Virtual Communications: 5 Meetings for Better Teaming

Strong team communications are critical to project success. Whether building software, launching a program, or planning an event, there can be no team collaboration without communication.

According to PMI’s Pulse of the Profession, “Ineffective communications is the primary contributor to project failure one third of the time, and had a negative impact on project success more than half the time.”

When I was a new Project Manager, I had a project with development teams in Bangalore, Prague, and Rio. Miscommunication across the team was rampant and caused major delays and rework. It wasn’t pretty. Thankfully, I’ve learned a lot since then. By leveraging lessons from Agile, Kanban, and Waterfall, plus utilizing cloud-based collaborative and project management tools, I now can show my teams how to work better together and have fewer communications issues.

There are many ways to empower your teams for better communications and today I am going to share with you the 5 types of meetings I employ to build relationships, share ideas and best practices, and make sure that every team member is engaged and committed to project success.

The Short and Sweet Daily Meeting 

Daily meetings are not just for critical situations or Agile projects, they are my everyday wake up routine (after coffee, of course). Known as “Stand Up Meetings” or “Daily Scrums,” mastering the art of the 15-minute roll-call will keep your team connected. The way to keep the daily meeting short and sweet is by asking each person only 3 questions with 1-minute answers:

  1. What did you accomplish since our last meeting?
  2. What will you accomplish today?
  3.  What would keep you from getting your job done today?

As the leader, you need to be crisp and keep everyone moving along. Don’t waste anyone’s time. Stay focused. This is not the place for people to bring up new ideas or ramble on.  Set follow-on meetings with individuals or small groups if they need to discuss something or troubleshoot an issue. I pride myself on short meetings. Get everyone back to productive work as soon as you can.

The Required Weekly Team Meeting

To keep my team on the same page, and to ensure mutual support and collaboration, I insist on a weekly team meeting: its sacred to me. Though I set it for 1-hour, most of the time, we finish sooner. The meeting is always at the same time on the same day of the week. This is where I update everyone on company stuff (like corporate changes), people do updates on their projects, we share ideas, give recognition, get feedback, strategize for next week, and, this is where people can ask each other for assistance.

I run the meeting using a centralized project status report, which is kept on our cloud-based team collaboration site which everyone can access for weekly updates and status reporting. Having collaboration tools with direct messaging, file sharing, and screen sharing, like Microsoft Teams, or Slack, goes a long way toward better team communications too, but that topic will have to wait for another post.

Also during the weekly meetings, I have people do what I call, ‘show and tell.’  You learn a lot by demonstrating to others, so I try to get one person each week to show us something they are working on. This serves multiple purposes for the team: it gives individuals a chance to present their work in a comprehensive manner (which is a teaching/ learning moment), it gives the team member acknowledgement for their work effort (recognition is always good for self-esteem), and it highlights the individuals expertise (which is really valuable to other members of the team when they are trying to figure out who to call with a particular problem).

The Regular Touch Point Meeting

When I was at IBM, there were many different jokes about what the IBM acronym stood for. Those of us in the field used to say it stood for “I’m By Myself.”  Remote workers can feel very alone and out of the loop, even with lots of telephone meetings. To ensure my staff feels engaged, I have regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings with each of them. Since most of my staff is remote I use video chat, Skype or Cisco WebEx, when possible, which enriches the conversation with facial expressions and gestures.

The one-on-one touch point is a good time for me to catch up on personal things with the team member, which helps build trust in your interpersonal team relationship, but mostly, I use the call to listen to any new ideas or concerns and to provide mentorship on projects or professional development goals. I have found that by making time to listen to people and to ensure that they understand what is expected of them, they stay on the team longer (retention is important) and are more productive.

The Quarterly Team Meeting

Time flies, especially when your teams are turning sprints on projects in 1 to 3 weeks. Therefore, at least every 90 days (or 3 iterations of a project), it is important to look at what the team has done well and what they can do better. Every quarter, I turn one of the weekly meetings into two 1/2 day sessions (about 3 or 4 hours each).

Kind of like an Agile Retrospective Meeting, this gives the team a chance to focus on things that may have inhibited their success in the last quarter and gives us time to come up with solutions and ideas. To pull the team together, foster cohesion, and to help people focus on joint measurable goals, I instituted a process called Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) (spearheaded by companies like Google). The Quarterly meeting is where we review everyone’s contribution to the team. I am big on making sure that everyone feels part of the whole. Individualism, especially on collaborative teams, can kill sharing and cohesiveness if not managed properly.

The Annual Face-To-Face Team Meeting

With tight project budgets and extreme financial constraints in most companies, face-to-face team meetings are hard to come by. The benefits, however, of even one opportunity to get your team together goes a long way to building better team communications. I try to at least get those people within 500 miles in the same room. There are known limitations on the amount of emotional connection that can be shared virtually, so to create a tightly bonded team, even one physical meeting can speed up the process.

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Whether members are remote or local, effective team communications are central to project success. How do you ensure your teams are engaged and productive? Share your tips in the comments below.

 

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.

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.