Better Communications

Brett Harned
Jul 25, 2014 · 7 min read

Making any digital product is no simple task. Never mind shifting design trends, emerging technologies, and all of those screen sizes; Designing and coding something with a team can be down right tricky. Our industry is made up of designers and developers, all of who share a passion for big creative ideas, but maybe are not always compatible in a project setting. You might say that a typical developer is left-brain dominant: analytical and logical, while a designer might be right-brian dominant: emotional and creative. If you look up the psychological definitions of these two, their communication style is noted as verbal and nonverbal respectively. While that might not always ring true (they won’t), this communication style is where the problem of most projects begin.

No matter how you communicate or what role you play on a team, you must be a good communicator to create project excitement and success. And here’s the thing: communications can be simple, and they can make project work easier. After all, we’re humans who are programmed to communicate every day to get through life. So why does it so often break down when we get into our work? Sometimes we freak out and just forget. Reasons for the freak out will vary, but project deadlines, stress, conflict, and miscommunication are at the heart of many project-related issues. The good thing is that we have the skills to overcome all of that. Below are some tips to help you stay on track and communicating like a pro.

Set Communication Expectations

A general rule in project work should be that there’s no such thing as over-communication. You need to be very detailed and constant when it comes to things like ever-evolving project requirements and tight timelines. If a detail is missed or miscommunicated, goals can be derailed and you’ll lose time and budget and cause frustration. So how do you stay on top of it? As a team, come to an agreement on how and when you will communicate. At the beginning of a project, sit down to discuss your budget, scope, timeline, requirements, and any other factors that might play in to kicking off a new project. This will help to ensure that everyone on the team is aware of all of the critical pieces of information relating to project formalities.

In that meeting, be sure to assign specific project roles and the explicit responsibility of making sure that communication is flowing and is being documented in well-written meeting notes. But don’t always rely on one person for notes, make it a shared responsibility outside of meetings. For instance, if you’re in a hallway and something interesting or impactful comes up organically in discussion, don’t forget to document it. Taking three to five minutes to share potentially critical info with your team could save you time and budget.

Using a tool like Basecamp to hold all of that information will facilitate good communication and knowledge sharing. Knowing when and where communication should happen, and how they’ll be documented is half the battle in the war against poor communications.

Conduct Status Meetings

Whether you’re a one-man team or on a team of 20, working in an office or remotely, sharing progress is one of the most important things you can do in order to keep communications flowing. There are several ways to conduct a status call, so work with your team to figure out what will help you best. It’ll depend on the project you’re working on, your team’s schedules, and maybe event the intensity of the work. You might feel like you need to check in a few times a day at points in a project just because you’re handling lot of moving pieces and you need to make sure everyone in on track.

In general, a 15-minute in-person (or Skype/phone) review of the day’s tasks with your team is a nice way to catch up with your team, and can work to your advantage. Simply go around the room and give everyone a chance to talk about what they’re working on that day. A quick check-in will force everyone on the team to organize project priorities in advance of the meeting, adding a feeling of accountability for tasks. At the end of the meeting it’s helpful to ask, “Does anyone need help, or have time to help with tasks if needed?” Doing so helps you to build trust and rapport with your team.

If you’re dealing with clients, it’s a good practice to conduct a weekly status report and phone call to be sure that you’re staying current on all project issues. Not only is a status report good to keep you and your clients on track, but it keeps you honest about your work, process, budgets, and issues. Making the time to site down and discuss these things pays off. Are you going to go over budget on a project? Your client would prefer to know in advance of approaching that overage, so use the status report and meeting as a way to communicate and discuss the issue. From a client’s perspective, there is nothing worse than finding out about a project issue that could have been avoided until it’s too late. So pull that report together, hop on the phone and keep an open dialogue with your clients. A quick report that ties together should include:

  • What was done last week
  • What is being done this week and next week
  • Action Items
  • Update on timeline
  • Update on budget
  • Potential Project Risks

Lastly, don’t forget to have a bit of fun with your status meetings. Use the time to catch up with your team and your clients on non-work-related things. We often get so mired in the details of work that we forget to interact at a human level. If you make time for it in places like a daily status meeting, it’ll come naturally in other settings…and you’ll have more fun.

Playing Nicely With Others

There is no doubt that working with people can be painful at times. There’s often one or two people who make work difficult. They’re the people who missed out on those childhood lessons about being nice to others. It sticks for some, and doesn’t for others. When working with these people (or if you find that you ARE one of those people), you need to find a way to communicate and share your feelings without taking things personally. In general, sharing will make things easier.

Explain your process

As a designer or developer, you’ve got a process that works for you. It may roll into a master project process, or it may dictate it. Either way, sharing the “why” and the “how” you get to your deliverable will help your team and your clients understand timing, dependencies, and risks with your work. If you take the time to document and explain your work, you’re taking the extra step to show your team and your clients that you care about how the work is received, critiqued, and used. Plus, educating people–particularly clients–throughout your project process helps make your clients not only “get” your work, but they’re able to sell it to their organizations, and end up looking great. It ends up being a win-win situation for everyone.

Be Open to Collaboration

Many times, a timeline your location might feel like it will place inevitable constraints on how you can collaborate as a team, or with clients. But opening up your process to ideas from other team members and clients can make for more open, fun communications, and you might end up with some great, new ideas. Scheduling collaborative brainstorming or “whiteboarding” sessions gets project team members invested in project ideas before they become more concrete, and it helps to save on potential scope issues. Simply having a developer sit with a designer to talk through the level of effort an idea might require can be a life saver when it’s discussed before it goes to a client.

This all sounds great, doesn’t it? Sure, but how do you actually make it work? Good collaboration happens through the general understanding that your team is open to discussion. When setting your communication expectations early on, agree to collaborative sessions and open dialogue. From there, set up a series of sessions where you can discuss, sketch, and debate ideas as a team. Be sure to have a goal for each session and record takeaways. It’s always easy to schedule a session and come up with 500 amazing ideas, but you have to remember that you have to agree on and commit to at least one.

From there, keep your collaboration going with shared to-do lists. You can track sub-tasks as a team and keep each other in the loop on progress and dependencies with tools like Basecamp and Wunderlist. There are a ton of tools out there, so find one that your team agrees on. Once you’ve got your list documented, make sure you’ve clearly assigned responsibility and check in on it. If you’re seeing that a team member is behind, be proactive and comment on that to-do. The point of an open list is to make sure that you’re all up to date on the status of work at all times. A list like this will foster real-time communication, whether that be through in-person discussion, instant messenger, Basecamp messages, or email. The idea is to work in the open and share progress to build team support. This is the type of activity that helps people build products faster.

Do As You Will

As humans, we adapt to situations and work and communicate as needed. Sometimes work can get stressful and we forget that being ourselves is the best way to be successful. None of these tips are meant to be rigid to the point where you’re not being yourself. In fact, all of these tips are meant to be adapted to make a plan that works for you and keeps yours teams informed and happy. The most important thing to remember is that no matter what you do, you have to commit to communicating better. You can make better communications practices work for you and have a lot of fun if you create an atmosphere that is accepting of discussion, debate, task management, and good old hard work.

    Brett Harned

    Written by

    Digital PM consultant. Author of Project Management for Humans. Founder of Digital PM Summit. Parkour!

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