Over-communication is so over. 5 ways to right-size your communications

The old rule of thumb related to communication, when in doubt, over-communicate, does not work.

Consider the following proposed new rule of thumb regarding communications: right-size your communication.

Overcommunication - Rules Of Thumb

The declaration of need for over communication usually happens in reaction to a situation like the following, which may sound familiar.

Pat, our tech lead, didn’t know about this? Neither did half of the project team? The management didn’t know either? What’s wrong with them? They knew about it.  I’ve told them a  dozen times.  Lets add an afternoon status email in addition to the morning email, create weekly newsletters and dashboards that we’ll send out to all managers. Oh, and let’s hold another daily group meeting to review where we are and blockers!  After all, we know ‘tis better to over-communicate! 

OK. It may not be to this extent. But, I’ve witnessed this phenomenon happening with a high percentage of teams and customers I work with. Many people say Agile is about transparency – which I agree with whole-heartedly. But to communicate just to prove how visible we are isn’t quite the point, either.

When this situation happens, I implore you to resist the temptation to simply communicate more. With an increase in emails, touch points, and meetings, over-communication tends to have the opposite effect – people have less time to read, absorb, and react to the information; it tends to create resentment, eye-rolls, and sighs…”There’s ANOTHER email and/or meeting about this? I just want to work…”

Over-communication leads to overflowing, clogged inboxes with emails easy to miss, or worse ignore. Too many meetings lead to greater overhead, jeopardizing creation of work product with high value for your customers. Instead, emphasize the right communications, not just more.

While there are many modes of exchanging information, I’d like to focus on just emails for a moment. Here are 5 ideas to help you right-size your communications:

1. Ask. Simply ask your customers/stakeholders/managers how much detail, how often, and in what mode they want communications. I’m stunned at how many don’t ask. Some like detail while others like headlines. Some like email; some like a call or meeting. Some like a combination, depending on the situation. Ask, and then deliver information in that way.

2. Get feedback. Take the 5 minutes to get feedback and adjust, especially if it creates a win-win for both parties. The idea is to communicate, which requires exchanging information with at least 2 parties. Feedback is essential for ensuring you’re providing maximum value.

3. Simplify your emails. Put the action requested and the why in the first few lines. After all, how often do you actually read your entire email? “You mean I actually have to double click on the email and read it? I get everything I need from the title.”

4. Use keywords in an email title. As an extension of #3 above, consider snappy titles such as: “Decision needed”, “Action needed”, “FYI”, or “No matter what you do don’t forward this email nor Reply All.” Inspire them to open the email.

5. Step away from that email. Do you REALLY need that email…right now? We know that words alone can be misinterpreted. Don’t get lost in translation. Call someone. If you’re co-located, can you simply turn to your partner and ask your question or share your insight? Furthermore, will it have a greater impact for all to know via, say, a Daily Standup or another already scheduled meeting?

You don’t need to do all 5 at once with everyone. But, try something different with a small pilot of people. Then, expand over time. While initially, it might feel weird or may “slow you down”, think about why we communicate in the first place. By sharing information in a manner preferred by who you’re communicating with, in no time you will be able to frame and resolve situations more quickly than simply over-communicating. Right-size your communications.

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