Bad communication

In software development we face all sorts of problems, that’s just part of our job. The technical problems can be really challenging, but at the end of the day we solve most of them. If not, then we have the old saying ”the impossible just takes a little longer” :). However, what we really have problems with is communication, both between humans and servers (the latter is called integration, but that will not be the subject of this blog post).

””Bad

Instead I will tell you a story about bad communication. Why do you tell a story that is a failure, you might ask. That’s because you learn so much more from the mistakes! I’m not pointing any fingers though. I’ve unpersonalized this story and if it happened to me personally or if it was told to me I also keep for myself. Hope you understand and respect this, ok? Let’s go then!

Introduction

This happened in a company that had severe problems with delivery. Customer orders came in and projects where started, but they were never completed. During almost a year more than 10 orders came in, but only one customer delivery project was completed during the same time period. The deliveries were in other words staggering up and clogging the flow through the company, making further sales much harder, or even impossible, not knowing when it was possible to deliver.

The information meeting from hell

Management of the company spent time on this delivery issue and decided that a project should be launched to attack these problems. The project was lead by three persons, all managers with no real first hand contact with the delivery projects themselves (they were responsible managers ”in the reporting line”).

The group called the whole company for an information meeting about the project. First of all, not all of the three persons attended this meeting. The poor fellow that was set in charge of doing the presentation was not super prepared. Only a few follow-up questions from the audience uncovered that it wasn’t any more work or thinking done ”behind the slides”. To get some support the presenter tried to include his fellow project member with an invite ”X will also take part in these weekly meetings”. But person X here, just stood with his arms crossed a good distance away from the presenter and laughed nervously when brought into the discussion.  This made the presenter the loneliest guy in the world there for a while, in front of all the others. 

So you need to be prepared and have answers to some follow-up questions you can think of beforehand. Bring a colleague that knows the details to hand over to, if you can’t answer questions.

If you are presenting as a team, all have to be in front of the audience, ”Up on the stage” if you like, even if you are inside a normal conference room. Think of your body language in situations like this, when you are seen by many others. Crossed arms are a sign of negativism, just a slight contemptuously smile of disagreement when someone else is talking can be seen by many others, etc.

The presentation went along and after a short while it was obvious that the information was only directed towards two departments of the company. How the other departments were to be involved was not explained, not by the presenters or raised by someone in the audience. The presentation talked about ”we need to fix” and ”we need to work as a team” to do it. How it should be done was by working overtime one day a week and a vacation schedule that could be changed for certain (lucky) individuals.

Inviting the whole company but only addressing parts of it made the message unclear: ”Why am I invited if I’m not involved?”. Having this types of meeting you should of course address the whole company ”we are in this together”,  and ”we as a company need to fix it”. If not everybody is involved, don’t invite them to the meeting. If the whole company needs to aware, handle that separately (with separate meetings with these departments).

The overtime was stated to be voluntary, also sending a weird message. People thought, ”do I need to work or not?”. The expectations from the company in an overtime situation needs to be very clear, is it ordered or voluntary? Is there any compensation?

Planned vacation is very sensitive to make changes in. People value their private life and before the summer vacation they make plans long before, that sometimes can’t be changed. I have heard of companies that have moved vacation for employees to other weeks and paying the extra cost for re-booking travels. To my experience this is not so fruitful, you have an employee that sits during those weeks and ”dream away” to the destination that they now have to wait X more weeks to visit.

The information meeting ended with an invitation to move over to the kitchen area where some sparkling wine was to be served to ”celebrate the kickoff of the project”. In the kitchen the CEO (that had not been present at the meeting) raised a toast for the project. One guy leaned over to another and whispered ”Are we going to drink now to celebrate that the others have to work overtime?”.

Back at their desks two colleagues looked at each other and they both knew instantly that they had just been participating in the ”information meeting from hell”.

Retrospective

What is more to learn about in this story than the things mentioned in plain text above (not italic)?  First of all, think about your audience! A great deal of time is spent on the information in the presentation, but often not so much about the persons that shall ”consume” it. In this typical case some sort of separation was clearly needed. Either by having separate meetings with tailored information, of at least have that done in the presentation to all (separate pages ”This means A, B and C for department X” and ”This means D, E, F for department Y” and so on).

Second, spend a great deal of time on your message. What you say, which should be pretty straight forward, but also what you don’t say. Obvious things that are left out from the presentation, these will pop up as questions on the meeting anyhow, so you need to be prepared.

Third, is the actual performance of the presentation. Be present, people must feel that you are ”in the room” both physically and in your mind. It can’t be any shadow of a doubt when you deliver the message! How to achieve this? You must practice your presentation before you perform it. If you are presenting as a group, everyone should know what to say and when to do it.

Feedback

Did you like the story? Did you learn anything from it? Please leave a comment below or contact me directly with your thoughts and comments. Do you have a good or bad story that you would like to share in my upcoming book? Then I would be very happy if you would get in touch!

All the best,
Tomas from TheAgileist

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