The Opportunty Cost of Non-Communication!

We’ve just been at the Shaw Festival and saw a superb production of “The Devil’s Disciple”.

While it has many themes, one of the most intriguing is the story of the British General Burgoyne. Burgoyne is known as the man who lost the Battle of Saratoga, a decisive turning point in the Revolutionary War. The American success there emboldened France to join with the fledgling nation, leading in time to the French navy interceding to help enable the historic victory at Yorktown.

Burgoyne was scape-goated for this, though arguably he had marched south from Quebec with a daring plan that could potentially have turned the tide in their favor. He was to be joined by the army of General Howe (located in New York). They were going to catch the Americans in a pincer movement. Alas, the orders to General Howe from London were very likely not sent, or if sent, were ambiguous. General Howe headed to Philadelphia, and a vastly outnumbered Burgoyne had to surrender. Burgoyne took this philosophically and returned to a measure of eminence after the cronies of mad King George were no longer in power. Apparently the official who was to send the orders to General Howe went on a vacation to Kent and opted NOT to interfere with his plans! But for that lack of communication…history could have been very different, and even a gifted commander could do little, when strategy failed to be aligned upon or executed.  As an American, I’m glad! But it’s highly instructive to say the least.

Laura Secord is a Canadian heroine. She overheard American plans to launch an attack during the war of 1812, and walked 32 kilometers at night to give a warning to a key Canadian outpost. The Canadian troops were forewarned, but for 48 hours the American attack never came. As it turned out the American troops were lost in the woods! The leader of that attack claimed they didn’t need maps or guidance as he claimed to know the woods “like the back of his hands”. Most of us don’t inspect the back of our hands, he clearly hadn’t either! They were picked off trying to find their way.  Better planning, better communication, would have again been critical.

In more recent times we know that the perpetrators of 9/11 were, many of them, wanted by various agencies in the United States. But the computers of various agencies weren’t linked to each other, so amazingly these people weren’t stopped at the airport and actually allowed to board planes! Arguably, all the information needed to identify them was present, but unable to be effectively deployed. When what we know isn’t effectively networked, no amount of knowledge will provide “intelligence”.

It behooves us then to realize that having strategies that are clear to us will be ineffectual if they aren’t relayed to everyone critical for their execution. The Governor of Quebec also received orders to bolster Burgoyne’s forces. But because his rank had been slighted in the communication, he hesitated…at that most critical of moments for British forces with ruinous consequences. So we have to not only “order”, we have to “enroll”. We need more than compliance, we need passionate engagement.

We also have to double-check our plans and preparation, rather than “assume” we know the way through the woods. Ensure, don’t assume.

Finally, we have to find ways of letting ideas, information, insights and perspectives connect and find their way throughout our network. We never know where the next breakthrough will come from, or who will be in position to avert disaster.

It’s easier to scape-goat someone or indeed to wring our hands in the aftermath. But proactive unambiguous communication, coupled with validated information and careful planning, and the sharing of what we’ve learned throughout the entire value chain, is how we ensure we achieve results rather than precipitate disaster.