“The message is not how it was sent, but how it was received.
If received at all….”
|This article is a precious part of the hybris Project Patterns series.|
Why would that be a project pattern? Isn’t it obvious what we need to do?”
Well, apparently not. Even though Communication is one of the most precious gifts granted to the human race, it proves to be one of the most difficult to master.
Do you recall that one project, where people worked in isolation and teams were unaware of each other’s work?
Have you encountered situations where team-members remain ignorant of their roles and responsibilities, when management decisions were not shared and the Business Client seemed to be galaxies away?
Would you be surprised that in most of those cases, the main reason for failure is broken communication channels? And until we all learn how to practice telepathy and share brainwaves, charged with thoughts, we should pay a serious attention about what we communicate and when.
The problem is often not how we communicate, but the complete lack of communication. What happens when we forget, or worse – when we neglect – to communicate? Then, we fail to inform and interact with others. This results in miscommunication, wrong assumptions and broken information flows.
Communication is a primary factor for success in a project.
The Power of Communication
The very first step of a project is about communicating the goal the Client wants to achieve. Without this step, there would be no further progress. Beyond that, every subsequent step is an attempt to achieve the same objective within budget, time and scope.
A project represents a web of communication channels, where all team members exchange thoughts, update each other and inform about advancement. Communication skills are essential for each individual, because through them people can influence, convince and motivate others.
My tutor, Charles Hamilton, in his lectures “The Powers of Communication” reveals the story about the King and the Fool, as examples about how people feel and behave when communicating.
While the King would have a sense of decency, elegant wisdom and royalty, the Fool would be rigorous, emotional and expressive.
In contrast, the Fool would use his feelings to explain his actions. His mood, passions and excitements will characterize his behavior and he would act from his “heart”.
is a quotation from the Bible.
It seems the two archetypes - the King and the Fool - are utterly opposite, and the moral of the story teaches us that they need each other to survive and to exist.
This is what determines our position compared to others. Communication is the means to define ourselves.
There are numerous good writings about the power of communication. This essay would rather explore the communication in the sense of pure human interaction, which repeatedly we forget and neglect.
It is about the fact that often we simply do not communicate at all; leaving others misinformed – with false assumptions, no guidance or a blind sense of progress.
So, why do we fail to communicate? How simple could it be not to forget?
Here are some prominent events, which disturb the Communication within the software project and make us “forget” to communicate:
- Unclear project roles and responsibilities
- Lack of processes and methodologies
- Stress and burnout
- Project reorganizations
- Personal attitude
Let us look at each one briefly.
Unclear Project Roles and Responsibilities
Every project role is charged with responsibilities. An essential feature of the responsibility is to inform others about progress and send signals when changing the course of action. And this holds true for every single role in the project organogram, regardless of seniority and level. Each role should be responsible for its own circle of influence and communicate to the other roles.
The writer, Jenny Dawkins, points out that in companies, “Communication often remains the missing link in the practice of corporate responsibility”. In those cases, the information leader and the remaining audience are often not in alignment.
The same happens in software projects – the Leading role, which also has the information lead, frequently forgets to communicate. Yet, the opposite is also a common anti-pattern: people in mass roles, also forget to inform, because often they are unaware of their responsibilities and reporting lines, or are simply too busy to bother.
This becomes a real challenge for most organizations, projects and corporate programs.
Once you establish your project hierarchy make sure people know well their roles and responsibility. Look after the communication channels in the project. Guard the information stream between the teams and insist that everybody does the same.
Lack of Processes and Methodologies
Methodologies offer a structured approach towards processes and best practices. Software- and Domain Methodologies offer a rich set of tools, duties and workflows to help organizations stay on track and prosper.
Failing to employ methodologies and processes proves to result in chaos not only in working habits, but also in communication – people simply do not know when to communicate and to whom. But methodologies alone will not solve the communication challenges. As discussed in the article Domain Methodologies, if processes are not followed, it is the same as not having the processes.
Agile software methodologies – like Scrum and Extreme Programming (XP) – have a tradition called “a daily meeting” – a healthy practice, which encourages team members of various roles to share progress and indicate possible obstacles of their daily work. This meeting is rather short and its main purpose is to “get informed”.
The Project Management Institute (PMI), defines - as part of the Project Management Professional (PMP) initialtive - an essential artifact called "Communications Management Plan". The plan is to define the communication requirements for the project and how information will be distributed. It comes to ensure there is effective communication throughout the life of the project. It defines what needs to be communicated, when, by whom, the frequency, the format, the context, and so on. The Communications Plan becomes, thus, a building block towards a successfull project.
Practicing similar communication habits – even outside of any methodology – would consolidate the overall information within the team and strengthen the confidence in the overall progress.
Methodologies often define a certain protocol for communication in the form of meetings and Workshops. Looking back at the Agile schooling one can recognize meetings like Sprint Planning, Release planning, Sprint Demonstration, Sprint Retrospective, and so on – good examples of gatherings, which have one sole purpose: to communicate and inform.
Stress and Burnout
Work-overload has never been a good drive in making progress. When stress crawls within the daily work-life, people fail to excel; and the communication is the first to suffer.
Do not allow people on the project to shutdown, close-up or blackout – encourage your colleagues to communicate so as to prevent burnouts. Watch out the workload of people and motivate them to indicate when overwork takes over. In this case, communication is your best friend in recognizing a working anti-pattern in the normal daily life.
Reorganizations in the team normally interrupt the normal flow of communication. This is because when people change roles that event frequently leaves a gap in the communication chain. In this situations, ensure that a reorganization is supported by knowledge- and work-transfer, in order to re-estate the communication links.
And, by all means: do both – knowledge- and work-transfer!
Knowledge is the hardest value to accumulate and capitalize, so make sure you plan this transition with care and …love.
The fundamental principle in both activities is Communication.
Assumptions are another great source of miscommunication. Actually, the best assumption is the assumption that differences exist. Hence, different expectations exist until you align them.
Experience teaches us to avoid assuming that people know our intentions. Also, to avoid believing that people know all there is about certain topics.
Assumptions lead to certain expectations. So, to set the expectations properly, validate your assumptions with those people in order to build a common base for understanding. Communicate in order to understand and get in sync. This effort will be rewarded with appreciation and respect.
… But was it received? How was it received?
Recurrently, I see people sending emails to each other, while being physically in the same room.
This becomes a living culture in companies, replacing utterly the natural human interactions and contacts.
Even in the verge of an exploding problem, people still prefer to express their feelings via an email, instead of having an old-fashioned face-to-face parley.
Actually, when a problem arises, an email could be a treacherous media, because people tend to misinterpret the content of the message, due to pressure and emotions.
Although, generally, people are aware what they communicate, not everybody knows when and how to communicate. With all the merits the electronic communication has, it should not replace the traditional interaction.
Of course, not all people can be collocated in the same room or space, so emails and virtual communications are inevitable. But even then, when sending a message, make sure it has been well received and has had the effect you have intended it to achieve.
In summary, here are few guidelines I found invaluable in projects:
- Find the information sources and make them available to the team members.
- Identify the information champions. Ensure they radiate the information to all that need it.
- Keep every body informed. Practice daily meetings to make the relevant information flow.
- Engage the Client in regular status meetings and solicit feedback.
- Involve team members, share ideas and build common visions about the practicalities of the project.
- Encourage collaboration and brainstorming to improve the communication.
- Inspire people to talk and communicate “vis-à-vis”.
- Avoid assumptions, promote validation of comprehension.
Communication is your primary ally in succeeding. Thus, watch out those communication channels – they are the veins that deliver fresh blood to your project organism. Depending on your agility and discipline, you and your team will either succeed or fail, together.
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