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How You Share Information Matters

philosophy Apr 12, 2024

This morning I woke up to an ant in the bathroom. Then another. And another.

This isn’t the first year my husband and I have had ants—though why they typically first appear in our second-floor bathroom is fascinating to me. Ants are irritating when they make their way into your home, but in an impressive way.

The ants reminded me of a memorable moment from my childhood. I was about 8 years old. My parents were trying to sell our house, and I was there with my parents while an interested couple visited. I wasn’t a terribly outgoing kid, so my parents probably didn’t expect me to say anything, and I didn’t for most of the visit—until the couple asked, “Is there anything else wrong with the house that we should know about?”

For some reason, my honesty overcame my shyness, and I blurted out, “We get ants in the summer!”

My parents were understandably horrified (in a first-world-problems kind of way). But now we remember this moment every few years and laugh. And I think that couple still bought the house.

This story reminds me how as project managers, we are constantly making decisions about what to communicate, with whom, and when. And there are times as professionals when we share something with good intentions—in the spirit of honesty—but we miss some of the additional factors we should be considering when we craft our communications, and our message doesn’t have the optimal impact.

Now that I have much more practice with communication, here are the factors I keep in mind when I have information to share on the job. They help ensure that my communication serves project outcomes.

Honesty is still the key principle.

When I say “honesty isn’t the only factor to consider,” don’t take that to mean honesty isn’t important. I still think, all other things being equal, we should err on the side of being more open and honest with project information and updates. If something changes on my project, and keeping the information to myself or keeping it from a particular person feels like hiding something, I should probably share it. I should let my inner 8-year-old Megan speak up about the ants…or, for a more relevant example, I should tell my project sponsor that the project timeline is slipping to a point that I’m starting to get concerned.

Furthermore, transparency—keeping people up-to-date on the information and situations that could impact them, even when there are open questions and unsolved problems—is a more specific form of honesty that builds trust within companies.

Also consider what is helpful.

But here’s the other side of the coin that 8-year-old me didn’t know yet: part of communication is thinking about what effect your message needs to have, and adapting it to have that effect.

A coworker once shared a life lesson that has stayed with me: “Complain where it’s likely to do the most good.” You might have a complaint, but there are people you can tell who can fix it, or people you can tell who will just gossip about it. Tell the first group, not the second.

I’ve extrapolated this lesson to communication more generally: “Communicate in the way that’s most helpful.” So what options do we have for crafting a helpful communication?

Who is it helpful to update?

Who needs the information you have? This is where a RACI chart is helpful, or at least thinking with the categories of a RACI chart:

  • Who is responsible or accountable for the thing you have an update about?
  • Who does this information warrant consulting for input?
  • Who simply needs to be informed of the updates?

Again, I believe in transparency and being open with information, but you can be open without giving people the impression you’re consulting them, or that they have more influence on the situation than they do. Being clear in this way is also kind (à la Brené Brown).

So who do you not tell?

  • Is anybody likely to misuse the information… stir up trouble, give the wrong impression about the situation, etc? It’s probably not helpful to tell these people, especially if they don’t need to know for one of the previous reasons.
  • To some people, information will be interesting, but irrelevant to—and potentially distracting from—their job. Avoid telling these people too.

When is it helpful to share?

In addition to telling the right people, timing also matters.

If somebody is busy, and the information is important, pick a time and a channel (in person, email, etc) in which they are likely to hear and understand your message.

Order also matters: you may want to tell one or a few people first to give them a heads up, or to get their input and share that input along with the message to the next group to help them receive the information in a certain way. For example, when there’s a problem with a video on one of my projects, I might get the opinion of a video team member on the best way to solve it, and then I’ll take the problem along with that recommendation to the person who needs to make a decision about how to solve it. In this way, I’ve most likely made the decision-maker’s job easier and the project can keep moving smoothly.

How much detail is helpful?

It can be easy to share a ton of detail about a problem in the spirit of honesty, and especially if you’ve just learned about the problem and are still processing it yourself. But too much detail:

  1. Might make people skim or ignore your communication.
  2. Might make the problem seem bigger than it actually is (as I explain in my post Rockstar Client and Vendor Communication).

Stop, take a breath, re-read the draft of your communication if it’s in writing, and think about what level of detail the person needs…to make a decision, to be up-to-date in a way that’s relevant to their job, etc. What level of detail will get the response or the action you need? What level of detail will make their job easier?

This is the error I made with my ant comment as a child. Ants aren’t typically the level of problem you discuss when a house is being sold…it’s too much detail. It was unnecessary negative information for the situation. It was true, but in terms of the level of detail, it wasn’t helpful. It was potentially distracting from what was actually important.

Crafting communication is an art, and honesty is really important, but so is shaping your communication for the intended effect. Consider all of these factors, and you’ll find yourself adept at using communication to keep your projects moving forward.

 

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