Are you missing this in your communication?
We are missing a critical element in communication at work. This is coming from my experience in leading projects for more than ten years, in five industries. According to Project Management Institute, professional project managers spend most of their time communicating (Project Management Body of Knowledge, 2013) and I have observed them missing this critical element too. I have been guilty of not paying attention to this element as well. So, what is this critical element and what can we do about it?
Imagine a team sport like basketball, where a player (let’s call him Niraj) is passing the ball to another team member. He is not willing to observe or listen to his team mates and is not able to receive the ball at the right moment. Niraj just throws the ball and he tells himself, “my job here is done.” If every player on the team throws the ball without caring if another team member catches the ball or not, would you consider it a good sport? Of course not. You would even call me delusional for thinking about it. Nevertheless, we do something very similar in our day to day work as managers. We take a “communication ball” and throw it out of our offices, over the wall, and call our work done. The communication ball can be a memo, an email, a report, or a file.
When a player on the court does not watch out for the ball or read signals from his or her teammates, the player creates confusion and chaos. The team simply doesn’t have a chance at winning the game. When a project leader doesn’t get out of her office, does talk and listen to her team members, what is the likely result? Chaos ensues; team members are confused and get misaligned. They work on wrong tasks, march into different directions, and the project fails. Their team cannot complete projects, cannot close sales, and cannot execute their strategy. Here is the nail in the coffin – the project leader eventually gets blamed for the failure.
Let us get back to the basketball court, and imagine a perfect game. You pass the ball; your teammate catches the ball and then decides to dribble. He then passes the ball to another team member. If there is an open look, another team member takes the shot. While handling and passing the ball, you also look out for team mates’ signals. If they send a signal back to you, you adopt your pass to their feedback. Basketball is a game of give and take, and so is communication. The fundamental piece of give and take applies, whether you communicate with one colleague one on one or with a large group of coworkers spread across the globe.
How many times do you get out of your own office, talk to your audience, and ask if they received the message you sent via your communication? If they received the message, did they understand it exactly like you intended? If not, do you ask why not? If you are not taking all these actions, you are not playing a perfect game. You are just sending a signal that might get lost and never achieve your objective. You are limiting what your communication can do for you, your career and your team’s success. You are not playing the game of give and take full out. You can see how a piece of paper, an email or a memo is not doing what it can do for you. All because you did not take the next step of interacting and conversing with your audience – a team member, a client, a sponsor. When your communication does not do what it is intended to do, you miss out on the shots, and your team misses out on a win.
Let us get back to a few fundamentals of communication. You, the communication owner, execute the first critical step: you send a message. This is what I call “throwing the ball”. Throwing the ball gets the ball rolling (figuratively) but it does not ensure that the ball is received by the right teammate. How can we move from just “throwing the ball” to a give and take game?
For that, I think of the critical next step – obtain feedback. Ask for feedback as soon as possible in a project life cycle. In terms of simple actions, this is what you do – talk to your teammate, sponsor, client, supervisor who are on the receiving end. Feedback will help you to understand what works and what does not. Incorporate feedback to refine your communication and then ask again. You keep refining and make your communication artifacts really good, and eventually great! The likely result? You will play well; your team will play amazingly and win at the project game.
Let me illustrate this step by an example. Let us say, Niraj, the project leader, writes a detailed status report every week. When he “feels” like his senior stakeholders don’t know a lot about his project, he proceeds to make his report even more detailed and more graphically appealing. He thinks it will definitely work better next time – after all, he spent six hours working on the report and making it amazing. Will it work? I don’t know. Do you? Let us look at Maria, a different project leader. She walks down the hall one day after sending her rudimentary status report and sees her sponsor Andrej. She casually asks Andrej how he is adjusting to the new company and then says – “Did you read the status report I sent yesterday?” Andrej nods and says “Oh yes. You are leading that salesforce project, right?”. “Right… What did you think about the content? How can I make sure the report gets you what you want?” says Maria. Andrej tells her that he would really like the main points spelled out in the first two sentences in the accompanying email. That will allow Andrej to spend the right amount of time on the right things he needs to know. Maria makes a note of Andrej’s remarks.
Later when Maria gets back to her desk, she modifies the email template that goes out with the status report. Next week, Maria and Niraj create and send the status report to their project distribution list. Niraj’s report looks graphically appealing and Maria’s reporting email has been modified according to Andrej’s feedback. Niraj definitely worked harder on his report. Who do you think will get their message read and understood? Andrej or Maria? You know the answer. Even though Niraj worked harder, it is Maria who will get her message across better. Maria has built this “talking to the team” behavior into her work schedule and asks multiple team members for feedback, and incorporates their feedback to refine her communication artifact. The team is more receptive and looks out for the ball from Maria. They feel appreciated and work effectively towards the end game of the project. Niraj on the other hand, decides to work even harder at making his report more colorful.
So, next time you find yourself working hard at your desk on crafting a perfect communication, take a detour. Stand up and talk to your colleague walking down the hallway. They will appreciate your friendship, care and curiosity. You will practice the secret that most of us intellectually know but don’t practice. And since you practice it, it will make you so much better than an average project leader. You will become great.