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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A Binary Look at Conflict

I’m paraphrasing here, but this was a conversation I’ve actually had (names changed to protect the innocent):

  • Me: What’s the deal with you and Rita?
  • Megan: She’s loud and I don’t like the color she dyed her hair.
  • Me: Her hair? You don’t like her hair? That’s why you argue with her?
  • Megan: Yes, and no. Her voice is loud too.
  • Rita: That’s because I’m hard of hearing! I try to keep it down but I’m also 58 years old. My hair’s dyed because if it wasn’t, it’d be bright white! Instead of listening to music all the time, why don’t you try talking to the rest of us once-in-awhile? You’re standoffish.
  • Megan: I’m 24 and your conversations don’t interest me. And I don’t listen to just music. I listen to podcasts too.
  • Rita: Can’t you at least say hi once in awhile and smile? You’re moody.

Somewhere around this point I knew two things. One, I needed Advil and a glass of something very strong. Second, this conflict had nothing to do with the tasks these two were performing on the project, and instead was of a personal nature. I’d let this conflict go on WAY too long and their angst impacted the morale of the team. It had to end.

Now, let’s start by saying conflict makes us uncomfortable. Whether people are yelling, swearing, pounding fits, or giving a death glare, when conflict arises, we want to naturally step away from it. The first project conflict I participated in was between two product teams. Thankfully, I was being mentored at the time and he helped navigate the distressing situation. I still wanted to crawl into a shallow hole in the fetal position and pray it would end, but I sat there petrified taking it all in.

But I’ll also tell you, as hard as it will be, try to put your fears aside. In fact, embrace it! Conflict can be healthy and increases awareness a problem exists. If everyone is aware of the problem, positive change can take place. Not all companies and cultures embrace conflict, but those that do I find have greater success than those that don’t.

In my 20+ years of experience, I’ve been involved in all types of conflict. From the passive-aggressive to a couple construction guys about to exchange blows. I found workplace conflict is binary and falls into one of two categories; Professional and Personal.

Professional Conflict. Professional conflict revolves around how to complete work to achieve maximum business value. These conflicts can orbit around strategic direction, portfolio prioritization, project tasks, or any number of work related items. Most often, they can be resolved with “adult” conversations, or if needed, bring in a 3rd party to help make the decision. Though it can cause some team disruption, it won’t derail them (usually).

I was leading a large IT and business operations program. During the initial phases of the program, I was working with two Enterprise Architects (EA) on how the technology infrastructure would be configured to allow for all the individual projects and applications to easily be integrated. One EA wanted a “picture perfect setup”, while the other EA figured out how to get it configured quickly and work out the kinks as applications were implemented. Both had valid points.

Negotiations 101: Five Effective Steps To Resolve Professional Conflicts  Easily! | Flipping Heck! Learning To Be Productive One Day At A Time

Well, it took about 32 seconds for a disagreement to break out. To their credit, both kept the conversation professional and civil (these can turn personal if they’re not resolved quickly). However, neither budged on their stance. Not until the CIO was brought to hear both sides and make the decision, did we have alignment and direction. Great thing was, the resolution took both approaches into account and created a new Enterprise Architect process for the company.

Personal Conflict. Personal conflict is way more toxic and can derail a team. This conflict can come at any point and doesn’t always make sense. An “adult conversation” may resolve it, for awhile.

I had another personal conflict arise similar to the example given at the start of the blog. Two small groups were having a conflict that caused them not to communicate at all with each other. It started because a member from each group started arguing about something, then had other members side with them. When I communicated “We’re not the friggin’ Sharks and the Jets here!”, we started back on the path of collaboration again. My strategy was to push them hard so frustration was geared towards me and not each other. It worked.

A Conflict Resolution Approach: Focusing on Individual and Shared Needs

One very important thing to note about personal conflict; get it resolved ASAP. Do it quick and aggressively if needed. I’ve even asked team members be replaced because of it. Personal conflict is toxic and if not treated, can impact the morale of the team.

There will always be conflict. Whether you’re working on a project or within your operational role, you’re bound to come across it. As uncomfortable as it can make you feel, don’t shy away from conflict. Instead, embrace the professional conflict and handle the personal conflict quickly.

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2021: A Retrospective

Time to say goodbye to another year. 2021 wasn’t a shit-show like 2020, but still had its unique challenges and opportunities. As we look to the future, tis the season to do a retrospective of the past 12 months. Here are my highlights and take-aways of the year.

Biking and Business. When the fireworks went off at midnight on the morning of August 14th, it was the last day of a journey that started in April. During that time, I had cycled over 2,300 miles in preparation for the Day Across MN (DAMn), a 24 hour, 242 mile, gravel bike race across Minnesota. Upon crossing the finish line 21 hours later, I was elated, exhausted, and hungry!

In getting ready for the DAMn, I branded the preparation as Project242, or P242. In blog posts, I related training and riding a bike with business challenges faced on a regular basis. It was fun and I found it easy to relate the two. Two local business leaders read those posts and asked if some morning they could bike with me. Before I knew it, our 3 person group turned into six. Biking and Business was born! I learned a lot from this group and look forward to riding with them in 2022.

Investing, an Important Language. In 2020 I setup a Robinhood account, bought a couple stocks, and that was it. In ’21, I wanted to learn more about investing. So, I bought a book, read investor blogs, and soaked up information. Then, I’d target a few companies, study them, their financials, leaders, board, and buy one or two stocks. No, I will not get rich. But what I have learned is being able to read a company’s financials and what story those numbers tell. I’ve had a couple winners, and I’ve had a couple losers. What I’ve learned, though, is the true ROI.

Presentations Galore! I presented more this year than the past few combined; seven in total. All but one was virtual and had the opportunity to present to global audiences. Most were given to project and business analyst professionals, and a couple to business leaders interested in project management. Each presentation I learned something and honed my speaking skills. It was enjoyable and hope to present more in the future.

PMO Leadership. I consulted for three different PMO’s at three different companies. Each one had their own unique set of challenges, stakeholders, and requirements for delivering business value. Though I came into each with experience, I had to treat day 1 with an open mind and listen intently to what was needed, not what I wanted. Learning is a big part of my continued PMO journey, and I spent time with experts like Laura Barnard, PMO Joe, Pete Taylor, Bill Dow and others on webinars and podcasts. PMO leadership can be challenging, and rewarding. I love every minute of it!

Mental Health and Disconnecting. The last time I took a full week off with no meetings, emails or phone calls was August of 2020. I tried in 2021, but while getting ready for camping trip, someone asked that I take my laptop with me “just in case.” Stupid me did it and guess what? I got a phone call and spent a couple days working when I should have been relaxing and hanging out with my family. That’s a mistake I won’t make again. In ’22, I already have plans to disconnect and spend some quality time with my family.

2021 was a good year and look forward to what lies ahead in 2022. Happy New Year and I wish you continued success!!

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The Evolving Definition of “Done”

“We’re more concerned about meeting customer needs than defining done.”

For years, I have defined “Done” as a clearly articulated definition of the output of a project. Simple enough. The project has scope. It’s my job to lead a team to deliver that scope. That scope is delivered, and now it’s time to move on to the next project.

Done And Done GIF - Done And Done Spongebob Finished - Discover & Share GIFs

But over the past year, I’ve had a change of heart in what “Done” means.

In early 2020, businesses had to pivot as COVID moved everyone into stay-at-home mode. Many projects pivoted, also. Then in 2021 as things started opening back up, pent up demand moved customers to buy. Businesses again were trying to pivot to meet consumer demand while balancing supply chain woes. As project professionals, many of our projects, and the way we support organizations, again had to pivot. “Done” became a moving target for many projects.

When trying to deliver projects, especially those in rapidly changing environments, “Done” quickly turns from a stake in the ground to a piece of straw in the sand on a beach near the desert. Projects may be released early with minimal features to “just get it out there,” or delayed until additional features can be added.

That’s why a couple weeks ago was very intriguing. When talking with a business owner, I inquired about one of their 2021 initiatives that was coming to a close. I asked if they had defined “Done” clearly up front. She laughed.

“We’re more concerned about meeting customer needs than defining done. If we locked ourselves down on the front end, we would’ve missed out on an opportunity we uncovered along the way.”

101 Meeting Customer Needs Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images -  iStock

For her, “Done” was less about clearly defining the end result, and more about how it competes in the market, solves a problem, or meets a customer need. Done is subjective, open to interpretation, evolving, and iterative. Done isn’t about the output, but the outcome. It’s not a thing, but a result. It’s a solution.

But how do stakeholders respond if Done is abstract and not concrete? They want to know what they’re getting for their investment of people, time and money, don’t they?

My answer is IT DEPENDS! Some stakeholders will be OK with it, others won’t. If a stakeholder works in a rapidly changing environment, they will probably be more understanding and still commit to project success. Those larger programs or more established companies may not be. If Done is a moving target, the stakeholder conversations could get challenging.

What is Done? Is it a clearly articulated deliverable, or something less tangible? Is it based on meeting a customer or market need, solving a problem, or iterative as more is learned? I don’t have an answer and it also depends on the company, culture, and environment they work in. Done may be a clearly defined deliverable. It may also be iterative as it strives to meet a customer need.

How do you define DONE?

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