people in meeting roomTo continue my focus on collaboration, the next major factor to consider is communication. Proper communication, both within and about any effort, is critical to its success. However, communication often becomes mired in personal styles and vague language.

The objective of proper communication is to ensure that the receiver understands the message in order to be informed, engaged, and provide support. Too often though, we find that the messenger provides too much information, hoping the recipient will absorb and translate what is needed. Alternatively, we also find many messengers provide inadequate information using unclear and subjective terms.

For example, I once had an employee whose communication style was to send out emails that were a stream of consciousness. Somewhere buried in that three-page email were action items for somebody on the receiving end to address. Between the sheer volume of information and buried action items, people were confused as to the intent of his message. This communication style led to his project delay. Sure, these action items had been discussed in meetings, but, without a clear and succinct approach, many people were unclear of his objectives.

To address problems like this, I focus my efforts towards two areas: clarifying ambiguous terms and simplifying the message by focusing on the audience and outcomes.

Agile tenets highlight the importance of clarifying ambiguous terms. They define "Ready" and "Done" as a team effort where the entire team must collectively define what these terms mean. Prior to Agile, teams often made statements such as "Development can begin when the requirements are approved." or "We can implement once testing is complete." These statements sound self-explanatory, but even a couple of words like "approved" or "complete" can vary wildly from person to person. That is why answering the following questions is crucial:

  • What is truly meant here?
  • How must a requirement look for it to be approved and consumed?
  • What information must be included and are all parties aligned to this?
  • What does "Complete" mean? Is it a flawless product or an agreeable number of defects that is deemed acceptable?

Agile provides a fantastic guide to explicitly articulate these terms for all involved parties. Since many words can mean something different for every individual and team, explicitly defining terms across the team is great way of building alignment before problems arise.

In addition to agreeing upon a common definition, it is critical to simplify your communication so it is appropriately received by the intended audience. To this end, marketing provides a great framework for clarifying your message using Personas, Outcomes, and Interpretations. Before you execute any communication, think about:

  • Personas: Who are the people receiving this message? What differentiates each group?
  • Outcomes: What are the actions I intend for each group to take? What information will they need to be able to perform those actions? What other actions might I anticipate they may take?
  • Interpretations: How do the different personas internalize information and make decisions?

While some questions (e.g., Who? What? How?) may sound basic, a lot of reflection should go into these questions before communicating the desired message.

  • Who - Sponsors, affected parties, team members, and customers will all look at the message through their own lens. Consider how they will perceive your message. For example, a sponsor will likely want to know how the team is progressing, whereas customers or users may want to know how this change will benefit them.
  • What - Inform, act, and guide are all examples of the kinds of actions we may seek from our message. Informing your team on the progress of the project may not elicit the help you need if you do not overtly request it. Being explicit and clear is critical.
  • How - Meetings, emails, PowerPoint, etc. There are many ways to deliver our messages. Too often, people look to simply check the box that their communication was made. In my experience, an important message needs to be delivered three to five times through multiple channels and formats to ensure it has been received and properly understood. How many meetings have you had where an important action was discussed only for it to die on the vine because no one knew who owned it?

In addition to considering the broad strokes of your message, Meyers-Briggs tests reinforce that people process information differently. While you may not have an assessment of each stakeholder, you should reflect on the personality of your key recipients. If he or she is an Introverted Feeler, expecting the individual to speak out decisively in a meeting might not elicit the response you desire.

Ultimately, when collaborating across teams, it is important to be mindful of the messages that you are delivering and the audience receiving those messages. I recommend engaging with your team to clarify what kind of communication each action requires and how key people may process the information differently. Properly tailored and consistent communication allows you to manage otherwise insurmountable roadblocks.