Communications Management: 3 Fixes for “It Should Have Been Obvious” Syndrome

“Didn’t you read my email?” We’ve all asked this question to our teams before.

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Do you feel like people only catch about 10% of what you communicate? You are not going crazy, it is actually true. People grasp way less in conversations than we think they do. We assume they know what we mean and what we said, but actually, they don’t get most of it, whether verbal or in writing.

Virtual teams, lacking contextual cues that the other person hasn’t understood what we’re trying to say, often hear only too late that, “I thought it was obvious that…” or, “I didn’t think I needed to spell that out.” – Keith Ferrazzi. Havard Business Review Blog Network, April 12, 2013

Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., calls this the Signal Amplification Bias syndrome (though she jests that calling it the “I’m Sure It Was Obvious” Effect would have been much more to the point. – Too Much Miscommunication in your Relationship? A Simple Fix.)

Signal Amplification Bias is really just a fancy way to say there is a  lack of communication. The tendency is for people to perceive (bias) that they have communicated (signal) more (amplification) information to other people than they actually have.

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The potential for miscommunication was bad enough when we were face to face with people on a daily basis, but now, with more virtual teams and alternative methods of communications, it is getting worse. In the past, I have posted about the lack of contextual cues created by virtual communications and today I will address how you make yourself truly understood by your virtual teams. It is better at the beginning of the project to make sure your team will deliver what you tell them to deliver, then finding out at the end that they misunderstood you when rework can cost you everything.

Here are some suggestions to help get your message across:

Check 4 Times: Ferrazzi, in his article, said that it was not enough to tell someone to “circle back with me” and he is absolutely right. When I want to make sure that my message is understood, especially when giving critical project direction, I check at least FOUR (4) TIMES with the person receiving my message. This may sound like a lot of work, but after many years of managing teams in India, Central Europe, China and other non-native English-speaking countries (as well as across the 50 States – which sometimes might as well be different countries), I have found that spending time making sure my message is understood up front is better than trying to fix a miscommunicated instruction 90 days down the road.

  • Day 1: Tell them what you want to tell them on the phone (or in person).
  • Later that day: Follow up with a detailed email of what you told them. You really need to present detailed instructions otherwise you are leaving your direction open to interpretation. For example, if you want team members to set up a database that lists all the registered participates of your study, do you want them to decide the fields in the database, or do you already have a template in mind? If you want them to do it a particular way, they can’t read your mind, you need to spell it out. Remember, that you get what you ask for.  If you are not specific, then you’ll get what they ‘thought’ you wanted.
  • Day 2: Check that they understood what you told them in another phone conversation. Though I thought, many times, that what I had asked was clear, when I hear it back from the person the next day, I realize what they heard was lacking certain information. Whether my thought process was less than full or lacking some steps on the initial contact or they were distracted, etc. etc., doesn’t really matter. The goal is a complete understanding of the direction from you to the recipient.
  • Later that day: Correct what they misunderstood from your first communication in a detailed email.
  • Day 3: Check that they understood what you said the second time.
  • Repeat the process until you are comfortable that all details are clear.

Using multiple mediums, especially phone and email, ensures that important concepts get repeated in several different ways. This helps, especially, again, for non-native English speakers. When you get directions to a location on your GPS, do you like the map view or the list view? My point is the more ways you can present something, the better chance of it being understood. I like both maps and lists so that I am sure exactly when to turn.

As a young PM, I didn’t realize my signal amplification bias (aka miscommunication) until the first deliverable from the team. It amazed me how much I did not say (or they did not hear). That is when I started using different mediums to catch what might be missed in a verbal conversation, instant message, or email. I learned that details are better sent in writing so they can be discussed, printed and edited by all sides. Today I use social platforms (like SharePoint) so the whole team can see and update the information at the same time.

Breaking communications down into smaller chunks goes a long way toward being understood. Don’t dump a million task on someone all at the same time. If you compartmentalized a few things at a time, then you have a better chance for comprehension. This way you can make sure that the information is understood before moving on to the next chunk. If the communication fits on more than two screens, it is probably too long. (Interesting tidbit: ‘Chunking” – the theory that we remember things in chunks, gives evidence that 7 chunks plus or minus 2 may be all we can handle at one time.) 

Bottom line, whenever you have two or more people communicating, there will always be some communication issues. Keep it short, keep it detailed, and check each parties understanding along the way.  If you do that… the rest should be obvious.

 

Virtual Communications: I’m Sorry, Who Are You?

I am sure that you have heard this one: “If a tree falls in a forest, and there is no one there to hear it, does it make any noise?”

No matter how impressive your ideas, or how creative your message, if you are not reaching other people through the internet, you have no digital reputation. If no one reads your blog, or your website, or sees your comments, then in the digital world, you basically don’t exist. You might as well be talking to the wall. This will not help you in business.

Building your reputation in cyberspace is not much different than the tried and true “old neighborhood” way of getting things done. When people lived in small towns, everybody knew everyone, and everyone knew everyone’s personal and professional business (think Andy Griffith’s Mayberry ). Towns and villages were self-monitoring. Children all went to the same school, most people went to the same church/temple, and the businesses serviced the local population. (And as Garrison Keiller believed, “All the children were above average.”) If the butcher was skimping on your cut of meat, everyone knew. If a child, or adult, was misbehaving, the community would ultimately bring them in line (think Harper Valley PTA). Everyone had a stake in the outcome of their actions because they knew they would be held accountable to their family and neighbors. In many ways, social media has brought us back to those days – the days of being part of a community.

Facebook has become the town square, or maybe even as intimate as your living room. When you have something to share about your life, you ‘STATUS’ it.  LinkedIn has become your office. When a business is doing something right, you ‘LIKE’ it and you ‘SHARE’ it. Ideas are ‘Tweeted’ across the globe like they used to be discussed at the local diner. In business, your expertise is ‘Googled’ and your community is built through ‘LinkedIn’ connections.  The pace is different, but the concept is the same: it is your community that stands behind you and supports you and helps you succeed, and your community is now online and talking.

Here are 4 reasons why you need to start using social media (immediately if not sooner):

1.  Everyone is using it.

That’s right. Your kids have been using it for as long as they can remember, but more importantly, companies, your company, my company, and the next company you want to work for, is using it. (Check out “Ranking the Top 100 Global Brands” and see how Dell, Toyota, Starbucks, and others are using social media)

Social media is part of our lives and it is not going away. Basically, adapt or die! (I know that is harsh but I think it is true.  “Adapt or Die” is the title of Chapter 1, of Socialized!: How the Most Successful Businesses Harness the Power of Social, by Mark Fidelman.)

2.  People are talking and they may be talking about you.

If you do not use social media, you are abdicating control of your personal message. Whether personal or business, people are talking, so why not make sure that you are in the conversation. Jeff Bullus, the author of “Blogging The Smart Way,” says that “The thing to keep in mind about brands that don’t want to engage in Social Media is that these conversations are going on about you whether you are there or not, and whether you want to hear it.”

I am sorry to break it to you but… your High School friends are talking about you on Facebook and pictures of your dog are on Instagram. But more importantly, your boss’s boss just ‘Tweeted’ about a new product that she thinks may be the next big thing and you missed it. I really think you want to be in the conversation.

3.   You have a passion, communicate it.

ringleader_yelling_thru_megaphone_sm_wht_23454Everyone has at least one story that they love to tell others. When you recite it, the whole room gets quiet and everyone listens. That, my blog friends, is the ‘it’ factor, your passion – the topic that makes your eyes sparkle. Maybe it is your recent trip to Paris or pictures of the baby, for many, it is their profession (I can wax for hours on project management), or something political like Global Warming. Do you love to tell people your ideas on building a better mousetrap, or a unique way to solve a tricky business problem? There is a passion in you and a story to tell.

Once you narrow in on your personal brand, social media gives you the ability to communicate to a wide audience. Sharing your thoughts, your views, your passions, helps to build an authentic picture of your expertise and let’s people know what value you bring to the global conversation.

Allison Graham, in her book “From Business Cards to Business Relationships: Personal Branding and Profitable Networking Made Easy,” says that “The two most predictable questions that will be asked when you meet someone are, “Do you have a business card?” and “What do you do?”  Your digital business card should communicate what you are passionate about. This is your chance to show your stuff.

4.   Patience. Your audience will grow and so will you.

Remember the ‘old neighborhood’ that I was talking about, well it now has gone digital. Whether it is your local church group or what Etienne Wenger calls a “community of practice” (a group primarily made of practitioners in a field or profession who are passionate about the work that they do), they are all connecting through social media. People want to be connected and they are connecting through online communities in the millions.   In the end, it is your communities that will be your biggest supporters and where you will grow your online reputation. (Check out Design to Thrive: Creating Social Networks and Online Communities that Last, by Tharon Howard)

Do you really need more reasons to start using social media? Here’s an easy way to add to your online reputation immediately: leave a comment below and connect with me now on LinkedIn. Welcome to my digital family.

Controlling Chaos: 6 Agile Steps To Finding Sanity

Have you lost control of your day? Is the pace of everything getting faster and faster, so that you just can’t get done what you need to? Do you feel like your projects are spiraling into chaos? Finding ways to maintain one’s sanity while managing large, fast-moving projects is a creative dance. Recently, while teaching a course on “Managing Projects in e-Business,” one of my students asked me how I controlled chaos on my projects. My answer: “I plan for it!”

chaosMy job as the Project Leader is to keep the project moving forward; to meet deadlines, budget constraints, ensure performance, and most of all to manage the client’s expectations. I know better than to think that I can ever ‘really’ control things, so I put processes and procedures in place to make sure that maybe the roof won’t blow off when the tornado comes through (if you get what I mean), and to know what I might do if, and when, it does. I have been managing chaos for years (long before there was Agile PM), with solid planning,  a deep understanding of my team and client, and with a nimble attitude.

What is Chaos Anyway?

On a project, especially in today’s complex and dynamic environments, chaos can be defined as “a state of the (project) system where the future development of the system is not predictable, or only poorly predictable.” (Avoiding and Managing Chaos in (Construction) Projects, Sven Bertelsen and Lauri Koskela, 11th Annual Conference on Lean Construction – Denmark, 2009  ) Basically,  a small unpredictable event, like the delayed arrival of key resource materials, may seem like nothing more than a nuisance when it happens, but the cumulative effect of many deliveries not taking place over many months can delay you to the point of no return. When you are dealing with complex projects, you are sitting on the edge of chaos most of the time. If you plan accordingly, it is less likely that you will be overtaken by events. (How to Save a Failing Project: Chaos to Control, Ralph R. Young, Steven M. Brady, & Dennis C. Nagle, Jr.. Management Concepts, Inc., VA, 2009)

Sanity = Practicing Good Project Management

  1. PLAN:  Make a plan, work the plan, and update the plan continuously. Do you have a Project Management Plan (PMP)? If you don’t have a roadmap, how do you know where you are going? You don’t have to document a tome of stuff, but as Agile Modeling tells us, “keep your plan simple enough, but not too simple.”
  2. TRACK: Know where you want to end up and keep your focus there. Stay on track. Do you have a Project Charter? Knowing what you are sponsored to deliver is critical to getting there.
  3. MONITOR: Have a metric by which you know how to check the health of your project. Do you have an analytics dashboard? How do you know you’re on track if you can’t show it in a graph somehow?
  4. PREDICT:  You need to know what your mitigation strategy is because something will go wrong. What is your Plan B? Do you have a Risk Management Plan? Chaos management is really just risk management. You may not know what is going to happen but you can plan how you will fix it when it does.
  5. FIX: Prevent everything you can from going sideways. You do this by a continuous (iterative) review. Do you have a Change Management process? Remember to change the easiest things first and get them going in the right direction. Repeat after me:  CHANGE IS GOOD when it gets you closer to your goal. Little changes along the way are a lot easier than a big change near the end. (It’s that cumulative thing again.)
  6. DANCE: Be agile in approach and attitude. You need to be open to alternatives when you need them. Stay close to your client and your sponsor so that you can make decisions when they are needed in the moment.

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I know it may sound oversimplified, but most of the battle of controlling chaos is staying calm and practicing good project management.  What dance steps have worked for you?

Communications Management: 5 Virtual Team Tips For Better Understanding

When I started to manage global teams, it became apparent to me that people everywhere were generally bad communicators. People tend to talk, not listen, and with the loss of visual cues, multiple native languages, and different writing styles, I saw a recipe for significant misunderstandings. On a project, especially an agile one, misunderstandings can cost time and money.  miscommunications

Virtual environments of communications, (email, text, and phone, to name a few) pose a higher risk of miscommunication because they lack the ‘visual components’ that we find in face to face communications. This poses both challenges and opportunities for us as Project Leaders (“Social Networking, The “Third Place,” and The Evolution of Communications,” 2007). The challenge comes because we lose body cues that help us understand whether the other person is listening, or mulling over our questions, or getting ready to answer. We are not necessarily sure that our communication has been received as intended. On the other hand,  we have the opportunity to incorporate new modes of contact into our virtual communications that can provide us with enhanced team collaboration, knowledge sharing, and understanding. (“Six Sigma Team Dynamics, Roles, and Success Factors,” Skillsoft, 2017)

I put this list together after decades of successful virtual management of worldwide teams to maximize project communications and minimize misunderstandings.

pascal1. Be Brief: Use as few words as possible. Utilize the technology medium (email, twitter, instant message), that will convey your message without extra fluff.

“Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.” (translation: “I have made this [letter] longer than usual, only because I have not the time to make it shorter.”)Blaise Pascal

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2.  Choose Your Medium Wisely“Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink.”Martin Lomasney

3. Pick Up The Phone or Skype: If a text or instant message dialog goes for more than 5 minutes (5 texts back and forth), it is best to pick up the phone or Skype and talk to the person.

4. Practice Good Emailing:

  • Less is more. (See Rule #1 & #5)
  • Try to make it fit on 1 screen.
  • Be clear about your point and organize using bullets and headings.
  • Write using good grammar.
  • Avoid attachments.
  • AVOID ALL CAPs, emojis, text-messaging language and colored type.
  • Proofread each sentence.
  • Don’t send something you would not want the world to see.

5. Choose the 1 Question you want to be answered: If you send a note with several questions in it, typically, only one question will get answered. Often, it is the last one. Occasionally, it is the first one. But usually, it is the most interesting one.  Why not decide instead of leaving it up to fate?

Miscommunication poses an unnecessary risk and cost to any project.  In a future post, I will talk more about successful global team communications and communication plans. Following some simple virtual rules can make all the difference in being understood.

Disaster Project Management: Emergency Leadership

There is no greater pressure than life-or-death situations. Hurricane Harvey just left and, as I type this, Hurricane Irma is pounding and ripping up the eastern side of the US.  On top of that, with today being September 11, I cannot forget the incredible terror attacks on the Pentagon and Twin Towers, which changed my heart and my thoughts on what it means to lead in a disaster forever.

Aerial view of damage at the Pentagon 2 days after the attack in 2001 (Picture: Cedric H. Rudisill)

Emergency leadership requires a person to take immediate action. There isn’t a lot of time to figure out best practices or analyze the situation for an optimum solution. In an emergency, leaders must show confidence, take charge, communicate what needs to get done, and delegate with authority, all while appearing calmly to really know what to do (when they may not).  It is about making the best choices, at that time, for that situation and being able to communicate them clearly.

Leaders in a crisis are the people that are able to make decisions quickly for the benefit of everyone. They know that setting priorities (do this first, then this, then that) and making hard choices (ignore that and do this), can make all the difference between getting stuff done and things getting out of control.

Emergency leadership also requires a ‘steady hand at the helm.’ You need to put any extremes of emotion aside and focus on the tasks to be done. Your ability to stay calm under pressure gives the confidence to others to follow your example. The more you can rise above the clamor and chaos, the more you will be able to rally the teams needed and get people moving in the right direction.

Neighbors removing downed trees in Jacksonville, Florida. September 11, 2017 (Picture: Johnny Milano for The New York Times)

Stay calm, stay focused on the goal, and find a way to stay positive. As a Leader, your mental attitude goes a long way to demonstrate to others that together you can all get through this crisis.

There are always stressors and pressures in life, as in business. Hopefully, few of us will find ourselves having to lead others through high water and downed power lines.  But, by being prepared for the potential of Emergency Leadership one day, you can rise to the situation better equipped and more able to make order from chaos.

Disaster Project Management: 5 Important Steps

Lately, no matter where you turn, there are natural disasters, man-made chaos, and just plain craziness going on worldwide. No one can manage chaos. But what you can do is prepare yourself and others to handle complex and critical situations.

The Washington Post via Getty Images: Kingwood, Texas August 29, 2017

Hurricane Harvey and the South Asia floods showed us 2 examples of the need for leadership, preparation, and organization. Every person on the planet, and especially every project manager, should have a plan in place for how they are going to deal with critical situations.

Though you may have never experienced this type of chaos before, whether in business or in your personal life, everything you have ever learned has prepared you for this moment in time. Of course, a late product delivery is in no way a match to the enormity of 500-year flood, but the same management principles apply.

  1. Put competent people in critical positions. When the world is falling apart, you need to place people around you whom you trust, who can be honest and give you straightforward feedback. This is not the time for politics.
  2. Leverage your team.  Delegation is key. It would be great if your team knew the mission before hand so that everyone could pull together for the same goal (hence why local rescue teams stage emergency drills), but that is not always possible. So, level set your team as soon as you can. And make sure that you listen to your team and trust their capabilities. One person cannot handle disaster recovery alone.
  3. Efficiency is critical. Crash the schedule down to its critical path and make sure everything the team is focused on is relevant to the outcome. In times of urgency, even the smallest waste is a hindrance.
  4. Check your EGO at the door. Good leaders need good relationships – across teams, with other departments, agencies, companies, vendors. This is not a time for chest bounding. It is best if you develop relationships before you need them in a crisis, but if you can only do it now, be humble and you will get more cooperation from others.
  5. Be physically and mentally prepared.  As the leader, making sure that your body and mind are in the best shape, at all times, gives you the edge when difficult situations arise. We all handle situations better when we are rested and in tune with ourselves.

One thing is for certain, at some point you will be faced with a critical situation and you may never know when or where it came from. It is our job as project managers to mobilize and lead the way out of the trouble waters. These 5 steps are just the beginning, but if you get no further, at least you can get stable.

My prayers are with the victims of the most recent catastrophic events. May you have good managers leading you and a resilient attitude.