A Major’s Guide to Communication

One of the most challenging facets of life as a staff officer is pulling information from inside of your head and distributing it across the formation. Your day is filled with meeting after meeting and the precious time in your office is often spent putting out fires or answering e-mails from the hyperactive Brigade S3. To counter lack of available time, master effective and efficient means of communication to ensure shared understanding across your formation. I’ve highlighted a few, ranked from least to most effective:

PowerPoint Presentation (distributed by email). Few things could be worse than a PowerPoint left to decipher without context or explanation. Often, these documents are forwarded in an email from an overwhelmed staff officer with the only words in the body of the email “see attached.” Sending a PowerPoint presentation is not an effective method to communicate, though many staff officers rely on it as they forward information from higher to lower (also known as the swivel chair staff method). If you’re forwarding a presentation as an attachment, take the time to clarify key points or take aways in the body of the e-mail to enable shared understanding. I actually believe PowerPoint is an extremely effective communication tool, but only in conjunction with a brief or discussion. If used properly, a slideshow can nail shared understanding with a visual representation of the point you are making. Always attempt to limit number of slides (less than 10 is optimal) and the length of the brief to an hour or less. I constantly failed at these guidelines as a staff officer, but they are great aim points for your presentations.

Email. Microsoft Outlook is another abused tool in our profession. I have a special place in my heart for the staff officer who clears his inbox around 1800 by forwarding everything to his distro list of S3s.

When facing an overflowing mailbox, many staff officers skim and quickly send the majority of messages to the trash. Are the messages you’re sending contributing to shared understanding, or contributing to the impressive number of unread emails in their trash can? Another important consideration is whether subordinates have access to email while away from their desk. Most do not at the Battalion and Brigade level, limiting access to the digital information you’re distributing. In my Brigade, we adopted a civilian chat function as a replacement for typical email traffic. There were several huge benefits including the ability to “chat” via civilian cell phones and participate in collaborative discussions rather than in stovepipe emails. We created several standing chat rooms and various special chat windows during culminating events such as our deployment to the National Training Center or during exercises in the Pacific. This proved to be an outstanding tool for building shared understanding throughout the staff and subordinate headquarters.

Collaborative Sessions. One of my favorite methods to communicate is with a group of smart leaders huddled around a whiteboard. As the Brigade S3, I truly believed there wasn’t a problem we couldn’t solve when the BN S3s came together collaboratively. Additionally, these sessions are powerful in building shared understanding across multiple headquarters.

Though effective, whiteboard sessions and working groups rapidly devolve to a waste of time if not properly structured. Always prepare for a working session by distributing inputs (what do leaders bring to the table), process (what’s the structure for the session, and outputs (where will be at conclusion). Also, take time to think through the ergonomics of your session. How many whiteboards will you need and what information will be captured on each? What supporting documents and references are required? Most importantly, who is the recorder and what is the recording method? All to often these sessions are wasted when participants slap the table and walk away without capturing tangible outputs. In addition to collaborative sessions with staff and subordinate S3s, we’d use this method to collaborate with the commander in place of PowerPoint IPRs. Some information would be presented to the boss, while he’d also have the opportunity to think out loud and brainstorm without making decisions. Think through collaboration and how you foster it in your organization.

One on One Communication. The last and most effective method to distribute information is probably the least efficient and taxing on the already scarce. commodity of time. In this method, leaders ensure clear intent and subordinate understanding while gaining unique perspective from each interaction. Rather than attempting to schedule blocks of time for “Battlefield Circulation,” I attempted to use existing gaps to get out and about for discussions. I made a point to stop in with one or two other staff officers each day, partially to shoot the shit and partially to ensure clear understanding of staff priorities. Our Division was driving distance across post; I’d often stop on the way back from meetings to check in with subordinate Battalion S3s and XOs. One negative aspect of this method is the lack of collaboration involved. Think through how you’ll capture information from these sessions and ensure lack of understanding across the force.

These are simply a handful of countless methods to communicate across your formation. One of the guiding principles of Mission Command is shared understanding. ADRP 6–0 tells us “commanders create and sustain shared understanding and purpose through collaboration and dialogue within their organizations and with unified action partners to facilitate unity of effort.” How do your communications contribute to the organization’s shared understanding?

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