Monday, October 27, 2008

October 27, 2008 – Back to the Basic: Communication – How

Once, in the midst of a long distance relationship I had the grand idea of sending a Western Union Telegram to my girlfriend. From my vast knowledge of telegrams, based solely on movies and TV, I knew that every time you put a period they say "STOP" to indicate the end of the sentence. I envisioned a hand delivered envelop with the words “Don’t STOP loving me and I won’t STOP loving you” on Western Union paper. I think they took my $20 and placed a phone call instead that incoherently said "Don't loving me and I won't loving you."

Telegrams were a great way to express you feelings in the 1800’s but by the 1980’s it was out dated. Sometimes you know what to say and when to say it but fail to be heard because of how you choose to say it.

How to be Heard. When deciding how to get your message out, you need to consider both the method and content.

The method does matter. There are the normal methods:

  • Phone. Great for quick answers and to give initial direction. Not so good for detailed instructions or approvals.
  • Voice Mail. Excellent for letting people know you called and for playing phone tag. Don’t rely on it to guarantee the message was conveyed or that action will be taken.
  • Instant Messaging. Good tool to exchange ideas and verify progress.
  • Email. Reliable for giving more detailed instructions and receiving approval. Not very personal and can lead to chaos when everyone replies to everyone else.
  • Teleconference. When your team is half way around the world, email doesn’t cut it. It can take 2 days to convey a message. Scheduling a teleconference can clarify the conversation quickly.
  • Webex / GoToMeeting. Web meeting tools that allow you to share your desktop information make it possible for you to run your business from practically anywhere.
  • Get out of your seat. The personal touch allows you to observe the non-verbal aspects of communication like body language, eye contact, gestures and facial expressions. When other methods fail, it may be worth the trip down the hall or across the world.
  • Video Conference. The next best thing to being there. Setting up a web cam on both ends of the world can be relatively cheap and net big benefits.

Sometimes you have to think beyond the normal to get your message across.

  • Go Big. The company I work for owns a plotter for printing poster size images. Some statements need to be loud. Skywriting might be a little much.
  • Websites / SharePoint. A central location for communicating project updates is a great means to keep the team, management, end users and other key stakeholder informed.
  • Hand Written. In an age of electronic everything, sometimes the best communication is a hand written note. It can be a card of encouragement, a sticky note of thanks or a message on the whiteboard.

Content clarifies. Here are some simple things that will help get you heard clearer.

  • Check the Spelling. I recently received a high glossy postcard from my insurance company. They spelled the word “their” wrong…twice. It doesn’t instill a large amount of confidence in the company.
  • Reread it for clarity. Some sentences make their own nonsense…like this one. Often I review what I think is brilliant writing and find it muddled.
  • Shorten it. As you reread, look for simpler, more concise ways to communicate your thoughts.

In the end, you need to merge the What, When and How to get your message across.

By the way, that long distance relationship? We just passed our 19th wedding anniversary.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

October 13, 2008 – Back to the Basic: Communication – When

Rarely do you hear a project sponsor say, “There is way too much communication going on here.” Unfortunately a common complaint is the lack of communication. True, the loudest complainers are often those that opted out of the weekly status meetings and never responded to your emails. You are left wondering when it is appropriate to connect with them.

When to Speak Up. This weekend I was listening to The Tech Guy on a local radio show. Google is piloting a new gmail feature that checks your sobriety before letting you hit the send button. You have a minute to answer math questions correctly to proceed. Evidently too many drunks were waking up in the morning with a hangover AND some explaining to do. For the record, late night may not be the best time to send an email. Sleep impaired judgment can make the worst email look like Shakespeare.

Status. Many factors go into how often you need to get the word out on your project’s progress. The list includes:

  • Project length – Quick hit projects may be over within a week so weekly meetings are useless. For projects in excess of a year, weekly status meetings are too frequent during slower development phases.
  • Development type – Agile project development requires daily, fifteen minute, standing meetings. More traditional projects don’t.
  • Location of resources – Co-located teams communicate hourly. World-wide teams require more structure behind their interaction.

End Users. It has been my experience that the biggest potential failure in communication is with end users. We engage them to get requirements, flash some screens by them for User Acceptance Testing, and finish by dumping the product on them unannounced. Instead of being the central focus they are nearly an afterthought.

Use touch points throughout the project to build to the product release finale. Electronic Arts and other entertainment related industries go all out. When EA Sports released “Tiger Woods PGA Tour” the world knew months in advance and they gave it a media show kicked off. Major motion pictures splash billboards, previews and internet sites long before opening night.

Instead of the implementation date being just the point you are pushing your team toward, start a count down for the intended recipients. “NEWS BULLETIN: Only 47 Days until Dallas goes Digital!” Tease them with the features they will get.

Road construction has the main route to our house torn up. A typical construction sign reads, “Reduced lanes from September 15 to November 10. Use alternate routes.” That says “Your life will be painful for then next 2 months.” Instead they should say, “On November 10 your pothole problems will be gone.” Or “Coming soon: An extra turning lane to get you home faster.”

No Surprises. Ever the optimists, project managers tend to hold out on reporting bad news in the hopes they can right the boat before it sinks. If you foresee problems, raise them as risks as soon as possible. Be proactive in avoiding and mitigating them before they become issues.

Rarely does an issue spring out of nowhere to crush a project. By not warning management ahead of time you eliminate any leadership they may be able to give (additional funds, better people or different priorities) and make them look bad at the same time. Not a good combination. Managers tend to remember such things. With advanced warning the Titanic might be retired to the docks in Long Beach, CA instead of the Queen Mary.