November 5, 2019 // By Jeff Nordquist
Almost every problem we encounter at work can be traced back to a breakdown in communication. Maybe we missed something. Maybe we heard about it too late. Or maybe we heard too much and tuned it out. Just like Goldilocks in her quest for the perfect chair and the perfect bowl of porridge, technology organizations need to find the right balance between too little and too much.
As leaders, if we’re not communicating enough with our team - or if they’re not communicating enough with each other - the end result will never be “just right”. Without enough information, people can lose entire days working on the wrong thing - or be launched into panic mode at the last minute.
I remember being on a team where I only received two types of emails from my lead: either “Look at this great thing that just happened!”, or “The sky is falling - you need to fix it by tomorrow!”. Outside of that, I never saw or heard from that person. It’s helpful to have a baseline of communication with your team - 1-on-1’s every couple of weeks are a great place to start. It’s amazing how many unexpected little things can be surfaced in those conversations that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.
At one of my clients, I was getting several “status” emails each day from a team I didn’t know. Every email had 125 recipients, and contained enormous tables, lists, and links to even more tables and lists. At first I tried to keep up, but they didn’t pertain to me so I started deleting them on sight. This continued for a few months. Then one day I got an URGENT EMAIL from someone I didn’t know, wondering why I hadn’t updated the spreadsheet - and “would we be ready for the deployment in two days?!” Sure enough, on line 126 of a spreadsheet my team was listed as a small dependency to this ultra-massive project. Since I was getting blasted by so many emails early on, I was totally checked out when the important stuff came up.
As leaders, we need to make sure we’re sharing information with the right people, without overloading them. Before sending a message or scheduling a meeting, we should ask, “Does everyone on the list need to know about this? Will it help them? Will it waste their time?” Through that lens, it’s astonishing how much unnecessary email flies through the internet every day!
The wrong kind
The style of communication is as important as the message itself. For status reports, it’s okay to send a group email (to the right people!) - as long as subject line is clear, and it contains an easily-digestible summary followed by a link to the report. If some of the recipients need more information, follow up with them separately. For example, if Bob is falling behind, contact him directly - Bob shouldn’t have to discover it by paging through a huge table, and the rest of the team doesn’t need to know unless it directly affects them.
For urgent matters, an IM, phone call, or meeting is more effective. It’s better to surface issues in a conversational way, with the opportunity to discuss and ask questions - so everyone walks away with the same understanding and plan of action.
When a team is falling behind and at risk of missing a deadline, people need to know about it - even if it’s just a vaguely uneasy feeling. I’ve been on teams that were counting on a miracle (or a death march) to hit a deadline, and didn’t let stakeholders know until it was far too late. In every case, the team and the product suffered. Corrections could (and should!) have been made weeks or months earlier - if only we’d raised the red flag sooner!
“Ahhh, just right!”
Finding the balance is tricky, and that balance can change every day. But it’s an important goal worth pursuing. With the right communication:
- People know what they need to know, without searching for a needle in a haystack
- People easily understand which messages are urgent, and which are just informational
- People trust that every message they get contains something of value for them
- People start to apply that same restraint in their own messaging habits
When we find that balance, it’s much easier to tuck ourselves into that medium-sized “just right” bed at the end of the day!