We are living in a world of communication. New fortunes have been made on the back of communication: Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Pinterest, LinkedIn, etc. to name but a few. It has never been easier to communicate! …Really? Well, it has never looked easier to communicate. But is it really as easy as it looks?
Easy communication is a kind of mirage, a dream we all would like to be true. If the means are indeed easy to use, it does not mean that communicating properly is easier. It is even probably the opposite: because it looks easy we do not think about it and we communicate badly. And bad communication is the source of many costly mistakes inside a project. This is why we are going in this article to review a handful of truths about communication.
Communication within an International Project
The context in which I thought this article is mostly within a Software Project. It remains true in most projects though. I have experienced these “Truths” and their positive or negative effects first hand. I also have experienced them within International contexts, such as an offshore software project. Keeping them in mind has saved the day often enough to be mentioned. If today, with Liemur, we are offering near-shore software development, it is because we master these principles (plus many others that are not in the scope of this paper, of course). Far too often, projects are put in danger because of poor communication. People are always trying their best. It is rarely the intention that went wrong but the perception of the action.
1. Written communication is weak
Truth #1: To communicate efficiently, one must combine written communication with other less ambiguous means of exchanging information.
Software projects have relied for ages on written communication for its most important aspects. Since the age of the Waterfall process, writing is absolutely key to most projects. There was a very good reason for that: the need to sign-up the different phase of a project. As the parties were supposed to agree in writing about the work to do, we were writing these agreements to death.
The problem is that written communication is intrinsically flawed. It is well known that the vast majority of our communication is done via body language. This can vary of course depending on your culture, but humans have relied on body language forever. This capability was making the difference between life and death in many occasions.
Writing is an extremely convenient way to communicate when one is far away from the people one needs to communicate with. It is also the best way to remember facts such as accounting, transactions and other non-ambiguous information. In many cases, it is the best way to remember what two parties have agreed on. But here comes the limit: if written communication was good at that part no one would ever need a lawyer, a judge would be enough. If a contract could describe without ambiguity the agreement, a judge could simply read the contract and decide who is right and who is wrong. The fact is: lawyers are a profession as old as writing. After a few thousand years of writing, this fact has not changed, on the contrary. Therefore, there is no reason why written communication would be good enough on a project. It will not be! Forget about it.
“The task will be long and difficult!”
If everyone is nodding at this statement, no one is capable to say afterwards if the task will take 1 week, 1 month or 1 year. Is the difficulty like climbing the Mt Everest or going on the moon?
“The System must be user friendly.”
This statement is coming directly from a project I worked on. This does not deserve any comment, does it?
2. Not everyone is a good communicator
Truth #2: Good communication skills is not a given for everybody. Some will be more natural than others. Some will learn well. …and some will hardly be good at it.
Communication is a complex process that everyone is using permanently. We don’t think about it, we just do it. But communication involves several steps every single time we do it:
- Interpret the context in which we are about to communicate
- Put ourselves in the role corresponding to the situation (boss, employee, consultant, parent, child, etc.)
- Decide how we want to project ourselves: low profile; show off; knowledgeable; funny, etc.
- Set the goals of the communication and anticipate the consequences of our actions;
- Create the message that translates the previous steps the most efficiently with the media of choice: verbal, non-verbal and relational communication.
Although we never think about it, we always go through all these steps every time we communicate. And some people are better at that game than others. If you think about the best and worst communicators you have encountered, try to think about what steps they did so well or so badly.
Sending an email to the whole team about an idea I had 3mn ago is not precisely efficient. Preparing a 2h non-stop lecture for a “Relaxed Workshop” is surely going to miss the goals. Maybe obvious but how common!…
3. Communication is culture dependent
Truth #3: An international team will trigger different communication patterns. The understanding of these patterns will be essential to a better communication and less “misunderstandings”.
Culture is the sum of all the rules you have learned when you were a kid without necessary knowing you were learning them. They were just “the way to do things”. Communication is an essential part of that knowledge. How do you communicate with the elders, your boss, your employees, your friends, your service providers, etc? Shall you smile, be serious, look in the eyes, look down, or raise your voice? Do you go straight to the point or start with a small talk? Do you repeat the context of the communication or consider things as known?
To all these questions (and many others), cultures have answered differently. The best way to realise that is to go and live in a foreign country. As soon as you start feeling out of sync with the environment, you will start to understand that your rules are not everybody’s rules.
In USA, you should look into the eyes of the person you are talking to if you want to be perceived as honest. In Gabon, a student would not look into the eyes of the professor when talking to him/her to show respect. Now, what does the American student will do in Gabon and vice-versa? This example is obvious for the purpose of this article, but much more tricky situations will arise between Europeans; No need to be a genius to see how differently the French and the British communicate. They are neighbors but this does not help much.
4. Communication needs a purpose
Truth #4: If the message’s target does not interact with the communication channel, it is a waste of time and energy.
A lot of communication is happening inside of a project, using a lot of different channels. From emails to meetings via workshops, documentation, phone calls, alerts of various types, etc. In fact, we are bombarded by information to the point that it becomes barely livable. But communication is also the sign of a status. Am I in the loop? Who shall I put in the loop?
In many cases, we target too many people with our communication. We send emails to 15 persons instead of the 3 really needed. We invite 10 persons to a meeting requiring 4 participants. And so on.
The problem with this pattern is the waste of time and energy. Communication is time and energy consuming. Think about the truth #2 and all it takes to communicate. Politics is not doing any good for efficiency. Being in the loop to show status or putting someone in the loop to not upset this person is not the right thing to do.
Before communicating anything to anyone, one needs to make sure that this person does indeed need the information. A mail must be read; a participant to a meeting must interact (unless it is a lecture of some sort). Otherwise, there is a problem with the target.
In a meeting, which has the purpose to arrive to an agreement, all participants should have a chance to formally agree or disagree. Once the disagreement expressed and possibly debated, the by-in of the participant to the global agreement will be much stronger.
5. Communication must be adapted to the target audience
Truth #5: Always use the language of the message’s receiver!
Everyone in a team has a different background, a different role and different views on the tasks to accomplish. That is the very purpose of a team: complementary skills to achieve a greater goal than one individual could alone. A CEO is likely to have a very different need about the project in terms of information than say a Project Manager. As we said earlier, a lot of communication is happening during a project and one can easily forget the diversity of the audiences. Reporting to the Architect is very different than reporting to the CFO; Different vocabulary, different skills, different daily problems and different tools to solve these very problems. Working on the same project (i.e. with the same ultimate goal) does not change these facts.
As a consequence, it is essential to always keep in mind the target audience of any communication happening inside the project. We have seen big projects suffering greatly from this mistake: one communication for all. If you want your messages to be well received and understood, you must adapt your message to the target audience.
Do not send a big Database diagram to your CEO to justify your request for project extension. It is unlikely to trigger the need to say yes.
If technology enhances our range of possibilities for communicating with each other, the basic rules of communication do not change very much with time. And as surprising as it is, we do more and more written communication as it allows asynchronous messages between individuals, freeing us from the challenge to be available at the same time.
But we do not and will not stop to communicate. Human beings need to exchange ideas, talk, collect and distribute information. It will not stop. It will probably increase. There is nothing wrong with that but we have to remain careful. Easy tool of communication do not make communicating easy. We have to separate the means from the action. Once we realize that, we can start improving the efficiency of our messages. We need to add more sense and select the audience carefully; otherwise we are just creating noise for the others.
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Sylvain’s personal blog can be found here: blog.sylvainliege.com