Lessons in team communication

Three lessons I have learned about team communications

This morning, I found myself thinking about team communication while up to my elbows in poop.

This is not a metaphor. I was literally forearm-deep in poopy water, thanks to a clog in the workings of our Cat Genie. This after spending 20 minutes searching out and cleaning up the additional symptoms of the issue—little messes left beside the genie, in the tub, by the toilet.

This is not a complaint about the Cat Genie. Our blended family includes four cats, so the Cat Genie—a self-cleaning litter box!—is a remarkable piece of equipment that we simply could not live without.

And, with monitoring and simple maintenance, the genie hums along like clockwork, making our cats happy and ensuring our house smells litter-free. But when something goes wrong—a clog, a water pressure issue, whatever—one of us ends up digging around in poop-water while the other cleans up the extra messes that are the “symptoms” of the bigger issue.

As I say, my issue this morning set me to thinking about communications and teams. Much like our robotic litter box, when team communication is working, everything ticks along. The team meets regularly to provide updates, team members flag issues as they arise, the group comes together to brainstorm solutions as needed, and, the project progresses. When a “clog” occurs, though, the project manager finds herself cleaning up the mess caused by the original issue as well as the fallout.

So, how do you avoid a communication clog? There are three simple but powerful lessons I’ve learned through experience:

1. Plan, plan, plan

You may think it goes without saying, but I’m saying it anyway.

You need to understand your team and their communication preferences—you’ll want to consider where your team located, what degree of contact members will want, how they prefer to get their information.

Articulate how the team will communicate throughout the project. Realistically, you’ll likely need a variety of methods, but consider what communication and collaboration tools you’ll need, how and how often will you meet, and when each communication method will be used.

Then, work the plan—meet, post, discuss, share, listen, and solve.

2. Encourage connection and engagement

We can agree that teams do best when team members are engaged, connected, and empowered—but how do you create the open and collaborative space in which to develop that engagement?
• Set team rules upfront—what is expected, what is unacceptable—and take corrective action if

necessary. Rules set the framework for engagement—if you want your team dynamic to be inclusive, open, transparent and respectful, you will need to set those intentions from the outset and hold team members accountable.

  • Show your team that you respect them: Listen to their ideas. Be open to their feedback. Communicate in ways that work for them, not just for you. Give them space to work—they’re on the team for a reason, so let them use their skills. Make good use of your time with them —keep those meetings focused, useful and effective.
  • Encourage discussion, healthy debate and creative solution-building. Be open to differing opinions, and make it safe to share those crazy (and innovative) ideas.
  • Share information—knowledge is power, particularly when it is shared and used to improve the performance of the team and the project.
  • Lay the foundation for connection—you don’t need to head to a retreat in the woods to find connection as a team. But time together NOT working can be a powerful glue. Find out what works for your team—Friday lunch-and-learns, monthly dinners a local pub, coffee mornings —and then do it. Keep it simple and consistent.

3. Monitor and adjust

Even the best machines, like our Cat Genie, can break down.

Periodically check in with your team to confirm that communications tools and activities are working. If they’re not, revisit the plan to see what needs to change to get things back on track. Are your monthly 3-hour team meetings too infrequent and too long when they do happen? Make them shorter and have them more often.

Your project plan is a living, breathing entity that reflects the progress of your project. I like to think of communications as the breath of that entity; it affects every part of the project, ultimately driving the team’s success. Yes, stakeholder needs and satisfaction matter. Yes, resource skills matter. Yes, risk and budget matter. I could go on…so much can impact the success of a project. But effective lines of communication encourage productive discussion, improve engagement, build strong relationships, and reduce the risk of surprises. No poop.

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