Published Date: 02/18/20
In Phillip Tompkins’ book Organizational Communication Imperatives: Lessons of the Space Program, Tompkins gives a firsthand comparison of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center during the Apollo Program, when Americans walked on the moon for the first time and during the 1980s when the Challenger disaster occurred.
The success of the Apollo program and the explosion of the Challenger ultimately came down to the same thing – organizational communication.
During the Apollo program, legendary director Wernher von Braun was very attuned to the flow of communication at Marshall. He hired Tompkins to conduct in-depth interviews with the top 50 managers in several different offices to find out, quite simply, what communication practices were working and what weren’t.
Nearly every single one reported that the “Monday Notes” were the most successful communication tool.
The Monday Notes were weekly one-page reports sent to von Braun from the top 24 managers in R&DO and IO. They contained only information about problems encountered and problems solved over the previous six days. While reading the reports von Braun would make notes in the margins and send copies back to the managers – everything from “congrats’ on a problem solved to suggestions on who to speak with to solve a new problem.
These Monday Notes served a variety of beneficial functions, whether intended or not. According to Tompkins, they:
- Kept the boss informed. They opened the lines of upward communication, which is vital to an organization’s success.
- Afforded people who didn’t regularly interact with von Braun direct feedback from him.
- Provided personalized contact rather than the sterile coded communication NASA frequently used.
- Kept local channels open and informed while von Braun was often out of the office visiting NASA headquarters in Cape Canaveral.
- Encouraged lateral cooperation. Frequently internal competition between NASA labs existed, meaning many people kept their cards close to the vest. With the Monday Notes, teams could see what other departments were doing and were sometimes specifically instructed to collaborate.
- Created communication discipline. When Tompkins interviewed subordinates of the directors providing the Monday Notes he discovered that they were receiving Friday Notes from managers, who were receiving Thursday notes from the people beneath them. That meant that everyone was in a continuous loop of thinking about not just problems the boss should be informed of, but solutions to these problems.
- Used short, frank language, which was appreciated by everyone, rather than the typical formal language used in corporate memos.
Beyond these six benefits of the Monday Notes, von Braun had two other practices in place that made the Apollo program successful.
Automatic Responsibility was one of them. This meant the moment you discovered a problem you were responsible for solving it and reporting it up the chain of command.
Finally, Penetration was a key component of von Braun’s communication strategy. Penetration came down to burden of proof. In short, during the Apollo program the Saturn rockets were being manufactured by independent contractors but von Braun’s ensured his own engineers had access to these contractors and continually questioned them. The contractors were more apt to be open with the NASA engineers than give bad news to their superiors. Ultimately, when one of the Saturn rockets was delivered, von Braun’s team were aware of cracks, despite the contractors telling them it was fine. The burden of proof fell on the contractors to prove it was fine and when the Saturn was x-rayed, the cracks were indeed found.
Fast forward to 1986 when the Challenger exploded in front of our eyes. The Marshall Space Flight Center was a very different place and was von Braun long gone. The Monday Notes still existed in some form, but the communication was now digital (NASA was using email before the masses), meaning no notes in the margins from the boss. Automatic Responsibility had been forgotten and Penetration was actually reversed. The night before the Challenger launch Roger Boisioly, a representative from the contractor that manufactured the O-Rings (failure of the O-Rings is why the Challenger met it’s doom), said he could not recommend that the launch go forward because the O-Rings had not been tested at the low temperature predicted for launch. Instead of having to prove why it would work, he was asked to prove why it wouldn’t.
That’s a lot of information about NASA, a highly bureaucratic government organization and you may believe you have little, if anything, in common with them. But, the principals of effective communication exist regardless of your organization’s size or hierarchy.
Effective communication can contribute to a preschool or daycare’s success in many ways. Effective communication:
- Builds employee satisfaction, engagement, and morale.
- Gives employees a voice and empowers them.
- Decreases the chances for misunderstandings and the mistakes that result from them.
- Drives employee commitment and loyalty.
- Gives employees a voice, which is often a driving force of overall job satisfaction.
- Establishes processes and procedures, creates organizational efficiencies, and reduces costs.
So what’s the takeaway?
From the Monday Notes we can apply certain principals to daycare and preschools to aid in effective communication.
First, communication needs to be two-way. As the boss you need to not only disseminate information, you need to request it, and provide feedback on it once it’s received, as von Braun did.
Doesn’t that mean you should implement Monday notes? Perhaps, perhaps not, depending on the size of your organization. But if Monday Notes aren’t the right forum for you, find a way to consistently and formally ask for communication from your team. This will make them feel valued and heard. Ask them specifically about the problems they’re facing and ask for solutions to those problems.
Second, think about what you’ll do with that information once you receive it. Von Braun not only empowered his teams to solve problems, but expected it because of Automatic Responsibility, and helped guide them to solve them by responding to the Monday Notes. Empowering your employees demonstrates that you trust them, gives them ownership over their jobs, makes them more productive, more willing to problem solve, and more of a team player.
The importance of communication within an organization should not be underestimated. And while daycare and preschool programs are not NASA, ultimately, you’re responsible for the lives and happiness of children and breakdowns in communication can lead to major failures with potentially disastrous consequences.
Improving communication within your daycare and preschool can help produce competent, satisfied employees who stay with you for years to come. It’s worth investing the time in establishing great practices now that will continue to pay off in the future.
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