More than anything else, great teamwork requires effective communication. And nowhere is that more important than with remote, virtual, or distributed teams – across cultures and non-native languages, not to mention time zones. Any back and forth to clear up misunderstandings equates to lost productivity, uneven flow, context switching and perhaps worse: broken trust.
Effective communication between individuals and within teams can be achieved in three simple, but not alway easy, steps:
How often have you gone back and forth asynchronously (email, issue tracking system) with someone just to clarify the basics? Was it because they just didn’t say enough up front?
Here are a few behaviors you can take encourage:
- Say “Who” – Avoid pronouns such as: somebody, it, him… Instead tag an assignee and avoid the bystander effect where all observers assume the other guy’s going to step up. And if you mean yourself, say so, don’t use the royal “We”…
- Say “What” – All craftsman know that if you don’t know what “Done” looks like, you’ll never get there. So avoid the back and forth of “Done/Not Done” or “Are we there yet?” by detailing the specific next step towards Done. “Please review this pull request.” And while avoiding flowery prose (this is not English literature class) to get to the point, don’t skimp on appropriate details, and don’t make your reader scroll up five screens for the link.
- Say “When” – Give timing needs/expectations (aka deadlines) for a response or completion for the “What.” Don’t be vague (“Next week” – does that mean Monday or Friday?) And you might try using “because” to give some context… “I need your numbers by Wednesday, because I need to compile them into my report that I deliver on Friday.” Helps to communicate that your dates are not arbitrary.
In all of your communication, be sincere. Really mean what you say. When making a commitment to do something, be crystal clear:
- “I will send out a meeting invitation today.”
- “I’ll get that done by 18:00 PST.”
- “I can’t commit to that because….”
Avoid non-commitment speak such as:
- “I hope to finish it this week.”
- “Let’s set up a meeting.”
- “I’ll try to do that as soon as possible.”
Notice the difference? For which set of phrases can you really be held accountable? For which set do you mean what you said?
Oh, and did you catch that “I can’t” response?
It is ok to say “No.” Really. Say it clearly. Say it often if you must. Just don’t say “Yes” because that is what you think someone wants to hear.
And when faced with a task that doesn’t lend itself to a clean commitment, agree to one or more steps that would lead to the desired goal, or set a time box, and then regroup, replan, and recommit based on what you found:
- “I will work at least five hours each day for the next three days to solve these bugs. I’ll let you know more on Friday.”
- I will contact Dana today to confirm her availability next week.
Do (Or do not. There is no try.)
Ok, so you’ve been clear in your language and have made a commitment that you mean. What next? Well, you simply do it! (And don’t forget to communicate that you’ve done it…close the loop, don’t keep people guessing…)
But.. wait… what happens if you can’t do it? Stuff happens. Brush fires erupt somewhere in your territory. And sometimes, in spite of your best intentions, you “drop the ball.”
Don’t hide, don’t be quiet, don’t pretend you kinda made it or hope it goes unnoticed…or apologize after the deadline has passed…be accountable.
Bring the issue to the attention of the team. Be direct, specific and timely as possible. Sometimes “I forgot” is just what’s needed. (If that happens often, you’ve got a process issue, but that’s a topic for another post.) The quicker you do raise a flag, the better the odds are that your team can help you do something about it.
I don’t recall exactly where I read this:
“Teamwork is a worthy goal. And there is no disputing that it is uniquely powerful – enabling groups of people to achieve more collectively than they could have ever imagined doing apart. However, the demands of real teamwork cannot be underestimated.”
If you are not already communicating in the clear language of say-mean-do, start today. Model the behavior.
Keep in mind that your teammates may be new to all of this, so if someone makes a statement outside of this new construct you are striving for, clarify it: “So I understand that you can commit to working on this for five hours each day, Monday through Friday of next week. Is that correct?”
And ultimately more and more communications mishaps will go by the wayside, and you’ll all move more effectively as a team…
Andy Cleff blogs about agile, collaboration, creativity, and innovation at Andycleff.com
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