Effective communications are the cornerstone to successful projects and productive teams. The Agile Manifesto extolls the virtues of collaboration, individual interactions, and face-to-face communications. Projects represent our ability to coordinate the work of many people to accomplish a goal. It is no surprise that project managers spend 90% of their time communicating.
High-performing teams demonstrate effective communications behaviors. They have open, respectful discussions. They engage in constructive problem solving. They enjoy each other’s company.
The impact of poor communications is both palpable and measurable. Teams snipe at each other via email. In 30% of failed projects, poor communications were cited as the primary cause.
Even though we cognitively recognize that communication is important, we engage in practices that undermine our efforts. We avoid in-person conversations. We daydream and multitask. We look at our smartphones during meetings. Numerous studies have noted a decline in empathy and interpersonal engagement associated with our smartphone addictions.
Improving communications and increasing engagement requires effort. Here are four ways to improve your team’s morale and productivity by communicating more effectively:
Establish Team Norms
Teams go through the formation process of forming, storming, norming and performing. When they reach the norming phase, the team has established formal and informal rules of individual and group behavior. In other words, members know what to expect from each other and the team as a whole.
It is a natural process for people to form into teams and establish rules of behavior. However, the formation process can be messy and time consuming—particularly with large or distributed teams.
Explicitly establishing group norms and acceptable behaviors is more efficient than waiting for organic solutions. Most often the formal leader (e.g., manager, project manager, etc.) plays a role in setting expectations. In self-managing teams, the Scrum Master or Agile Coach can facilitate this process.
Regardless of how the rules are established, the team needs to accept and agree to be governed by them. The sooner the team agrees to the rules, the quicker they progress through the formation process.
Team norms may include:
- Creating expectations of team and inter-personal behaviors. How do we treat each other? What is considered “acceptable” or “inappropriate”?
- Establishing processes to make decisions and resolve conflicts; and
- Setting patterns for regular team communications. What meetings do we have? How often? What is the objective?
Encourage Face-to-Face Communications
Face-to-face communications are most effective. Humans have been talking face-to-face for thousands of years. We know how to interpret body language, intonation and facial expressions. This is why 93% of communications is non-verbal. Conversely, we do not nearly have the same depth of experience with email, texts, etc.
Numerous studies validate that face-to-face communications are far more effective than electronic ones. In a recent study at the McCombs School of Business, students solicited contributions via email and direct requests. The email group predicted that they would be slightly more effective. However, the direct solicitations were 35 times more successful.
Another study, published in the Harvard Business Review, found that face-to-face negotiations were most likely to result in the best, mutually beneficial outcomes. Phone negotiations often resulted in one-sided results. Email negotiations were marred by destructive behaviors and only had a 50% chance of reaching agreement.
Building the team culture around direct communications will result in better outcomes and happier team, for example:
- Establish patterns and practices that encourage constructive, face-to-face discussions;
- Co-locate the team. Create a physical environment that encourages osmotic communications; and
- Plan pockets of time in the weekly schedule where team members can discuss issues or simply build their personal relationships.
Have Productive Meetings
Knowledge workers spend a lot of time in meetings. On average, we spend 15% of our time meeting—for middle managers, it’s 35%, and upper-management it’s 50%. And, two-thirds of those meetings are considered to be a waste of time.
Techniques that can improve the quality and productivity of your meetings include:
- The meeting should have a stated objective and purpose;
- There should be a published agenda that is distributed prior to the meeting;
- The agenda should list the topic to be covered, the person responsible, and the start and stop times;
- Meetings should start and stop on time. Agenda items should stay within their time box;
- Items that require further discussion should be placed in the “parking lot” to be addressed in another forum;
- The meeting should have rules of engagement and acceptable behavior.
Well-organized and disciplined meetings demonstrate respect. Having an objective and agenda indicates that we respect each other's time. Setting and adhering to rules of engagement establishes respect for the participants. Taken together these actions help create a productive environment.
Common rules that promote effective meetings include:
- Encourage in-person attendance. If you are in the same location as the meeting, attend in-person. If the team is distributed, then members in each location should call in from a single room;
- Ban multitasking. Check cell-phones at the door. Encourage desktop video conferencing;
- Agree to be on time and honor agenda start and stop times;
- One person speaks at a time;
- Establish a process for ending debate on an issue that is circling;
- Be prepared to present your agenda item or discuss an action item; and
- Document issues and action items and communicate them to all participants shortly after the meeting.
Distributed Team Collaboration
Many of us work in distributed teams. According the 2017 State of Agile Report, 86% of teams are distributed. Knowing that face-to-face communications are best, we need to develop strategies that compensate for the degraded quality of remote communications.
Rules of conference calling etiquette are valuable. Being mentally present and engaged on a call is always a challenge. Avoiding distractions and multitasking will go a long way to make conference calls more productive. This will eliminate the common refrain, "Can you repeat that?"
In today's environment it is possible to use technology to supplement our communication capabilities. Video enabled conference calls help close the gap. They provide a low-fidelity bridge to the loss of some non-verbal cues. It is also harder to multitask when you are on-screen.
Collaboration tools such as Slack, Yammer, Hip Chat, etc. can be used to build and archive communication threads. However, these tools are not a replacement for direct communication. Distributed team members should be encouraged to pick up the phone to work through questions or resolve problems.
Improving the quality of our teams’ communications will yield multiple benefits. Teams will be more cohesive and be higher-performing. Questions and issues will be resolved more quickly. Less time will be wasted. And, people will be happier.
© 2017, Alan Zucker; Project Management Essentials, LLC
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