Air-Traffic-Control-Tower In aviation the consequences of miscommunication can be lethal. Fortunately misunderstandings in projects seldom lead to consequences of this magnitude, but still can be undermining to your project objectives. Being aware of potential misunderstandings is even more critical when your project team is distributed across cultures. As a global undertaking, aviation needs to deal with different cultures effectively to ensure the safety of flight. What can you learn from aviation communication in your project to ensure a safe landing?

The standard principle in aviation communication is that a message from Air Traffic Control (ATC) is read back to ATC by the pilot. There are specific rules of what needs to be read back and what can be omitted. This ensures that the sender verifies that the receiver has understood his message. In aviation a verbatim repetition of the message is sufficient, as the meaning of the each part is well understood by both parties (leaving no room for interpretation). For less critical messages, the replies “Roger” and “Wilco” may be used. ‘Roger’ (this used to be R in the radio communications alphabet and was used to signify ‘Received’) means nothing more than ‘I have received and understood your message’. It does not mean you will also act accordingly, which would require a reply of “Wilco” (a contraction of the words ‘will comply’).

The read-back principle would work exceptionally well for project teams that work across cultures, if it were not for the misconception that the meaning of our statements is the same to us as it is to the recipient. This is certainly not the case. If I ask an Indian colleague if he can have something done by Monday, his answer will usually be “yes”. In the Western culture this would be perceived as a ‘Wilco’, whereas my Indian colleague is merely stating “Roger”. In the Indian culture it is considered impolite to say “no”, and a “yes” should be taken as a ‘I have heard what you said’. I’ve seen fellow project managers struggle with this different interpretation of “yes”. I would not be surprised if this has been a contributing factor in many missed deadlines. By being aware of the differences actions can be taken to help avoid pitfalls like these. An open question is all it takes to work around this dilemma - for instance “how can I help you / what do you need to ensure delivery by Monday?” Phrasing it this way invites the other party to share concerns without ‘culturally’ offending you (as the requestor). As cultural differences run deep, it is impossible for you (and your team members) to be aware of all the differences. Instead of the read-back we should train our team members to practice ‘continuous verification’: have the recipient of a message rephrase what he understood in his own words. I have achieved great results having the onshore team explain the design in a Video Conferencing meeting, then sending the documentation and the next day have the offshore team explain the design back to the onshore team. This might seem superfluous at first, but has greatly enhanced mutual understanding (and prevented specifications from being developed that were thought to be well understood – which will cost you far more).

I invite you to share a bit of aviation phraseology with your project team - it only takes a minute to explain the actual meaning of “Roger” and “Wilco”. I’ve seen this become effectively used within my project team and even as ‘political correct’ replies to management requests from outside the project, as the reply “Roger” is still perceived as “great – he’ll do it”. But we know better, don’t we?