Thursday, January 28, 2010

Communication: The "People Factor"

"Long ago, I realized that my communication style was one of my greatest weaknesses. Because of this, I challenged myself to become an expert communicator. I read books, took classes, observed people, and studied my own failures. I’m still a long way from being an expert, but I am also a long way from where I used to be.

I have learned a lot over the years and I would like to share those discoveries with others. That is why I have decided that communication will be one of the topics I intend to cover in this blog. Occasionally I have even experienced one or two of those “Ah Hah!” moments. Over time, I hope to share many of the lessons that I have learned and maybe one of my readers will have one of those moments too."
Currently, I am leading an effort to “improve” organizational communication between the various leaders in an organization and a broad base of volunteers, members, interested parties, and the local community. This assignment has many familiar challenges -- and a few new ones.

In the corporate environment developing a communication plan is a complex undertaking. This is especially true when working with a global company. We find ourselves dealing with multiple time zones and cultural differences. These two factors alone, if not specifically addressed, can lead to delays of multiple days and misunderstandings. There are often attempts to address these challenges through technology. The use of video conferencing, e-mail, instant messaging, conference bridges, etc. is often viewed as the solution for our communication problems. However, these are simply tools, not solutions. They ignore the “people factor.” In fact, they alone introduce as many challenges as they resolve.

Once we learn that technology alone cannot solve our problems we often turn to trying to address cultural differences. Yet again, the lesson we learn is that cultural education goes a long way towards helping us understand the people we are attempting to communicate with, but it is also just another tool, not a solution.

Regardless of geography and culture, the one thing that we all have in common is that we are all individuals and we all have our own unique communication challenges. Some people don’t like to use the phone and won’t return phone calls. Some people are intimidated, or overwhelmed, by e-mail and can’t effectively communicate that way. Some people are “night people” and can’t think clearly on that 4:00am conference call, while others are morning people and can’t stay awake for the midnight conference call. Some people expect information on every detail, while others are happy with a bullet-list summary. Some people prefer a face-to-face conversation, while others prefer to take time to digest what they have heard and take time to organize their thoughts and draft a response.

As individuals, project managers, and leaders it is critical that we get to know those that we must communicate with. We must tailor our communications to meet their needs. We don’t have the luxury of not using the phone, not using e-mail, or not having a face-to-face conversation. If we don’t step out of our comfort zone, we fail to keep others informed, we fail to stay informed, and we risk our own failure.