Sharpen Yourself: Communicating Clearly – the BTA Example
If you work in the defense industry, communication is part of your job. It’s necessary within project teams. It’s often the difference between success and failure, when you need to explain your job or your project to upper management. Its importance grows again when you need to explain your project or your work to friends, family, or the public at large. Testimony before a Congressional committee would certainly underscore the need for clear communication, in a very pointed fashion. Then again, most people don’t have their perceptions of the industry shaped by Congressional committees. It’s shaped by reports they read, which are based on industry web sites, releases, and interviews. It’s also shaped by people they know. People like you.
A funny and deeply instructive recent interview with the head of the Pentagon’s Business Transformation Agency drives this point home with crystal clarity. It’s an unusual example, in that the same person responsible for a classic example of impenetrable bureaucrateux, promptly rights his own ship and proceeds to give a clear answer when prodded to do so.
This makes it an outstanding educational example for industry members who wish to become more persuasive, and have more impact:
Who is the BTA? What do they do? The first few pages of the transcript are devoted to that very question. An excerpt:
“Again, for those of us who are not familiar with us, the BTA was established a little over three years ago. Our mission is to guide the transformation of business operations throughout the department and to deliver enterprise-level capabilities that align to warfighter needs.
So what does that mean? We guide and we deliver and our focus is in the business space, but the business space in the context of delivering capability to both the warfighter and the senior leaders who support the warfighter.
Part of the reason that we were created was the lack of a level of capability that was adequate to the task in delivering on those services. You know, partly it’s the senior-level decision makers in the department who need good timely, reliable, accurate information. Business information — logistics, finance, personnel, acquisition — those kinds of areas on which to make decisions in support of the warfighter activities. And then the warfighter themselves with logistics support, financial management support, those various business arenas in which those support activities are ultimately essential to the overall mission of the department.
So you know, seeing some gaps, engagement with the folks on the Hill, the department moved forward under Secretary — Deputy Secretary Gordon England’s leadership to stand up a new agency, specifically focused on supporting the OSD-level policymakers — that’s the undersecretaries, if you will, who own functional policy — and the people who have to deliver on those policies, which are really our military departments. They deliver the capability…”
It goes on like this for 8 more paragraphs; about 2 pages worth of dense transcript in total. Readers who are interested can peruse the entire transcript [PDF]. This initial section will probably remind you of many meetings, briefings, reports, and presentations you’ve experienced.
Then, question time arrives!
Q: “Okay. Well, at the risk of sounding like moron, I’ve got to ask you: What do you do? You know, I’ve covered Defense procurement and all that since ’96 and I really don’t get it. (Laughter.)”
FISHER: “So help me understand what you don’t get and I’ll try to help you understand.”
Q: “I don’t really understand what your office does in plain English.”
FISHER: “Okay. We –”
Q: “I’ve read your — you know, I’ve read your blurbs on your website and all that, but it does not translate well.”
With respect to the good people at the BTA, Colin is completely correct. The only unusual thing about this exchange is his readiness to ask the question in public, rather than just going away and trying to repeat snippets from a communication that was not understandable.
Ask yourself what effect that normal human reaction will have on you and on your project if the person in question is your team member. Your supervisor. An influential individual with a public podium. Your friend.
Fortunately, the second unusual thing happens. A much clearer response is given. Note the “Okay” and “Right” responses that happen every paragraph or two, indicating that the listener actually does understand this version:
FISHER: Okay. I’ll try to translate in plain English. We have two major portions of our organization, as I said before, the guidance side and the delivery side. The delivery side is we have an acquisition organization that delivers IT systems. So the Defense travel system, the standard procurement system, wide area workflow, business enterprise information services, the financial system.
Q: Ah, okay.
MR. FISHER: These are systems that previously had been distributed throughout a variety of executive agents throughout the department for which there was no single level of accountability. They were kind of all over the map. And the Def. Sec. Wanted a single place in which he could put, you know, a skilled set of individuals who do this for a living, who take requirements, build them into IT programs and deliver capability.
Now, many of the programs we have in our portfolio today we simply inherited. They were elsewhere in the Department and they were all transferred, if you will, into this new entity called the BTA. And so we became responsible for either continuing the delivery or accelerating or augmenting the delivery of those business systems, and really the one definition of what came to us is stuff that everybody uses.
MR. FISHER: So it’s not an Army specific system or a Navy or a DLA specific system, it’s enterprise-wide capabilities.
MR. FISHER: So that sort of half the organization is the business systems side. The other side is, again, relative to lack of accountability and, frankly, success in delivery in building the enterprise-level requirements. What are the data standards that we all in the Department think we should adopt, and if we do, then we’ll be able to effectively interoperate and, you know, work together. Trade date —
We’re 4 paragraphs into the v2.0 explanation. Compare it to the first excerpt, which was of equal length. How much clearer is it? How much easier to understand? How much clearer is the value of BTA’s work?
How much more credible is that with a public who is often suspicious of the ways their tax dollars are spent? What effect would you expect an impenetrable answer full of bureaucrateux to have on those existing suspicions?
The explanation does go on after this, and it’s still fairly clear. It’s worth continuing, because there’s an additional point that lies beyond it all.
“Q: Well, when you say enterprise-level requirements, I assume it’s only for data systems. I mean, you’re not doing it for weapons systems.
MR. FISHER: That’s correct.
MR. HOLT: Right.
MR. FISHER: We’re doing it for the realm of finance, acquisition, logistics, human resources, sort of core — the business functions of the Department. It’s not C-2; it’s not Coms; it’s not warfighter systems. You know, some of those activities do have linkages into the things that we’re doing, so if you were going to acquire, obviously, a weapons system, you need a contracting system, you need a finance system, you need to be able to pay vendors, all those things. We support the standards for enabling those business activities that enable the warfighter to do other things down range.
So there’s an enterprise architecture that we’re responsible for, which is, in essence, a codification, the single place where all those business rules reside. So everyone knows if there’s a set of data standards, I go to the business enterprise architecture and there they should be.
We are responsible for this enterprise transition plan that the Congress mandated where we publish twice a year — here’s all the business — major business system investments that are going on. Here’s why we’re doing them. Here’s when we’re doing them. Here’s when they’re going to phase out other programs.
So it’s a report that we publish a couple times a year that the Department didn’t have that visibility prior to three years ago. There’s an investment review element. All business systems in the Department — again, per Congress, over $1 million in investment need to get approved through an investment review process.
We facilitate that process — OSD folks sit at the table and make the decisions, we facilitate that process. And then that last piece, again, back to the requirement side, so if the comptroller or the undersecretary for AT&L or the undersecretary for P&R, if they have a major business initiative, it’s clearly in their mandate to identify what that is, what the priority is and what the policy is. Where we step in is to try to help them take that policy and make it implementable, if you will. How are we going to make that come to life? And how would the components who have to build systems and capabilities to make it come to life — how would they go do that?”
Clearly, this is is a much, much better answer.
Could it be condensed into a much quicker answer? One that retains clarity and does not oversimplify, while allowing further questions in order to get at the details? Absolutely.
What follows is one effort to summarize that answer – something that every reporter, and every manager, is going to need to do afterward.
Note how much easier it is to do this with the clear explanation, and how impossible it would be to derive it from the original bureaucrateux. It may also be worthwhile to ask yourself how much easier that process might become if the words below were the explanation given in the first place, with additional information given out in response to additional questions. Finally, note that the middle 2 paragraphs could easily be removed to create an even shorter answer, for use in appropriate situations:
“Most of our work falls into 2 categories. We’re responsible for the big IT systems used by everyone across the military, and we help guide the Department of Defense’s IT systems as a whole through IT standards and reviews.
So, we deliver, maintain, and improve IT systems like travel systems and financial systems that are used by the entire US military, rather than just one service or department. The idea is one responsible group that can give us one system for something, can submit accurate reports of the total effort and cost, and is responsible for doing it right or making sure problems are fixed. There were problems with all of that, to the point that Congress got involved and the BTA was born.
We also help guide everyone else in the DoD by creating and maintaining the data standards and other key IT standards in a single place. That way, everyone knows where the latest standards are, and doesn’t build things that will create unnecessary problems later. Helping the Office of the Secretary of Defense conduct their own investment reviews for all of the DoD’s IT project proposals over $1 million, including projects specific to one department or service, is also part of our guidance work.
Both of those efforts save the taxpayers money, and give the people working in the US military better IT systems.”
DID supports the Plain English Campaign. It counts the UK Ministry of Defence as an official member who has benefited from applying their principles. A similar commitment by US Department of Defense, and by American defense firms would be a huge “force multiplier” for their communications.
As it is for any individual who resolves to learn and implement Plain English principles in their daily working lives.