Three Practices for Winning Communications
When the Gotham City police summon the Dark Knight, they broadcast an unmistakable signal. Everyone knows what it means, the immediacy, and the intended audience. While effective communications is seldom so easily implemented, the Bat Signal demonstrates foundational concepts. Effective communications deliver the right message to the right people at the right time and convey the meaning you intended. Seems straightforward enough.
Until DevOps. Until continuous delivery. Until you have to communicate up, down and sideways. Deadlines. Multiple departments, tools. Third parties. Competing interests, competing demands. Now the only straightforward thing is you in an organization prone to reactive management, islands of self-interest, distrust and blame.
How can you possibly win?
Decades of experience reveal the following three practices of those who put themselves in the best possible position for the longest period of time.
#1: Identify and Understand Your Audience(s)
Problems arise when we know our audience(s), but not in ways that count. What will they do with a new message? How are they connected to the rest of your organization? How can they affect the outcome you need?
Problems also arise when we fail to consider all audiences that could have an interest in whatever it is we are doing or going to do. Notifying ops of a feature release is good. Ensuring marketing knows as well is better. You cannot assume the message will get where it needs. It’s worth identifying everyone so you can follow-up if necessary. There are many possible questions, reactions and outcomes.
Which brings me to the second practice.
#2: Manage Expectations
Important messages are delivered, yet your audience(s) is still surprised by what happens. Worse still, they react in a way you did not expect or deserve. Sending a message to an audience is one thing, setting expectations and spelling out implications for the audience is quite another.
When people experience change their perceptions fluctuate over time. It looks something like this:
This is one representation of many possible change curves, here for illustration purposes only. The point is not the curve, rather, what you do with it. It’s to your benefit to be aware of this dynamic and manage it over time. Your goal is to prevent expectations from getting unrealistically high and unreasonably low.
Effective communications mandates a relentless pursuit of shared understanding. Do what you can to set expectations and explain implications before a key milestone or event. Do what you need to get some assurance the proper expectations have been set and the implications understood. Circle back after your event to address any additional questions or concerns.
Managing expectations involves strategic and tactical thinking, preparation and action. It’s work. Which makes the next practice the most important of the three.
#3: Make It a Priority
To many, the above practices are no surprise. Yet, despite the pernicious and long-lasting negative effects of bad communications, few rise to the challenge. One thing separates those that succeed from everyone else.
They make it a priority. They care. They take the time to think through what needs to be said, and then do the work to ensure their message is understood, with the respect, integrity and dignity of the audience preserved. Even though it may not be easy and they may not like it, they welcome the challenge. They know it’s essential for the task at hand as well as their own credibility, reputation and career.
Developing and executing on a communications strategy is multifaceted and complex. It involves much more than the practices described here. Of course there are no guarantees you will win every time with the content here. But, without these practices, whatever plan or strategy you develop will be doomed from the start. Why not give yourself every possible advantage?
Right message. Right time. Right people. Right Meaning.
Seems straightforward enough.
The author of this post is Howard Perlstein, an expert in IT-driven organizational change and reworking organizations to get the benefit of new technology. We met at a Boston IOT meetup and bonded over the need for more humanists in technology. Expect to hear again from him soon.