The Value of Informal Communication

A 30 minute coffee meeting turned into 90. Before we knew it, we both had other meetings to go to. Where had the time gone? What started as reviewing the scope of a program turned into a conversation about our personal lives, one that found many commonalities. Your kiddo swims? So does mine! My family enjoys camping in the summer also. You worked with [name] at [company]? Yeah, they are pretty funny.

The stakeholder I was meeting with, a manager with over 20 years at this company, was labeled “aloof and unengaged” by other project staff. As an IT leader, we relied heavily on his department to assign key personnel to projects. This program was going to have nine individual, yet interconnected, projects needing his staff at every turn. If his department was so critical, why the aloofness?

“I hear about projects coming, but no one ever talks to me about what they are. I just get an email from someone I don’t know that says they need someone ASAP. Then I have to juggle what’s important, which everything is.”

But with this conversation, he knew what was coming, about when, and what key skills were needed at the different phases. We also got to know each other and build rapport. A trusting relationship was established. We exchanged cell numbers with a commitment to call whenever needed.

I also understood how best to communicate with this key stakeholder. He didn’t like status reports but liked quick 5 minute chats. Formal communication was OK, but Informal was way better! Throughout the program, we primarily used informal communication to get things done.

There are essentially two types of communication; Formal and Informal. Let me define both, but focus on the Informal.

First, let’s define Formal Communication. I define it as those communications which can be measured and put on your formal reviews. Did you send the status on time? How do you communicate in status updates? Are meeting notes sent on time? Did the presentation cover all expected points? On a scale of 1-5, where do you score?

Informal Communication is where work gets done!

Disadvantages or Limitations of Informal Communication - QS Study

You’ve probably been there. You need a SME for maybe 30 minutes. Their input can help define and finalize a key requirement. You reach out and they say to ask their manager. The manager wants a formal resource request. It takes 20 minutes to fill out and 48 hours before it gets approved or sent back with questions. By that point, you’ve said screw it and went forward without this SME’s input.

Conversely, you spent 20 minutes at the front of the project having a conversation with the manager and establishing a relationship. You find yourself needing a SME, so you cash in some relationship capital and ask a favor. The manager says sure but asks you keep it to 30 minutes. You say yes, schedule 30 minutes, and keep your promise.

I say informal communication is where work gets done because these can be quick conversations where decisions are made and action taken. If I have a quick yes or no question for someone, instant messenger gets it done! A phone call with someone is more efficient than scheduling a meeting.

The same goes for me when a stakeholder or a team member needs something quickly. Call, message, or text me. Chances are I can make a decision quickly without having to schedule a formal meeting. These informal conversations save time, thus saving the project and the company money!

One thing I will say is the most effective informal communication is built off trust. Take time, especially early in the project, to get to know key stakeholders. Know what they do at the company. Also, know what they do outside of work. I have yet to meet a stakeholder that I couldn’t relate something with. Trust is key!

Formal communication helps you with your annual review and to inform a large audience on project status. Informal communication helps you deliver value through getting people, decisions, money, and any host of things quickly. Be good at formal communications, and really good at informal!

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