A Cautionary Tale: When Good Communication Goes Off Track

Good communication is important on the smallest of projects. My co-author Jim Ewing and I were in the middle of a very small project: designing the cover of the comedic thriller we wrote. Things were chugging along when suddenly design elements were in a big messy pile like the catch of the day. As our protagonist, Juice Verrone, would say: “Is this some kind of a joke?” Sadly, no. Our project was derailed (temporarily) by poor communication.

Here’s how it all started. Jim and I decided to use a design competition web site, 99designs.com. The project started down a familiar path. When Jim created the competition, he posted information that sounds a lot like a project summary: a book cover design that would work in color and grayscale for both print and eBook (the goal and scope rolled into one), the price level (the budget,) a description of the novel’s plot, ideas we had, a sketch I had drawn (requirements of sorts).

The design competition has a process, which we followed. During the first round, people submitted designs. Jim and I discussed the entries, provided feedback, and received revised designs. We rinsed and repeated over the several days of round one. It was all very agile. Round two was similar, although our feedback became more specific and detailed.

Several of the designers were from other countries. This international competition was a crash course in communication issues due to cultural, geographical, publishing, and other differences. Who knew book spines run in different directions in different countries? It was also interesting to see how our novel got renamed by non-native American English speakers. The book title, “Fresh Squeezed,” morphed into  the grammatically correct Freshly Squeezed on a few entries.

We picked a winner and explained that the real work was now beginning. We were going to work with the winner’s basic design and iterate to the final cover. This is when things got shaky. We made specific requests but the results that came back seemed to be further off-track. Colors that had been correct in previous iterations were suddenly wildly off base.

Jim was the point person so he tried reducing the number of changes in each iteration. He asked the designer to go back to an earlier revision that had the colors we wanted. But the results were still off.

Jim and I were confused and frustrated. Then I thought of a technique that Stephen Covey recommends. Instead of descending deeper into micro-management, I suggested he say “Help me to understand why we are having problems with the colors.” Turns out that the three-dimensional fish on the cover was created in one program. Then the colors and other effects were added in a second program followed by some clean-up steps. And finally that polished image goes into the book cover file. Every time we asked for a change to the fish, she had to jump through all those hoops (with the potential for glitches.) No surprise, those steps took her quite a bit of time–for every individual request we made.

Fresh Squeezed cook coverUnderstanding her process clarified the situation and led the way to a more effective change management approach. We worked on the fish without color effects to get its shape and facial expression right. Then, moved on to applying the color — once. With the fish complete, we could move on to the other elements of the cover. Finally, when all the elements were finalized, she laid them out on the book cover.

All along, we felt like we were communicating. But messages weren’t getting across. When we went from brainstorming into “production,” we were really moving from an early project phase (completed prototype or proof of concept) into project execution. We should have taken some time to plan how we were going to work, ask the designer questions about her process and how we could work with her most effectively.

The moral of this story: communication is crucial and requires careful planning, followed by care and feeding–even in small projects like our book cover. Remote or multicultural (or multi-anything) teams complicate the process. Finally, we can learn a lot about managing big projects from small projects we perform every day, which brings us back around to the importance of lessons learned!

Are You Leading If You’re Going in the Wrong Direction?

Have you ever gotten jazzed up listening to an executive talk about what a project or program is going to do for the company? Big things, I tell you! This project is going to jet-fuel the organization! Go team! Then, you’re tapped to manage the project. As the excitement wears off, the realization dawns that you have NO IDEA what the project is really supposed to do.

Precise Leadership, a presentation by Executive Leadership Group at the 2012 PMI Mile Hi Spring Symposium, talked about how project managers can be successful by bringing clarity to a project. The emphasis of this approach is on uncovering the big picture of the project.

The first step is to understand the purpose of the project or program. That makes sense. But, in many instances, executives toss out vague goals cloaked in stimulating words, followed immediately by the directive “Get going!” Then, they revel in the warm fuzzy feeling they get watching the burst of activity that ensues. You probably know how that will end.

What you need are clear results that the endeavor is supposed to deliver. Results-based philanthropy was one example provided by the presenters, Wendi Peck and Bill Casey. Instead of a goal of raising as much money for a charity as possible, results-based philanthropy starts by identifying a desired result, raises the money for that result, and then uses the money to achieve the result.

Knowing the desired results delivers all sorts of benefits. The focus is on achieving results. That focus elevates everyone’s perspective to a more strategic level. Racking up hours or expenditures doesn’t mean squat if you aren’t getting closer to the desired results. In addition, you can prevent scope creep, because it’s easier to determine whether work supports the results. Team members understand why they’re doing work so they can be creative in how they achieve results. They’re also accountable for those results, so executives don’t need to micro-manage.

Bonnie's cartoon about heading in the wrong directionNow, you have a list of results to achieve. Everyone’s feeling pretty good. But you burst their balloon by asking “What is the right result?” Stephen Covey shares my favorite example of the importance of this question in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Someone looks up from their work and says “We’re going the wrong way!” The response is “Shut up! We’re making great progress!” You might run the most efficient project and deliver every result, but if the original goal was off the mark, the project will be a failure.

I liked the presenters’ take on the right result: a sweet spot somewhere between what you do and your lofty ideals. For example, doctors do physical exams. At the same time, they’re lofty ideal may be to make people healthy. The right result might be the middle ground of helping people make informed healthcare decisions.

The third step is to identify success in such a way that the results are indisputable. The bad news: The simplicity of an indisputable result is inversely proportional to the amount of thinking and discussion required. Is your desired result to decrease the cost of customer support by 10 percent, shorten calls to an average of less than 5 minutes, reduce average wait time to less than 4 minutes, or increase customer retention by 25 percent? Another challenge: you don’t want to saddle the organization with bureaucratic procedures for measuring those results.

Finally, you need to define some restrictions on those indisputable results. Some people are known for delivering exactly what you ask for, not what you intended. That is, if they can find a way to weasel around a result, they will. For example, if you’re trying to reduce customer service costs, you might want to specify that the results are achieved without a decrease in customer satisfaction. In most cases, 1 to 3 restrictions suffice to protect the results.  A test that the presenters recommend is to ask whether taking a restriction off the list makes the result easier to achieve. If the answer is yes, the restriction is probably warranted