms to foster better collaboration. The problem is not one of a lack of technology however, it is a people and culture challenge which requires addressing the hurdles in information, control and silo failures.


We do not have a lack of information. The information is pouring in faster from an ever growing number of channels and sources. The real issue is one of relevancy and trust.

Most tools around collaboration suffer from the Goldilocks syndrome. There is either too much or too little information. On the one instance you have tools like email and Slack. They are great until we get overwhelmed by the flow of information. Then you have various knowledge artifacts like wikis and Q&A tools that lie dormant because so few people ever contribute.

For communication to be effective, there needs to be a flow of relevant information. One friend who heads developer experience at a bank once shared that their chat tool is a “dumpster fires of gibberish”. Everyone shares way too much and the mechanisms to reduce the noise are too cumbersome to use, leading users to permanently tune out.

The other factor is trust, which has two flavors. One is the information that exists that we can trust and the other is whether we trust we even have the information to make informed decisions. Without trust, decisions are merely guessing games, games that can have costly and fatal consequences based on the circumstances.


Collaboration requires communication to flow openly to the relevant people. In a command and control hierarchy however, the flow is always top down. This prevents knowledge gained by the people closest to the situation to filter bottom up so that managers and leaders can make more informed decisions.

Creating a default open culture is one way to address the issues of control by enabling and encouraging communication up, down, and across the organization. This however requires a management that trusts and values the contributions of front-line employees and recognizes that situational awareness is a better decision making mechanism than management dictate.


Conway’s Law states that the systems an organization creates are reflected in how that organization communicates. If an organization is created as many distinct silos, then the systems will be built to reflect that structure. This results in issues when the products of those discrete teams need to integrate as part of a larger system.

The effects of highly siloed teams are that work is duplicated and the best solutions are not shared. Furthermore, as Matthew Skelton & Manuel Pais share in Team Topologies:

“Organizations that rely too heavily on org charts and matrixes to split and control work often fail to create the necessary conditions to embrace innovation while still delivering at a fast pace.”

Silos undermine the ability to innovate and transform as an organization since there are no pathways for open communication. Trust between teams does not exist. Silos are a natural outcropping in command and control cultures that have become politically charged, further diminishing the ability to share and trust information across teams.

The way to move beyond communications failures is not through tools. The first step is to commit to rearchitecting the organization. This means turning command and control on its head by empowering team level decision making, fostering self-organizing teams around products versus org chart fiefdoms, and creating incentives that motivate people and teams to collaborate and share knowledge.

I touched on some of these topics at my talk in Manila over the weekend at the GDG DevFest Philippines 2019 conference. The angle I take comes from the community building approach which I will discuss in more depth in a later post. If you care to know more though about the connection of community to communication, I posted my talk on the DEVBIZOPS YouTube channel.

What have you found to be major barriers to open communication in your organization? How were those communication gaps addressed?

Episode #7 — Shaun Norris of Pivotal on Four Key Development Metrics

Co-hosts Justin Arbuckle and Mark Birch welcome Shaun Norris of Pivotal and his insights on migrating from legacy to cloud infrastructures and the four key metrics to convey the value of technology transformation.

Listen in on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts and make sure to give us a like and subscribe 😁

We help IT leaders in enterprises solve the cultural challenges involved in digital transformation and move towards a community based culture that delivers innovation and customer value faster. Learn more about our work here.

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