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by Pravin Paratey

Building your Communication Strategy

Today, I want to discuss communication, which I believe is the most important aspect of your role as a people manager.

As the number of people in your organisation grow, a number of things about your day to day change,

1. Less face time

You invariably have less face time with your individual reports. This means you may not always be know as much about what is happening in their work/personal lives as you once did. Only highlights and lowlights are shared during 1:1 sessions.

New joiners may start seeing you as a “boss” and someone whom they can’t necessarily approach.

2. Missed opportunities to provide context

Less face-time means the limited communication that you do have with people can have one of two effects,

  1. They carry more weight than they normally would. Anything you say will be easily misconstrued. People try to find the hidden meaning behind statements that you make. Not because of bad intentions, but due to a combination of the recipient’s emotional state and the brevity of the face-time.
  2. Or they will be forgotten. This time, because the recipient is uncertain whether you really meant it or was it you merely trying to be helpful. Or because “if it was important, I would have heard it repeatedly or from multiple sources”.

3. More moving pieces

You will find yourself responsible for more projects and processes, requiring you to context switch more frequently. Unless you are very clear on what you want from a project or process and make that explicit, things will be lost in translation. Spending time thinking about your message and writing it down helps you organise your thoughts and gives you clarity.

The objective of communication

Communication helps achieve,

  • Alignment. It’s important that people always know what you are most passionate about and what you care about the most. This helps them make local decisions on what direction to take when they have a bunch of possible routes. I do want to stress that this isn’t a top down thing, but setting vision is something a leader has to do and get others behind the vision. (Your vision may well be wrong and then the smarter people you have hired will be able to point it out and you have that aha! moment.)
  • Consistency. When people get the same message from multiple sources — peers, managers, others in the org — they begin to trust the message. They also begin to trust the sender or senders of the messages. It reinforces the message and makes it important.
  • Reduced ambiguity. Engineers (usually senior) have enough technical ambiguity to deal with on a daily basis. They need to make architectural, tooling, process decisions. You can help reduce any ambiguity around vision, strategy or people and help your engineers focus on their jobs. A side effect of this is that you are able to reduce churn/attrition rates.
  • Building consensus. In larger organisations, teams often work with other teams, and there is a significant amount of collaboration required. Collaboration across teams is always challenging. Effective communication helps in influencing other teams, giving them a heads up on potential collaboration opportunities/conflicts, increase internal adoption of your product or just letting the rest of the organisation know what a great job your team has done.
  • Manage Change. Change is an inevitable part of the modern workplace. People get reassigned, projects get cancelled or pivot, and then, there are always external events. Communication helps set expectations, reduce rumours and help build confidence in the future.

Creating your communication strategy

So how do you go about building your communication strategy? One way to begin is to answer the following questions,

1. Start with Why

Why am I communicating? What outcome do I hope to achieve?

Establishing the why is the first step towards building your communication strategy. What are you really trying to achieve? If you manage engineers, some of the why’s could be to,

  • Establish Priorities
  • Communicate Progress
  • Highlight dependencies and blockers
  • Gain alignment
  • Set expectations
  • Get input on processes and ideas
  • Build strategy
  • Re-iterate vision or purpose

Some why’s will be tactical and require a small amount of communication. Others will be strategic, need repetition and will be formed from many individual pieces of communication over a length of time.

2. Move on to the Who

Which groups of people do I want to communicate with? And with what frequency?

Next, you need to establish who you want to communicate with? Some examples of these are,

  • Your team(s)
  • Your peers
  • Management
  • Stakeholders
  • The whole org

3. And then the How

What channels (face-to-face, email, slack, yammer feed) should I use for this communication? Are they effective? Do I need to change something?

After establishing the who, you need to think about the channels of communication. It should almost never be a single channel. Repetition through multiple channels help cement the message.

For instance, if you are introducing a new way of doing things, you could speak to key stakeholders and managers first, then announce it in your newsgroup, followed by a presentation/QA session for everybody affected. This would need to be repeated after a period of time, say a month, to (1) get feedback after the new process has been used in practise and (2) to repeat the (possibly amended) message and make it stick.

4. Finally, the What

This is usually the easiest bit of the process. It involves generating the actual content of the message you want to deliver.

5. Evaluate your results

How do I know people recieve my message?

Next, it’s important that you have set up means to check if the people on your teams are (a) all receiving your message and (b) are interpreting the message as intended.

Face to face is perhaps the best way of really understanding if both (a) and (b) happened. If you team is small enough, you can do a face-to-face with every one on your team. If not, use a random subset, making sure to include people you don’t interact with often.

6. Iterate

Am I doing an effective job at communication? In which groups is it easier to land my message? In which groups is it the hardest? Why?

As with everything, you need to analyse the outcome. It’s a constant process of self-improvement, learning from mistakes and trying to get better every day. It’s incredibly hard too, and tremendously satisfying when you get it right.

Tips

  1. This process will seem like a time sink initially, do keep at it.
  2. Block time in your calendar for this task. Twice as much as you think you will need.
  3. Have “defined” channels for certain kinds of communication like “general news”, “important decisions”, “strategy”. Set expectations for each channel
  4. Repeat your message. In multiple ways. Through multiple channels. No, people will not get annoyed by it. If people do, then you are doing a good job.
  5. Establish cadence of communication. So people begin expecting updates with that frequency.
  6. Download the communication cheat-sheet.

Feedback

Finally, dear Reader, what are your thoughts? What do you do to land your message?