“Good communication is the bridge between confusion and clarity.” – Nat Turner.
Poor or inadequate communications is cited as one of the top reasons for project failure. The consequences have a far reaching effect, leading to ineffective program/project leadership, dissatisfied or disengaged stakeholders, loss of senior executive confidence, disengaged team members and a disjointed team experience. All of which can make or break a project and can completely derail a transformation initiative. Best case, it results in a lot of churn, wasted effort and wasted dollars.
With my Computer Science background, and my early career role as a software developer, I said that I was a “1s and 0s” type person, meaning that I liked direct, factual information. I can see now that I used this as an excuse for my candid approach to communication and lack of attention to the engagement and relationship side – the secret sauce in the “art” of communication. This style and approach got me into trouble on many occasions, and was the hardest lesson for me to learn as a new leader.
I take pride in being detail-oriented and I make a point of understanding the background and context when I’m leading programs and projects. However, being detail-oriented has its limitations – if you are focused on the trees, you cannot see the forest. Early in my career as a new manager my detail-oriented updates held me back in executive discussions. When asked a question, I could only give the long answer with all the details. I talked fast so I could communicate quickly as I knew that they didn’t have patience to listen for long. I’m sure you can imagine how that worked out for me. All too often, my managers would talk for me in those discussions – and to my frustration they often got the details wrong and I often felt thrown under the bus and didn’t know how to communicate my way out of that either.
As Mark Twain is reported to have said: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
Eventually I learned (albeit the hard way) that communication is all about building relationships through engagement, and that this creates the alignment needed to achieve outcomes and transformations. I learned how to hone in my messages to pertinent points, in both my written and interactive communications. I learned how to set context, understand my audience, and communicate in a way that led to achieving shared outcomes. Improving my communications enabled me to be the bridge between the technical team and business and executive stakeholders. On my clients’ business & digital transformation initiatives, it helps to create the essential alignment between the executives’ strategic objectives and how the team executes the work to realize those objectives.
The common communications problems that I encounter on client engagements include the following – some these may sound familiar to you:
- Overall vision and purpose of the initiative isn’t clearly communicated.
- There is no clear alignment of the work being executed to the organization’s strategy.
- Failing to identify and verify assumptions leads to gaps in communication due to what we perceive people know or don’t know.
- Communications are created ”on the fly” and are not purposefully planned, so they are ad hoc and inconsistent, and frequently misunderstood.
- The level of detail communicated is not aligned with the audience – it’s either too much or too little, or contains too much jargon.
- Communicators often forget to provide sufficient context which leads to misunderstanding or assumptions on the side of the listener.
- Fail to consider “perceptions” of the audience/listener so it often feels like we are “talking at them”.
- Inadequate planning prior to communications events or activities (meetings, etc.) results in time-wasting discussions that don’t achieve any real outcomes.
When I think about great leaders and communicators, what set them apart is:
- Their message is crisp and clear.
- Their body language indicates they are at ease, calm and composed.
- They speak with conviction and self-confidence.
- They can convey urgency and at the same time, are not in a hurry.
- They can tackle sensitive issues and ask hard questions without offending anyone.
- They are curious, invite questions, and take the time to address them.
- They willingly explore complex situations, knowing there is more at play than meets the eye.
- They want to see the world from your perspective to improve their own understanding.
- They are open to changing their mind based on new information.
- They are focused on engaging in conversations to establish strong relationships.
- Everyone in the conversation feels valued and appreciated.
Communication requires connection, alignment and the ability to listen to understand – rather than simply “hear” what is said.
Great communication starts from a place of clarity. Understanding your own position, what you know and don’t know, and where others may be coming from. Understanding the perspective of others requires getting to know them on some level so you can see the world from their viewpoint – “walk a mile in their shoes”. Successful discussions require alignment to an overall purpose – clarity on what the discussion is intended to achieve. Why is this discussion important, and why now?
Effective communication requires:
- Clarity – it should be concise, coherent, complete and factually correct.
- Co-operation – it is bi-directional, consistent, and spoken/written with confidence and conviction.
- Courteous – It is respectful and exhibits curiosity, and is open to receiving feedback.
The great spiritual leader Thích Nhất Hạnh in the book “The Art of Communicating” states that “Once you can communicate with yourself, you’ll be able to communicate outwardly with more clarity. The way in is the way out.” and “If our minds are blocked, there is no device that will make up for our inability to communicate with ourselves or others.”
To be an effective communicator, we need to:
- Be intentional – have space in your head and take the time to plan communications.
- Remember to set context & validate assumptions that you might be making.
- Communicate in-person (or face to face on video) where possible so we can see body language and engage more in the conversation.
- Communicate with an aim to foster engagement with team and stakeholders.
- Schedule regular team and Executive Steering Committee updates in a format that works for each group.
- Create a repository and dashboards that facilitate communication so the team can self-serve to find information.
- Active listening is essential – from all team members. This might require some coaching and reminders.
Finally, consider the outcomes you need to achieve, and align your communications to those outcomes. What do you want your audience or listener to know, think and feel? What outcomes are you trying to achieve? What do you think are their desired outcomes?
Communication can foster engagement and create alignment, if you take the time to engage the other participants in the conversation.
Is your communications style holding you back?
How has your communications gotten you in trouble?
If you aren’t sure, start to become aware of how you are engaging with others, and how they are engaging with you. Ask a peer, a team-member or your manager for feedback. Practice active-listening, and don’t get defensive about what you hear and observe about yourself. If you screw up, don’t dwell on that for too long – forgive yourself quickly, and try to be more aware and respond intentionally at your next opportunity.
Learning to communicate upward more effectively brings an astonishing array of benefits to you, your projects, and your team.
You’ll gain more influence over the decisions that affect your project, and co-create the circumstances you need to deliver successful outcomes that meet strategic goals. And as you gain skill in advocating for yourself and your team, you’ll be better positioned to create a team environment that minimizes stress and maximizes effectiveness and efficiency.
Just as importantly, you’ll position yourself as a trusted partner in the execution of your organization’s strategic objectives. When executives learn that they can rely on your honesty, transparency, and advice, they’ll be more likely to listen when you speak, consult with you in advance of making decisions, and entrust you with more responsibility.
That’s not only good for you and your team — it’s good for your health and your career.