When projects fail, communication between team members is often the cause. The sales teams making promises to clients people in operations can not deliver. Website designs are created, but the performance and accessibility issues raised by developers are not addressed.
Surprisingly, when you point out that communication was the cause of a project's failure, people reply with 'of course'. You can't sell something that your team can't produce. If designers don't care about performance, then the site or app might look good, but people get annoyed using it. But while it is obvious that people who work together need to talk with each other, communication, or better the lack thereof, is still a major problem in distributed teams.
Many tools exist that promise to help people get work done together. A plethora of project management tools help team members create tasks, assign tasks, organize resources in one place, and provide updates. Part of this helps communication: You get told when a new task is assigned to you or when a task is completed. Less time is spent communicating important but easy to convey messages. Other tools promise to make communication open and transparent across time zones and projects. Everyone can chirp in, supposedly increasing collaboration, efficiency, creativity.
What bugs me about these tools is that they assume communication is already good and can be optimized with the help of a tool or two. Through optimizing communication, time is freed up for people to engage in deep discussions. Don't get me wrong. These tools will benefit teams. I use them myself. But I don't think they can increase the communication quality in your company.
Communication for alignment
One purpose of communication is to create alignment between individuals. Members of leadership teams need to agree on key aspects to gel together and provide one goal for other employees. A leadership team that is not aligned will not have one clear message to employees. The same goes for any team, regardless of how high or low they are on the corporate hierarchy.
With no clear message, employees will struggle to create a coherent product or service for customers. Product and services are kind of there. They exist but are substandard. It is as if someone threw in the towel towards the end and just gave up. Whatever employees are producing just doesn't fit properly together because they do not know how it should fit together.
Often, teams engage in activities to align themselves when they start a new project or after minor or major team membership changes. You might be using a team charter, a pre-mortem, or another tool to help get everybody on the same page.
But in too many cases, it's a one-time activity. Team members don't talk if they are still on the same page or if someone has slowly drifted away. The lack of alignment is visible towards the end when time is limited to rectify any issues, and everyone is focused on getting work done instead of talking about this soft fluffy stuff called team alignment.
Team members drift apart through the information they receive from others and share with others. In other words, over time communication leads to team members developing a different vision of the project. This assumes they were aligned at the outset. If there was no alignment from day one, there was also no effective communication. Everyone can read aloud or recite the project description, but that does not convey how to complete the project and what behavior is acceptable.
Data, data, data
Communication is human behavior. We all communicate daily. Most often, without much thought about what we are saying, to whom we are talking, and how we talk. This might sound harsh, and I'm sure you can come up with a list of examples to prove me wrong. My point is that often we don't consider the quality of our communication skills.
If you want to improve something, you need data. Data is your evidence, your benchmark. Data tells you the cause of the problem. Data will also show you if your solution works or not. If OKRs are your goal, data is the springboard to them.
If you want to improve communication, you need data about how team members communicate—point de ligne. Discussion ended.
Who creates alignment in your team?
The responsibility to create alignment might be given to one person, for example, the manager, several people, or no one. However, everyone is contributing to it—even those who don’t say anything.
More specifically, you can know who is creating alignment by analyzing the conversation among team members. Answer some of these questions, and you know more about who is creating alignment in your team:
- Who is giving directions by telling team members what to do, how to do it, or by when to do it.
- Who is at the receiving end of directions? Who is accepting these directions without murmuring, and who is offering alternative suggestions?
- Who is being consulted before actions are taken, and decisions are made?
- Who is informed about actions and decisions?
- Who transmits information to those that were not present during the initial discussion?
- How long does it take for someone who wasn’t present during a discussion to know what was said?
- Who spends too much time talking and not enough time listening or working?
- Who slows down decision-making?
What communication data to use?
Of course, you could answer these questions just like that right now. Or you could begin observing interactions between team members and answer them. But there is an easier, less time-consuming way. You can create your team's communication network, run a number of relevant analysis, and get the answer to these questions.
At NetNigma, we use electronic data, for example, Slack communication, to create a map of your communication flow. This map is a frequency matrix indicating how often two people talk with each other in technical terms. The method behind it has been described as psychological geography and is based on graph theory.
What is a communication map?
A communication map, as depicted below, is like any normal city map. Just instead of houses, you have people, and instead of roads, you have communication lines. If you think about cities, you know that certain buildings have central locations. Think about old medieval towns: Churches and market squares are in the center because they are important for the people's lives.
The same goes for your team's communication map: The central people are influencing the team. Now, here it gets a bit more complicated. Influence can mean many different things. The most intuitive way to describe influence is that someone is influencing because everyone wants to talk with them (popularity) or talk with everyone (activity).
To compute how effective your team is in creating alignment, NetNigma uses several metrics. We measure who is contributing to alignment by 1.) communicating with others (popularity), 2.) receiving information from others (activity), and 3.) how much information is shared between people with different backgrounds (cross-characteristic collaboration).
How does a communication map look?
Here is an example of a made-up communication map. A line indicates that these two people talk with each other. Take a moment to look at the roles of the people and with whom they are communicating. Overall, do you think that this team is well-aligned? Where do you think problems exist, and where does work go smoothly?
In the next figure, I highlighted four areas: A, B, C, and D. A, B, and C are groups, while D is just a person (data scientist).
In A, the developer team, the senior developer, has an influential position. That person is communicating with all junior developers, who do not talk among themselves. This means they do not know what each other is doing and how their work contributes to the project. It’s like they only have one piece of the puzzle and think this is the complete puzzle.
In Area B, you’ll find all the senior leaders (ignore the data scientist in the red circle). While the CTO and CEO talk with each other, they do not talk with the CMO and CHRO. This can create problems as, for example, the marketing team will not have an accurate understanding of what the technical team can do. Another issue is that the CEO and CTO will lack knowledge of their customers and market. Whatever they do can fail because they don’t know for whom they are creating it.
The marketing team in area C shows better connections and, therefore, better alignment. Even the sales intern is well connected.
I have highlighted one person, the data scientist in area D. I could also have highlighted other people in a very advantageous or disadvantageous position. Like the designer, who is at the top completely removed from the interaction, or junior developer 2, who is the only one connected to the sales team. The data scientist is connected to all senior leaders. That person might be asked to run analyses for each function, being completely overburdened by the demands.
The next step after seeing your team's communication map is to decide if and what to change. Of course, based on this map, we would recommend changes. The first step depends on the business problem: Are its employees annoyed about the senior leadership team's lack of clear goals? Is it an overworked data scientist who wants a raise or is going to leave? Is it stagnating revenues?