I am the Editor in Chief at a digital think tank and marketing agency called Idea Booth. I lead projects, but I also follow on projects. Some days, I'm in the driver's seat. Other days, I am the wide-eyed newbie furiously taking notes trying to keep up--and that's a good thing. But in both circumstances, the same fundamental habit exists: communication is everything.
To preface what I am about to share, I'll say this: My background is in video games. When I was 17 years old, I was one of the highest ranked World of Warcraft players in North America. Some might say this (potentially useless) title is irrelevant. I wholeheartedly disagree. That entire game, and the years I spent climbing my way to the top, always came down to one thing and one thing only: communication. If you didn't call it out, nobody could see it. If nobody could see it, you had to react to it. And if you had to react to it, then you were already on the losing side of the battle.
The same can be said for business.
The reason why so many offices are plagued with chaos comes down to communication. That's it. Everything stems from communication. Late reports. Overdue projects. Miscalculated expectations. Unhappy clients. It always comes down to communication--or lack thereof.
So, why does this happen? Well, I don't want to spend too much time pointing out the obvious, but maybe we need to start there.
Communication usually falls apart because of the following:
- Ego: Someone doesn't actually know what to do, but fears looking dumb, so they keep their question or uncertain to themselves--until it's too late.
- Fear: Someone isn't sure how a higher-up or authority figure will react, so instead of being open and honest, they hide it--until it's too late.
- Negligence: Someone thinks that it isn't important ("the devil is in the details") and instead keeps the information to themselves--until it's too late.
- Unawareness: Someone is completely blind to the thing in the first place, and doesn't see the issue at all--until it's too late.
- Pride: Someone feels they have something to prove, either to their peers or the entire organization, and hides the work on their desk without asking for input--until it's too late.
The problem here--and this is something I think is exceedingly important to talk about--is that all of the above stems from a lack of self awareness. If you can't see that your ego gets in the way of your work, you'll never improve. If you can't see that you are creating problems out of fear, you'll forever be "the herby." If you can't see that you are negligent, or unaware, or filled with too much pride, then you will end up doing more harm than good.
The challenge with communication is that it takes looking in the mirror to see where the problem lies. And instead, everyone wants to make it seem like poor communication comes from the external, someone else. It doesn't.
Poor communication starts with you.
For those of you wondering how to inspire your own employees, or if you would like to know how you can better communicate yourself, here are 4 ways I believe communication can be improved:
1. Don't Assume... Ever
What is the old cliché: "When you assume you make an ass out of U and Me?"
In all seriousness though, never assume anything. Even if you are surrounded by talented, bright-minded individuals, everyone needs reminders. Everyone needs checking-in on. Reminding someone of something shouldn't be taken as an authority figure hovering over your shoulder--and if it is taken that way, then maybe you need to re-think your approach.
Be diligent. Follow up. Do it playfully. Show that your intent is to do great work and you won't ruffle any feathers. But always follow up. On everything.
2. Get Ahead Of It
The whole point of effective communication is to be ahead of the game. It's like in sports (I used to play hockey): the whole point of banging your stick on the ice 20 feet away is to let the other player know where you are skating to. He'll send the puck that way, and you'll pick it up. It's that simple.
In business, we tend to think that effective communication is merely explaining the thing after it's already happened. "Hey Jim, just wanted to let you know the report due in an hour is going to be late." That's not helping anybody. Effective communication would have been, three days prior when you got pulled off your project would have been a better time to communicate that. The reason most people don't is they think, "Oh, it'll probably all be fine." And that's where issues start to arise.
Get ahead of it. If you think things might go wrong, great. Tell someone. Plan for it. Be ahead of it, instead of sitting around in the 11th hour realizing that the warning signs had presented themselves days ago.
3. Don't Hide It. Own Up To It.
This is a really, really bad habit for most people.
You know when you're going out with a girl, and you are going to be a little late? You have two options: You either let her know ahead of time, or you show up late and hope (or "assume") everything will be ok.
The girl, however, left on time. Showed up to the restaurant on time. And is sitting there by herself. Maybe she ran out the door and would have liked an extra five minutes getting ready--but she didn't want to be late, so she rushed. Had you let her know you were going to be late, she would have appreciated that. Instead, by the time you show up, she's most likely thinking, "Well, now I know this is what I should expect."
It's not a great way to forge a relationship, to say the least.
If and when you find yourself in a situation where things didn't go quite as planned, don't hide it. You aren't helping anyone--and in fact end up making yourself look even worse. Own it. Admit that it happened. Figure out how you're going to avoid it happening again in the future, and move on.
With all this propaganda we push on kids telling them the lessons they learned playing after-school sports and participating in the school newspaper club, you'd think more business professionals would understand the meaning of "practice."
When I was playing World of Warcraft competitively, we obsessed over practicing communication. We would call out every single thing. "Targeting this guy, doing damage now, running away, need heals." It was over the top how much we said to each other, through our headsets (*pushes glasses up nose*) engaging in battle. But you know what? That's what it took to be the best. We either over-communicated, or we lost.
Whether you are in a 12 person startup or a 500 person agency, you need to practice the art of communication. You need to walk through projects, together, as a team, and ask each other, "Ok, after I do this, what do you do? When I do this, you do that. Then you hand it off to her, and then she passes it off to him, and then I send it to the client." And you need to do that, not once, not twice, but relentlessly, every single day, so that it becomes second nature.
Because at the end of the day, I'm not saying anything new. We all know this stuff. It's pretty easy to understand conceptually--but that's not the challenge.
The challenge isn't in understanding it.
The challenge is in executing it.
And execution takes practice.