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Communicate or Crash

By January 9, 2013No Comments

Good communication, a shared understanding of context and the problems your team is facing are more important than process, technical skills or intellect.  Take these observations from Aviation. *

“In a review of major accidents from 1978 to 1990, the National Transportation Safety Board (1994) found that 73% of commercial aviation accidents occur on the first day of a crew pairing.”


“NASA researchers analyzed the causes of jet transport accidents and incidents between 1968 and 1976 and concluded that pilot error was more likely to reflect failures in team communication and coordination than deficiencies in technical proficiency. In fact, human factors issues related to interpersonal communication have been implicated in approximately 70% to 80% of all accidents over the past 20 years. Correspondingly, over 70% of the first 28,000 reports made to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System (which allows pilots to confidentially report aviation incidents) were found to be related to communication problems.”

“Communication is critical in order for cockpit crewmembers to share a “mental model,” or common understanding of the nature of events relevant to the safety and efficiency of the flight. This is not to say that effective communication can overcome inadequate technical flying proficiency, but rather the contrary: that good “stick & rudder” skills can not overcome the adverse effects of poor communication. “

Considering the level of training, regulation and procedures in commercial aviation it’s somewhat counterintuitive that the quality of communication between crew has such a dramatic effect on the team’s performance, especially in a stressful situation when something is going wrong.  The same observation has been made in the medical context.

“In other safety-critical systems such as surgical operating rooms and medical intensive care units; Medical researchers have found evidence that it is not the technical or medical proficiency of healthcare providers, but rather the quality of their interactions which predicts outcomes.”

The research into cockpit communication reveals a few interesting things.

  1. Individuals have a distinct pattern of language usage which is quite stable over time, and in different levels of stress.
  2. The best crews were more verbose.
  3. The crews communicated about two and a half times more in abnormal flight situations.
  4. The number of words spoken was correlated with higher performance and lower rates of error.
  5. Crews which exhibited familiarity with each other in their language (talking as a team, “we” and “us”) also had higher performance.
  6. High performing crews make problem solving utterances 7 to 8 times more often than the poor performing crews, eg. asking questions out loud, or making statements which invite input or share crucial data.
  7. The high performing crews spoke in problem solving utterances the same amount of the time whether they were in a routine situation or a high stress situation.  The poor performing crews didn’t (and thus were out of practice when it counted).

Time spent talking and building relationships in a team, learning each other’s patterns of language usage, is essential to bonding, building a shared mental model and in turn delivering better team performance.  This is one reason pair programming is such a powerful learning and quality generating tool.  Likewise, perhaps we shouldn’t worry so much when our stand-ups drag on a bit?

*All quotes are from “Using Language in the Cockpit: Relationships with Workload and Performance” – J. Bryan Sexton & Robert L. Helmreich which itself has an extensive list of supporting references.

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