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Best practices

Communication is broad and can mean many things. Following a few guidelines will make it manageable and effective.

Hit send with success

Effective formatting can mean the difference between clarity and confusion, but people don’t do it, as evidenced by our inboxes. People hate emails so much that some companies are trying to ban it. Email isn’t the problem, sending bad emails is. The bottom line: Don’t make people work hard for information.

BREAK UP LONG EMAILS. When you’re writing a long email, break it up into sections. Start with a summary that concisely outlines the main idea(s) and any action items within the email. Follow this with the details. This way the reader can grasp the key info quickly, and then read the details only if she has to.

PUT COMPLICATED EMAILS IN A PHONE CALL SANDWICH. With interactive projects, sometimes you have to convey complex or technical information. Here’s what to do:

  • Write the email (check the long email tip above!), but don’t send it.
  • Call the client and give her a heads up that a long or complicated email is coming her way. Don’t make it sound ominous: The point is to prevent fear and glazed-over eyes. Say something like, “I’m about to send you a really detailed email. It has a lot of information in it that I’ve tried to organize into digestible parts, but here’s the basic summary. I will call you in a bit to see if you have any questions about it.”
  • Send the email.
  • Later, call the client for follow-up. Make sure she understands everything in the email and is prepared to deal with whatever might be required.

DON’T THROW GRENADES. Never send an email that states a problem with no solution. Be complete: state the issue. Then, make suggestions about how to correct the issue. List some next steps that the client needs to or should take, or invite her suggestions on how to solve the problem.

FORMATTING IS YOUR FRIEND. Use things like subheads, bullet points, and bold text to make the information as easy to read as possible. (Side note: This is one of those things that clients love and developers hate. Some of them may even have their email set up to strip out certain types of formatting.)

CALL OUT NAMES. Get people’s attention if you need it. When information is directed at a particular person, add her name or a special callout in front of the pertinent info or question. Highlight or bold names so team members can easily scan long emails for their callouts. Whatever tool you use is up to you, but make it easy for everyone to spot with just a scan.

Keep everyone in the loop all the time

At Clockwork, we use two email aliases—internal and external—that team members use to communicate with the project teams. The internal alias goes to all internal team members; the external one goes to everyone on the internal team as well as all client stakeholders. Almost all correspondence goes through the group alias. This terrifies some people, and shocks others. This is a radical departure from the way project correspondence happens almost everywhere else, across industries.

What is an email alias?

An email alias as we use it at Clockwork is a singular email address that has multiple recipients. For example, when someone emails internal_bestprojectever@company.com or bestprojectever@company.com, it goes to the entire internal or external teams, respectively, working on the project. Figure 4.3 shows examples of information sent through an alias.

Figure 4.3.

Figure 4.3. A selection of the types of information and conversations that should ultimately be routed through the project email alias. The goal is to keep everyone on the project aware of decisions, conversations, and updates.

Why use an email alias?

IT KEEPS EVERYONE ON THE SAME PAGE. All stakeholders deserve to see what’s being said and how it’s being said. This allows the project manager to focus on macro tasks, like hierarchizing and prioritizing information, rather than trafficking information. Everyone can be confident that critical information will be passed along to the right people, but they are still aware of what’s going on.

IT REDUCES THE TELEPHONE EFFECT. Remember that game? A phrase is whispered to one person, they whisper it to another person, and so on, all around a circle. Then the last person says the phrase she heard out loud. Every single time it will be different from the original phrase. That’s super funny on the school playground in third grade, but slightly less funny when it’s critical information about a client’s project and your job depends on it.

IT GIVES PEOPLE PERMISSION TO IGNORE EMAILS. Another effect of group aliases is counterintuitive to what people expect. A common response to us describing the email alias is: “You must be overwhelmed by emails!” Actually, the opposite is true: It gives everyone permission to read them (or not) at will. This sounds like a bad thing, but it’s not. As people receive the emails, they are tangentially aware of the conversations, yet they know that if something is needed it will be called out by the project manager (by using a callout technique like we discussed above).

IT IMPROVES THE END PRODUCT. Interactive projects have many stakeholders that all see different risks, forecast different outcomes, and bring different ideas to the table. Allowing everyone to see all correspondence leads to more eyes and minds considering all aspects of the project and increases everyone’s investment in the project. That’s priceless.

IT REDUCES HOARDING. Somehow, somewhere, people got the idea that if they’re the keeper of information, they’ll be totally indispensable and will have eternal job security. This just isn’t true. No one likes a hoarder. It makes everyone’s job harder. If someone has to work at getting information to do their job, they are taking valuable time away from actually doing their job.

Figure 4.4 shows how the email alias relates to communicators, deciders, and discussers.

Figure 4.4.

Figure 4.4. The primary communicators on each team—internal and client side—send the majority of the email communication through the alias. The deciders receive every message to stay up-to-date, and can certainly contribute as necessary.

Be consistent and clear with scheduled communication

People respond well to predictability, openness, and clarity. When you’re communicating use tools that adhere to those standards. Think of this communication as a snapshot. It should give just enough information to be useful and explanatory, and never so much information that key details become lost like a needle in a haystack.

Forms and documents

CREATE TITLES AND HEADLINES. Make the contents and the purpose of the form visible at a glance.

MAKE IT EASY TO SEE WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN. Does the form require a signature? Make it clear. Does the form require an answer? Make it clear.

MAKE THEM EASY TO PRINT. Make sure the contents fit easily onto a standard sheet of paper. Make sure it doesn’t contain an embedded image that’s huge and will clog up the printer queue.

CREATE A CHANGE LOG. This will make it easy for the client, and you, to track the files. At a quick glance, you’ll know if you’re reading the most up-to-date version and what changes have been made.

Revision

Date

Notes/Author Initials

.01

1/31/2012

Draft for internal review [MCW]

.02

2/15/2012

Draft for client review [NEL]

.03

3/2/2012

Revised draft for review/approval [ECN]

1.0

3/20/2012

Baseline approval [MCW]

Status reports

USE A CONSISTENT FORMAT. Always have the information in the same order, use the same callout techniques, and make it easy to print.

USE UNDERSTANDABLE LANGUAGE. This isn’t the place to use a lot of jargon (is there ever a place for that?). Use language and terms that are familiar to everyone who reads it.

COVER EVERYTHING. Don’t leave anything out. The clients should be getting all the information they need in this communication. They should come to rely on it and see it as the official progress report. If you leave the bad or tough news out, it will become apparent.

BE RESPECTFUL. Be firm and clear, but don’t be a jerk. If something changed direction, don’t let on that it was annoying, even if it was. Collaboration won’t happen if anyone on the team starts feeling antagonized or attacked.

Wrangle, then react with ad hoc communication

Project managers control and disseminate everything that needs to be communicated. This means that they also have a lot of information coming at them. Organize your communication for optimal effect: Digestible, thoughtful communication helps people—and their brains—do their jobs well.

How to handle this

COLLECT AND ORGANIZE THE INFORMATION. Do this in whatever way makes sense for your project or the correspondence: by type—ideas, action items, red flags, decisions—or by affected stakeholders—client, writers, developers, executives. Make the information make sense to you, and then add the details that will make it make sense to others.

DETERMINE HOW TO COMMUNICATE. We’re used to email. That’s pretty much the go-to form of communication these days. But it should primarily be used for transactional aspects of a project. At times, it’s best to reach out in person, for that relational approach. This doesn’t necessarily mean face-to-face, but it does mean a real conversation in real time.

Here are some situations when it’s best to have a conversation:

  • If there’s a high chance that something will be misconstrued or misinterpreted in writing: “As we mentioned earlier” can sound like “We told you so” with the wrong intonation.
  • If it’s a difficult message: “About that launch date...”
  • If it’s a complicated issue that requires explanation.
  • If you feel like you should connect with your client. Follow your gut on this one. If it’s been a while and you think that reestablishing a real connection—not just an electronic one—sounds right, do it.

DISTRIBUTE THE INFORMATION. Take the organized information and disseminate it. Part of it may go in an email to your team; part of it may go into a document that is then sent for reapproval from the client; part of it may have already been addressed in a phone call. The key is to make it easy to read, understand, and respond to. That’s one of the key responsibilities of the project manager: to make sense of things and communicate this “sense” to the client and internal teams.

Follow-up after phone calls and meetings

When you have a phone conversation or meeting, follow up with an email that summarizes what was covered. It doesn’t have to be an Official Recap of the Conversation form, just an email that references the discussion and quickly sums up the points. This accomplishes three things:

  • It relays the conversation to the whole team (use the alias!).
  • It provides a record for everyone (in some circles this is known as CYA—cover your, well, you know).
  • It helps ensure that whatever points were talked about were actually understood.

Killing three birds with one, simple stone. Sorry, birds.

These are all important accomplishments, but the last point—making sure it was understood—is a critical, client-facing detail. Miscommunication happens. People say one thing, but mean something else; you hear one thing, they meant another. Really, it doesn’t matter how it happens; you want to prevent it.

This recap gives all parties a chance to see in writing what was heard and what action is being taken. If there’s a discrepancy between what was meant and what was understood, that will become clear right away, as opposed to later, after action was taken.

Deliver context, not truth bombs

Truth bombs are brutal facts without context. Problems, issues, and dilemmas happen. How you convey them can make all the difference in the world to you and your client, and your relationship.

Look at your communication with this in mind. You can recognize when you are about to send a truth bomb. Remember, something that seems straightforward to you can be very scary to people who don’t have enough info or tech knowledge to provide a context or meaning on their own.

Give a solution-focused no

We all want to give clients what they want. But here’s the problem: What they want isn’t always what they need. If what they’re asking for seems (or definitely is) a bad idea, tell them. Here’s where it gets a little tricky.

Even if the answer is no, it’s never just no because that doesn’t help reach a solution. That doesn’t mean that we do everything we’re asked. Far from it. But we make a lot of effort to avoid stopping at the word no.

Being honest about whether something is possible, logical, or neither—all without just saying no—requires finessing.

PUT A POSITIVE SPIN ON THE NEGATIVE MESSAGE. When people hear no, they react a certain way—they close down and get defensive, and may become even more entrenched in their perspective. Ultimately, no matter what you’re saying no to or disagreeing with, you need them to collaborate on a solution. Couching your “no” within positivity and productiveness paves the path toward collaboration. For example, you might say, “I see what you mean and what you’re going for. Another way to achieve that might be __________. Leading questions can get to the root goal or intention, which you can then solve another way.

FIGURE OUT HOW TO SUPPORT THE ARGUMENT. Each client has different concerns and objectives. Some will repsond to an argument about technology restrictions, whereas others may respond to aesthetics. Some won’t really respond to either. Given your experience with them, choose a persuasive path.

USE REASON AND LOGIC. Don’t ever just state your critique or opinion of their solution without giving real reasons and using sound logic. “Because we think it’s best” doesn’t count. You have to give them evidence, whether that’s usability stats, development restrictions, or something else.

Good news and bad news at the same velocity

“Good news and bad news at the same velocity” is one of our key company values.2 It’s a promise that you make with your team to get the best end product every time. When you uphold this, what you’re really saying is, “We will always tell you what you need to know about a project.”

Negative feedback is a lot easier to hear—really hear—if the recipient knows it’s coming from a shared value. With a team relationship based on trust and understanding, constructive criticism is welcomed because it means that the project will be improved upon and, ultimately, better.

Diffuse tension with four words

Every time you talk to anyone about anything—so yes, all the time—you carry the emotions of the message with you. And the person to whom you’re talking responds to those emotions. For example, if you’re telling someone that you just won a $20 million lotto, maybe you’d jump up and down or smile like a kid in a candy store. And when they hear the news, they’d get wide-eyed and put on a happy face, too.

When you have difficult messages—be it bad news, problems, complications, or what have you—you also carry emotions with you. With a difficult message, you likely bring stress, anxiety, and perhaps anger and frustration. A typical response to these emotions is defensiveness, which is only human.

How do you diffuse this tension? Start the conversation with four words: “I need your help.”

Like defensiveness, it’s human nature to want to help people when they ask and when you can. Use our universal human instincts to move the project forward rather than squash it.

Starting with “I need your help” puts both you and the other person in an entirely different emotional place and shifts the energy of the conversation. Rather than being on the offensive and defensive, it brings you together on the same team. Which is truly where you are anyway. Then you can discuss the issue and how to achieve the goal at hand.

Managing conflicts by looking ahead, not behind

Frequently on a team there comes a moment when it becomes clear that two people have an issue. You may not know what it is, but you can see it. An “aha” moment may go something like this: You’re in a meeting and team members are sharing info in the meeting that really should have been shared before the meeting. That means they aren’t communicating. However the issue arises, the important thing is to recognize that there are immediate steps and long-range steps that need to be taken.

Get into the right frame of mind

IT’S ABOUT THE PROJECT, NOT THE INDIVIDUALS. Remind yourself and your team of the common goal and the reason you’re all there: the end product. Shifting the focus off individuals and toward the shared goal will also shift energy from inward to outward.

DON’T TAKE THINGS PERSONALLY. Business is about people, but it’s not personal. You have to think about people and treat people like people, but refrain from taking anything personally.

LET FEELINGS HAPPEN. People get angry and hurt and frustrated. That’s okay. Don’t internalize it or feel obligated to make them feel better. You have a responsibility to achieve the best end results for the project. Be supportive, but let people feel what they’re going to feel, while also making sure the project’s moving forward.

STAY NEUTRAL. Whether you’re the project manager or a leader, you have to remain neutral and steer clear of any drama. See below for how to fix the drama.

Take action

DON’T CALL ANYONE OUT IN FRONT OF THE GROUP. Don’t try and get to the bottom of things in front of the team. This won’t help solve the immediate problem.

IN REAL TIME, SUGGEST A SOLUTION. For example, let’s say a designer didn’t supply a front-end developer with all the rollover graphics for a page. And the designer doesn’t like the solution that the developer came up with. Just decide, with the team, what to do: change graphics or keep graphics. Then assign follow-up tasks accordingly.

AFTER THE MEETING, DETERMINE WHAT HAPPENED. Don’t bring any assumptions into these conversations or fill in blanks about why things happened as they did. Don’t express blame or shame, because pointing fingers won’t make anyone feel good, nor will it help the situation. Even if someone dropped the ball, making her feel bad about it won’t improve her work, your relationship, or the end product. Once you have the facts, see what you can do to minimize the chance the problem will happen again.

FIND THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM. The question you ask should not be “What went wrong?” The real question is “How can I prevent this problem from happening again?” If you stop your problem solving at “what went wrong,” you’re missing the point and not truly helping your team work together. You want to figure out the root of the problem—Is the process ineffective? Was there a communication breakdown? Do these two people just not work well together?—to ensure it doesn’t recur.

MAKE SURE EVERYONE HAS WHAT THEY NEED TO KEEP WORKING. While you address the bigger causes, ask your team, point blank, “Do you have what you need to keep the project moving forward? What else can I do for you?” This might be additional files or a new brief, or it might mean making them feel like they’re being heard. Either way, don’t let the project sit still while you figure out if anything needs to change on the macro level.

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