On Communication

“We need more communication!”

Odds are, if you’re working in any organisation that isn’t small enough for everyone to know everyone, this is a complaint you’ll have heard at least once. Communication is hard. Everyone knows this.

Odds are, once you heard this complaint, you did something about it because you’re trying to be an effective manager and you want everyone to be informed… you added extra presentations, a regular newsletter, you wander the floor and talk to people.

And then the next time you ask, communication is still touted as the biggest problem everyone faces.

The bad news first; communication is always the biggest problem you’ll face in your organisation. And once you address it, communication will still be the biggest problem you face. Always.

The good news; you’ve probably misunderstood what people are trying to tell you. There is one very deceptive word in that first phrase. Okay, maybe two, but one in particular that sent you down the wrong path.

What can “more communication” mean?

  1. You don’t talk to us enough.
  2. You don’t talk to us about the right things.
  3. You talk to us too much.

Yes, really. Even that last one. Stick with me

1. You don’t talk to us enough

It is possible your understanding of what your staff and co-workers need to know about is too narrow.

Are the details of the next project a distraction while we are still finishing our current work? Or could advance knowledge let my staff make some smart decisions about laying foundations for the next thing while finishing the current thing? They’ll get annoyed if they never find out in time they could have done something smarter for the company.

Are competitive pressures just going to worry people about their jobs? Or am I missing an opportunity to engage the creative capacity of my staff to innovate us to the top of the pile? It is very dis-empowering to feel like you’re just sitting in coach while your life is in the hands of the pilot alone.

Is it actually better to not say anything when you have nothing worthwhile to say? Silence lets people imagine all kinds of far-fetched reasons for that silence. Sometimes a trivial or obvious update is less harmful than letting a fear of unspoken horrors fester and grow.

Cast a very critical eye over all the things you don’t tell staff and co-workers. Why don’t you?

But…

Even when there is a genuine lack of communication, be careful how you fill that void, or you’ll be back to re-read this post for points 2 and 3 in no time.

2. You don’t talk to us about the right things

So, how about I talk to everyone about the next big project that is coming up, and how I need to negotiate it past the VPs and legal team of the company we are selling it to…

Bzzzzzt, wrong…

Yes, talking about the next big project is a great idea. But your needs and concerns aren’t that of your audience. What possible use could your developers have for knowing you are locking horns with legal over whether the solutions you develop for their specific problem domain will entitle you to ownership of those solutions… *snore*. None of that can possibly help them do their own jobs better.

Figure out what they actually need to know, and tell them that instead. And yes, maybe painting a little context is valuable, but do not turn it into an epic about the heroic way you are fighting through your own obstacles… it may be entertaining if you are a good storyteller, but they’ll resent the time they just lost once they realise they had their own jobs to do. To paraphrase Kathy Sierra, “it isn’t about you, it is about your staff”.

Tell them what the VPs want out of the product so they can tell you whether it is even feasible.

Tell them what is going to be non-negotiable so they can start thinking about solutions early and often.

Tell them how to firewall development of features if you are concerned over legal ramifications down the track.

Make sure the information is pitched so it is relevant to your audience, otherwise it’s not communication, it’ll just be talking and listening. And it’ll be a waste of everybody’s time.

And yes, this takes more effort, because you’ll have to think before you speak.

But sadly, that’s going to be unavoidable.

3. You talk to us too much

You’ve been trying to address the communication problem for a while now. You’ve added meetings, newsletters, presentations and extra face-to-face contact till you simply have no more time left in your day for anything else. You’re telling me that was all the wrong thing to do?

Not necessarily.

You may have started with problem 1 – not enough. And you may have wandered through problem 2 – not the right things. You have addressed both of those and there is still a communications problem. What happened?

Everything that isn’t “1” or “2”, is “3”.

Everything you added that wasn’t addressing one of the first two problems has now contributed to obscuring the real information everyone wanted. You’re talking so much that they cannot tell what is important any more. Or they simply cannot find what they care about in the deluge.

Luckily this is the easiest to fix. But it takes courage.

Trust that you’ve worked out what is important, and then ruthlessly discard what was not.

And yes, it may mean that you need to segment your communication. You may need to write a separate update to your staff, and to your boss, and to PR, and to support, etc. And it will take you extra effort to tailor all these messages. One message may feel more efficient, but when one tree falls in the forest and nobody can agree which one it is, does it really matter how quickly you could write it all down?

When “more” isn’t “more”

And by now you have probably worked out the problem with the opening phrase. “More” implies a quantitative problem. It calls for more of something.

But communication isn’t merely the combined acts of talking and listening. It requires relevance to both parties involved. So “more communication” can be either a quantitative or a qualitative problem; either “more talking” or “more relevance” or “more obvious”.

Here endeth the rant.