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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Communication Is Always a Problem

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Leading 150 engineers is an interesting experience. You can still learn about each of them, know what they’re doing, which project they’re involved in etc. Actually, I thought it would be the hardest part of working with such a big group. Well, it is not.

The hardest part is communication. Not a surprise, eh?

Well, I had a head full of ideas how to make communication work. To make it more humane instead of throwing heartless emails at people. The problem is: you can’t really make a meeting with a hundred of people. It’s not a meeting anymore. It’s kind of appearance or speech. It just doesn’t work if you want to do it on regular basis.

Of course you can base on managers to pass information to their teams. Except having messengers is never perfect. Information is changed as people aren’t comfortable with passing it around or don’t think it’s even important or whatever. Anyway the target message isn’t anything close to the source one.

So where does it bring us? Yup, we’re right back on those less humane methods. Announcements on intranet portal or emails. Throwing dry information on people to solve the problem which is always there: crippled communication.

Or maybe you have a better idea?

in: communication

13 comments… add one

  • Rafal March 11, 2011, 1:42 am

    Trust and empower your managers and make sure your communication with them is as good as you’d wish and have them do the same down-stream – they don’t need to be just your messengers right?

    As a middle layer manager this is how I’d like to have it and I think it’s the only way it won’t feel ackward and inhumane to everyone in the chain + it make scaling possible too.

  • jfbauer March 11, 2011, 7:14 am

    I agree with Rafal. If there are middle managers involved they need to be primarily involved communication as it has a unique impact on their respective team compared other teams. Of course, I’m not saying this is a black and white decision of what level of management communicates to what levels of the organisation. If the need is to communicate a message of “It is now official. We are being acquired by company X” it is more effective from a senior manager since it affects everyone. If the message is “We need to improve how we share bad news with project teams” it is probably more effective to have the team manager communicate this message and then begin the process of soliciting ideas to turn into action.

    I believe once one has moved up to the next level in a traditional hierarchical management structure one has to completely change one’s communication approach. The approach that previously worked directly with one’s team has to change to enable subordinate managers the ability to absorb the information and structure the message to achieve the desired results from their respective teams in the manner they feel more effective.

  • Lech Ambrzykowski March 11, 2011, 11:24 am

    Thanks for sharing, Paweł!

    Aside from the points mentioned already, I think I’d make it a rule to visit one small group a day (in their rooms). 30 minutes? Just like that. Nothing new under the sun (MBWA – see below). With size, top management often becomes disconnected from the world of their Colleagues. It’s best to start building this direct, frequent contact early. I guess that with time, an honest, non-judgmental approach from the manager, this might work.

    BTW, this reminded me of: https://twitter.com/leistore/status/45934265090834432

    Cheers! And good luck!

    Links:
    http://www.economist.com/node/12075015

  • Pawel Brodzinski March 11, 2011, 5:39 pm

    Rafal,

    If the only prerequisite to have specifically good communication with people was having at least as good communication with their managers I wouldn’t even raise that as an issue. The problem is you can’t really assume everyone around would communicate as transparently as you do.

  • Pawel Brodzinski March 11, 2011, 5:45 pm

    John,

    You assume there’s some issue with communication between top management and middle management. Consider for a moment that it works perfectly but nevertheless communication between middle management and their teams sucks. What then?

    One of ideas is to bypass middle management, but I don’t see a good way to do this.

    Either way, no matter who does that, but making people informed better is always worth a try.

  • Pawel Brodzinski March 11, 2011, 5:51 pm

    Lech,

    I try to make a step further. I hope to have one-on-ones with every member of my team at least once a year. And it’s not about walking around – I want to make it about meaningful things.

    This doesn’t really change the game though. You can’t go that way with your everyday communication.

  • Pawel Brodzinski March 12, 2011, 8:54 am

    Yes, of course. I mean there’s much use of formal communication channels when we discuss a project but then there’s whole lot of stuff which don’t really have to be stored or documented as they won’t be interesting in a while. I think about things like adding a new member to the team or some organizational stuff or even everyday question from people which can either be clearly answered or are food for gossips.

  • Piotr Leszczyński March 12, 2011, 12:52 pm

    You can look at what Lech’d said from different point of view. Your approach is to have one-on-one once a year. What Lech’d proposed gives you an opportunity to meet each team twice a month.

    Worth trying?

  • Pawel Brodzinski March 12, 2011, 1:24 pm

    I’m not a big fun of management by walking around. I believe you should at least have some pretext to interrupt people. But having said that, I usually prefer to come to someone to talk face-by-face instead of using communicators, phones or even inviting them to the meeting, which is I guess some kind of MBWA.

    However it doesn’t solve the basic issue, which is communicating important things to people. If it takes 20-something teams to visit, multiplied by, say, half an hour, you can’t do it in one day. Let alone trying to catch the team when they aren’t on the coffee break, lunch, smoke or half of them away on business trip.

    But now, that you guys thrown in the idea, maybe once-a-month, “I’m here for you” kind of meetings, would do the job at least in other direction. Considering people wouldn’t be scared to ask.

  • Rafał March 15, 2011, 3:01 am

    Pawel

    To be true I wonder how such a disconnection would be possible (Consider for a moment that it works perfectly but nevertheless communication between middle management and their teams sucks. What then?)

    I agree that in such case we have a problem but bypassing the middle layer is hardly the option to choose I think – we both probably prefer to address the root cause of the issues – why not do exactly this here? :) (remembering that you get what you measure etc )

  • Pawel Brodzinski March 15, 2011, 8:45 am

    Rafał,

    I thought about it and I think building another communication path which actually is bypassing managers doesn’t have to be bad. Of course it has to work, so messages should come with expected frequency (whatever that might be) and, if possible, communication path should be a two-way street. It is far from experience of a simple water-cooler chit-chat, but that’s better than nothing I guess.

  • Rafał March 16, 2011, 12:57 am

    Yes – it’s a fact of life that anything is better then nothing ;)

    I wonder what your thinking is in the area of “why your managers suck at communicating your message”. From my perspective I wonder what I might be doing wrong for my own manager to think along the same lines – any info/comment on this? Why do you feel you need an alternative channel? What are they doing wrong?

  • Pawel Brodzinski March 16, 2011, 1:37 am

    First thing I don’t really know whether they suck or not. With such a big bunch of people you can’t really double check how your message reaches people as there are many different messengers and many different groups. The only thing I know is I hear here and there some questions about things which were explained and manager were asked to pass them to their teams. Well, they actually are encouraged to pass everything unless explicitly asked not to.

    Anyway I can’t say whether they passed the message but it was twisted on the way or they didn’t do it at all or some other reason. The only thing I know is something doesn’t work as planned.

    Now, of course there’s coaching/mentoring and I can work on than with individual cases but then I’d like to patch the communication way faster than that might start working.

    The difficult thing here is: there are many small communication paths and it seems the whole network isn’t efficient. It takes a lot of time to systematically track down issues and fix them. This of course should be done, but in the meantime I don’t think I have a comfort to accept the situation the way it is.

    Besides, it is good to build communication shortcuts which people can use when standard paths doesn’t work, e.g. they have some issues with their manager etc.

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