“There’s an elephant in the room – do you think it knows I can see it?”
People seldom state the obvious, or at least what they believe is obvious and that’s usually where teams start to “rub the wrong way”. Team member “A” thinks team member “B” should do X or say Y. Team member “A” thinks, “Don’t they know, it is obvious!”
Expectations start at the beginning, but it is at the end that the failure of communicating expectations becomes apparent. Don’t wait for failure to figure out the communication issue.
What exactly is expected?
Clearly state it. If you have to communicate it every hour, or every day, then that is what is required. There is no such thing as “over” communicating. A floor supervisor may need to set the expectation more frequently than a CEO does – but both are responsible for clearly stating what is expected.
Follow up for clarity. It is not enough to think you set the expectation. You have to validate for understanding. A former boss would end each meeting by going around the room asking each person directly, “Do you have any questions about what we just discussed? Are you clear on our path?” Whoa be if you left a meeting and an hour later “forgot” what was just agreed to.
Expectation is a two-way street. While you may have expectations of others, they also have expectations of you. It takes two to ride a seesaw. Team work requires that the team comes to a consensus regarding an expectation of itself. Without a foundation of understanding, team members may flounder and who has time these days to waste?
Make sure your expectations are realistic. Open and honest discussions about expectations and reality can mean the difference between success and failure.
I heard a term this week that lawyers will immediately recognize but for an engineer like me, it was new. It’s a term used in legal contracts: “…for the avoidance of doubt”. I heard that and thought, what a great way to communicate the need for clarity on a particular topic.
When we communicate there are things that are serious enough to demand the communicator goes the extra mile to ensure the “avoidance of doubt”. It is not the responsibility of the one being “communicated to” – they may not know they are about to miss a point. The onus is upon the communication pitcher not the communication catcher to ensure the point is received.
Now apply this concept to your day to day. How many emails, phone calls, meetings, and hallway conversations do you have in a given week? And in that fast paced world, how do we avoid doubt when communicating something serious?
Here are some actions I’ve used to when communicating something where “for the avoidance of doubt” is needed:
- Have the receiver repeat the message back to you
- Use multiple formats – words, pictures, graphs, verbal, or charts
- Approach the subject from more than one direction
- Explore “what ifs” ensuring the intent and motive are as clear as the content provided. Knowing ‘why’ enables people to execute to the goal and not just compliance to the direction given
- Discern which topics need the avoidance of doubt
- Own the communication. You’re the “Pitcher” – Pitch in a way they can catch
I’m sure there are more actions you can take besides these and yours may vary due to your work environment. Yet the idea remains the same. You want to communicate in a way “…for the avoidance of doubt”.
Here’s an email quiz for you. Sorry, there are no bonus points for the “right” answer…but your team will thank you. And since I only have one question on the quiz…. this should be pretty easy for you.
Are you the kind of person who:
A) Automatically hits “reply” to an email
B) Automatically hits “reply all” to an email
C) Contemplates who should receive the email, adding/deleting folks as appropriate before sending any reply
If you said “C” I would have to admit that’s my category as well. However, I struggle at times in who I decide to add or delete. Adding people means long bulky email streams are born (and take on a life of their own). Removing people means someone will lose the conversation stream.
Everyone talks about email etiquette but since I’m an engineer I’d like to talk about email logic. What’s the flowchart in your mind’s eye that you walk through for every email that comes across your screen? Do you have a process? For me, here are some of my internal checkpoints I use that may help you the next time you are deciding who to add or delete from an email chain:
Are only the people I’m communicating with directly on this email?
If your CCs: outnumber your TOs: you may need to rethink your communication strategy. Who really needs this information?
Is this an INTERNAL or EXTERNAL email?
In no circumstance should a supplier or customer be copied on an INTERNAL email. As people respond and “add on”, they may not keep track if the email trail is an INTERNAL or EXTERNAL conversation. Admittedly it can get blurry when you’re in a hurry. So take a breath. Keep communication with EXTERNAL business partners separate from INTERNAL only conversations. Keep EXTERNAL in the TO: line of the email. If something is internal only – label it INTERNAL in the subject line.
Who needs this information?
Take the time to ensure your “Reply All” response is appropriate for the reply – check for confidentiality, internal/external considerations, or level of details that maybe only a few need to know. Take the time to think about if additional people need to know. Maybe the originator did not realize someone else was working on the same thing.
And finally, here’s one that I like to call, “The Jeff Foxworthy* Test”… “If you’re email message is shorter than the list of people it’s going to, yoooouu may be an email rubber stamper.” If this is the case you may want to consider using the blind copy option. There are times a group distribution is needed. Why make everyone scroll down through 50 names to read a couple sentences.
There you have it. My little “Email Flowchart” logic on how I process emails. I’m curious what checks/balances you use in your Email flow. Feel free to comment below and let’s help each other out. Thanks.
*Sorry but I can just hear his voice, hence my name for it.
Ever since seeing the movie Jurassic Park, the theory of chaos has intrigued me. Chaos theory looks at how disruption changes events. I am sure you have heard something along the lines of, “A butterfly flaps its wings in one part of the world causing a hurricane in another.” Wikipedia describes it as:
In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.
Think about it, a SMALL change can result in a LARGE difference later. Normally, procedures and processes are designed to minimize disruption in order to drive sustainability. The processes account for the butterfly flapping. But what about when they don’t? What happens then? How do you right the ship and get through the storm?
Here are a few ideas you can use the next time that pesky butterfly flaps his wings halfway around the world and creates a storm for you:
Volunteer whenever you can
Sometimes the butterfly has flapped so hard it causes a really big storm. It is very tempting to provide a “not my job” answer when asked to help in an area outside of your normal responsibility. Here’s a radical idea, instead of waiting to be asked to help, why not offer your help? A pre-emptive “I can help” goes a long ways in fostering teamwork. If you can help – then help.
Follow through no matter how mundane the detail
Stay engaged until the last “T” is crossed and “I” is dotted. It’s the little things that can be easily over looked but not forgotten in the chaos. Forgetting to sign the paperwork or missing a part count can cause the next team to grind to a halt until the T gets crossed. This just adds to the storm.
Create a timeline or at least a checklist (task list)
Identifying timelines allows you to prioritize by week, day or hour depending on your delivery schedule. Leaving it up “to someone else” can cause continued disruption in your organization.
Over-Communicate with your immediate and extended team
Keep everyone informed on progress, risks, and completion. Use the best means to communicate with the team which could be by phone, in-person, instant messaging, or video conference. It’s important to include those teams that are outside your normal communication loop as they may be working in-parallel with your project.
Learn from the storm
The best learning happens in the chaos. When things run smoothly, the process and procedures do the heavy lifting. It is in the storm you can learn how to
- Manage your time
- Manage resources – your team and others
- Prioritize schedules and tasks
- Ask better questions
- Solve problems – yours and others
- Communicate – with your team
- Balance risk and manage its fallout
Remember what happened in the movie. They thought everything was under control until it wasn’t. Take a moment and think about how you can help “calm the storm” in your organization.
He also makes a really good Cholent
My husband is a pretty decent cook. The other day he made an incredible spaghetti sauce. I asked what made this particular batch so doggone good. He said maybe it was using ground lamb instead of ground beef. Or maybe it was the fresh basil or the peppadews (sweet peppers)? Or maybe it was the lengthy simmer/cook time? I quickly realized that I shouldn’t expect this particular sauce to be a repeatable event. Bummer.
But that got me thinking about how a few key ingredients, that if added, can change an event’s outcome. For example, adding a few key ingredients to an average communication can turn it into benchmark communication. In and of themselves, these ingredients are not really “communication,” and “communication” can happen without them, but they make a significant difference when used. So what are they?
Stop and really listen. Patiently allow people to get to the bottom of the issue they are attempting to explain, (e.g., let them finish their sentence). Patiently ask for clarification as many times as is needed. Patiently work to overcome people’s fear. Patiently try to communicate well.
Contrary to popular belief, curiosity didn’t kill the cat. Curiosity is a good thing. A tenant of Six Sigma is the “Five Why’s”. Try asking someone “Why” five times in a row and you will be able to drill down to the right level of detail. Curiously want to understand why people want to tell you something. Curiously want to know why they don’t want to tell you something. (Maybe last time you weren’t patient with them?) Curiously explore to expand your own learning. Curiously reach out to people and make them feel safe in teaching you. Curiously ask enough questions to learn what you need for everyone’s success.
It’s not that you don’t have the time for “X”, it’s that you don’t have the priority OF time for “X”. If this is the case, maybe you need to adjust your priority OF time. Make time to remember who needs to know and what they need to know. Intentionally find ways to keep the “conversation” going, so communication happens real-time. Manage your own “world” so you don’t crash everyone else’s.
These three ingredients — Patience, Curiosity and Time — are repeatable, scalable and doable. Every week. Every day. Every hour. Every meeting. Every conversation. I just wish my husband’s sauce was…
Most people hate meetings. Yet, oddly enough, I happen to like them.
Now before you think I’ve lost my marbles, let me explain…
I define meetings in a very broad sense: a gathering of two or more people to communicate. Meetings can move mountains through honest communication. Meetings can eliminate waste and confusion by getting everyone on the same page. Meetings can bring to light risks the team can now work on to minimize.
Meetings are simply the gas that moves along progress.
So why do people hate meetings?
Maybe it’s because there are lots of bad meetings, such as meetings that provide more confusion than answers, meetings that make no difference to the team’s success or failure, or meetings that discuss all the wrong things. Ugh. No wonder meetings get a bad rap.
There are three kinds of meetings necessary for a healthy organization:
- Working meetings: Team comes together to solve something
- Pass down meetings: Sharing of information (All Hands meetings)
- Report out meetings: Status updates, Metric reviews (usually includes recovery or continuous improvement plans)
Either you’re the Creator or the Attendee and in either role, only you can prevent BAD meetings.
- Identify the meeting’s purpose and provide an agenda. No exceptions.
- How many times do you get called into a meeting and have no idea why. If you expect someone else to provide information – tell them ahead of time so they can bring it and be prepared.
- You are responsible to ensure the meeting’s productivity. Constantly assess if it is accomplishing your needs. People’s time is a company resource -it’s the same as spending money on supplies and tools. Are you being a good steward?
- If a meeting needs a different format, change it.
- If you find no one is coming it’s either seen as not productive or your time slot stinks. Change it!
- If the meeting is no longer needed, stop having it. Heresy? No, more like reality.
- If you are a member of a standing report out meeting – own your information. The team is counting on you to share what is important for success. Come prepared to share the specifics of what is needed to improve your metric. Be prepared to elevate the “important”.
- Don’t throw issues out without having first done your homework. If you see a problem, pull the right people together and solve it (Yep, you should have a working meeting before you throw out the issue).
- Know your meeting types! If you are reporting out, you better have had working meetings to support your report out plans.
- If you are there to “just” listen – then take copious notes, communicate back, and think how you could pro-actively help the team.
Minutes are time consuming but necessary. Too long after the fact and they become worthless like day old fish. In a time-sensitive (or as a friend says “fluid”) environment, too long could be 12 hours. Have you ever tried:
- An action item list. It’s a great way to track commitments, people and timelines.
- A shared file. It could be as simple as an excel file and it can go a long way to keeping everyone on the same page.
- A simple white board. Put it in a common area. Everyone can see it.
If we remember that the purpose of any meeting is communicating and we each do our part to communicate better – “meetings” may actually be liked. Now, who’s got the cookies to the next meeting?