As part of a program to improve leadership skills, I recently read the book ”Conversations For Action and Collected Essays” — written by Fernando Flores. The book revolves around how essential informative and correctly structured conversations are to ensure teams work at their best level.
Generally, in order to improve the performance of their teams, companies spend a lot of money on better tools: last model laptops, bug tracking software… but they usually overlook the soft side of it. It doesn’t matter if a company uses Slack, Jira or Outlook if their employees don’t follow adequate communication flows that support proper coordination. Think about this scenario:
- A colleague commits to fulfilling a task you depend on by tomorrow morning.
- For an unknown reason, that person is not able to complete the task until late in the evening.
- You’ve already left work so you change your initial plan to review the work as soon as you start the next morning.
- You review the work, find problems that need to be addressed and write an email to that person…
- … you receive an email back: “I’m on holiday. I’ll be back on 2 weeks.”
Conversations, conversations, conver… to solve it
One of my favourite chapters of the book focused on how “conversations for action” can help us have effective coordination when working in a team (at our workplace or any place where several people need to operate together to achieve a common goal). In my opinion, the book doesn’t offer big discoveries but reinforces the idea of how vital communication is and why we should never take anything for granted — specially, when we can easily check something with a colleague or our customer.
Thus, when a person requires something from someone else their communication cycle will (should) comprise the following steps:
Preparation of Request
In this first step, roles will be defined: the requester as the customer and the producer:
- The customer starts to define the initial conditions of satisfaction (what is expected so the request can be considered as accomplished).
- The customer will provide a good insight into the context where the work is produced and why it is required: reasons for the request, priorities, time constraints, previous problems when approaching similar tasks, etc
Negotiation and Agreement
As a professional who provides a highly qualified technical service (sometimes as a consultant), I find this step very important.
At times, customers have a vague idea of what they are after. But even when they know what they are looking for, performers should provide their knowledge and use their experience to help define work and the terms under which it will be performed. For example, suppose you are working with a start-up with a great idea but a very limited budget. In that case, you’ll probably agree to release an initial MVP so the business can start generating money or attract an initial user base. This may leave out some of the features that our customer thought as indispensable but are not as important in the initial phase of the product.
We also need to make clear our availability, specially when we find ourselves subject to a tight schedule. We may need to look at our agenda or even move tasks around but we need to be 100% sure we can fulfill our promises before committing. Unfulfilled promises will generate distrust between the customer and performer, quickly eroding their relationship.
Performance and Declaration of Completion
Commitments create new possibilities and close others. Once the plan of work is agreed upon, the future is changed for both parties. The customer trusts the task will be carried out so they can start focusing on other things. On the other hand, the performer will need to be careful with new requests that can cause some kind of disruption. For example, our manager could ask for new work but we need to be sensible and make sure we keep a manageable workload that allows us to accomplish our objectives.
Having said that, we need to accept that unexpected events may happen — events that can affect our family or health and, therefore, our ability to complete our tasks in a timely manner. When this happens, we are responsible for communicating the problems we face so the customer can find alternatives as quickly as possible.
Once the work is completed, the performer should explicitly declare it. The declaration will include any further information required to understand how the deliverable is structured or where it can be found.
Acceptance and Declaration of Satisfaction
Finishing the work doesn’t mean our communication cycle has finished. Now, the customer should carry out some kind of verification, ensuring that all the terms of the agreement have been met. If something is considered wrong or incomplete, the cycle may start again until the job is successfully ended.
When happy with the results, the customer should conclude the cycle with a declaration of satisfaction which in most cases may be a simple “Thank you”.
Well-structured coordination like the previously described (or with some variations) is indispensable to organise high-performing teams.