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Truth 4 If You Think It Doesn't Make Sense, It Probably Doesn't

One of my managers was a bit inflexible when it came to communication. He was in many respects a very competent manager and knew his subject matter very well, but it was clear that I simply had to do things his way, or I got my head bitten off. One example of this was when I was managing a large project to reengineer some processes that employees use to enter customer orders for our products. We had prepared a large PowerPoint presentation for a number of key stakeholders to review some key design concepts. When I reviewed the presentation with my manager, he told me to create a Word document in addition to the PowerPoint document. The Word document would literally be a copy and paste from the PowerPoint document. When I asked why we needed a redundant document, the response was "Because this has to be in Word." I asked someone on the team to take everything we did in PowerPoint and copy and paste it into a Word document. We spent a significant amount of wasted time and money creating and maintaining a redundant document that no one read, all because one manager told me it had to be in Word. Now, I'll admit I had a bad attitude about this and wasn't feeling very empathetic toward my manager, but I really struggled with the "It has to be in Word" answer.

Here's the million-dollar question: What is "realistic?" It depends on your point of view. What may be very realistic to me could be completely unrealistic to you. I've found it very helpful to look at three guidelines to find some common ground on reality:

  • Need. In assessing need, you take a hard look at whether your recipient needs your information to do his or her job either now or in the future.
  • Frequency. In looking at frequency, you assess how often you need to communicate to ensure that your recipient can act on your information in a timely manner.
  • Content depth. With content depth, you determine how much information the recipient needs to do his or her job. For instance, the instruction manual on operating a cellular telephone does not need to explain how a signal travels to and from cellular towers to your cell phone.

Let's carry this forward to a simple scenario: A colleague has just started a new project that affects a small group of people within your department. She sends out very detailed daily e-mails to everyone in the department that communicate the project's status, what was accomplished the previous day, and what will be done the next day. The information, while very detailed, is largely redundant from day to day. She expects everyone in the department to read her daily status e-mails as the means of keeping up with the project.

What can make this communication unrealistic? Let's look at it using the three communication guidelines just mentioned:

  • Need. Only the affected members in the department working directly with the project have a need for the information.
  • Frequency. Getting information on a daily basis probably isn't necessary due to the redundancy of the information from day to day.
  • Content depth. While some may benefit from very detailed information, it probably isn't necessary for the broader distribution.

To make the communications more realistic and applicable, the project manager should consider the following:

  • Construct two separate communications—one for the small group of people who are directly affected by the project and a second communication for the rest of the department.
  • For the small group directly affected by the project, gain specific agreement with them on need, frequency, and content depth of communications to ensure that they get what they need when they need it.
  • For the rest of the department, look at ways in which other projects or organizations do broad-based communication, and mirror their frequency, content depth, and need. Look to department meetings, intranet websites, or other established communication vehicles for ideas.

Get aligned on your communication expectations. By gaining a common understanding of need, frequency, and content depth, you will go a long way toward ensuring clear communications between you and your recipient, and you will get your point across smoothly and effectively.

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