Miscommunications is a constant theme I hear from leaders at all levels both in the military and in the corporate environment. Recently, I was talking with a potential client about some work.
She said, “The third quarter is really tough for us. We’d like TFCG to start work as soon as it is over.”
As the receiver, I thought I heard “We’d like you start work as soon as possible.”
I said, “Well, I’ve got a couple of things on the plate right now, but we could start work on September 7th.”
There was silence on the other end of the line. I could tell that the potential client was slipping away. After a long pause, she said again, “The third quarter is really tough for us. We’d like TFCG to start work as soon as it is over.”
I listened intently, thought for a second, and replied, “What you’d like TFCG to do is start work on October 4th?”
She said, “Exactly. I’ll get the statement of work signed by my boss as quickly as possible.”
Communication is a two-way street. Both sides have an opportunity to miscommunicate or misunderstand the other. I was lucky and managed to land the deal. What I did was use a military technique called the back brief — or I said back to the client, in my own words, what I understood she wanted TFCG to do. This simple action resolved the miscommunications and landed the job for TFCG.
The Back Brief
One military tool that is worthwhile to add to your leadership toolkit is the back brief. The back brief helps reduce miscommunications. Quite simply, the back brief (or brief back or backbrief) begins when the leader says the task, pitches the plan, or gives instructions to a person or the team. Then, the people or person receiving the task, plan, or instructions gives a summary of the instructions back to the leader. This gives the leader the opportunity to determine if the task, plan, or instructions were received properly. In short, in a back brief you say it as a leader. Then the team says it back to you in their own words.
In Afghanistan, the back brief technique was used every time after an operations order was presented to a team. If we did a combined mission with the Afghan police and the Afghan Army, we had to do the back brief in three languages — Pashto for the police, Dari for the army, and English for the US soldiers. Talk about a lot of opportunities to not understand the plan! But the back brief enabled us to increase understanding, decrease miscommunications, and execute better during the operation. Isn’t that something we all want as leaders?
Advantages of Using the Back Brief:
The leader and the team hears the plan twice.
Everyone walks away with a similar understanding of the plan.
The back brief eliminates the need for the team to have the “meeting after the meeting” to figure out what the boss really wants you to do.
The back brief provides an opportunity to refine the plan or correct problems with the plan.
The team pays attention more to the leader giving instructions since they know they will have to provide a summary back to the leader.
Using the Back Brief:
Have each person provide a summary of their portion of the plan.
If time is short, select one person to provide a summary of the plan.
Have one person start the back brief and provide a summary of one part of the plan. Then ask another member of the team to pick up where the other stopped. Then another to do the third part.
If time is extremely short, the leader asks open questions to team members who are responsible for critical aspects of the plan.
Leaders should carefully implement the back brief, since there is the chance that your team will feel micromanaged or belittled when using it. Here are several ways to implement this technique to avoid that pitfall. The first is to model it as a leader whenever one of your team asks for you to provide assistance. For instance, when Bob asks you to call Jennifer in sales because she is late turning in the TPS report, you would use the back brief technique and say back to him “So, Bob you need me to call Jennifer over in sales to get the TPS report?” The second is to put the onus on yourself as a leader by saying “I don’t think I’m communicating that well. Would you mind saying back what I just told you?” The third is to blame me — “Hey this leadership person said to try this military tool to enhance our communications and understanding. I’m not sure it will work, but I’ll do anything to improve our communications. Could you provide a summary of what I just asked you to do?”
Whatever way you choose to implement it is up to you. But, the benefits of better communications outweigh the downsides and will help any team reach a higher level of performance.
Using the back brief will improve your communications, decrease miscommunications, save you and your team valuable time, and help you take it to the next level. Go on the offense in 2021 and use the back brief to diminish poor comprehension your organization.