Tag: communication

Bridging the Gap Between Software Development and Localization

by on Jul.28, 2011 , under facilitative leadership, localization, program management

Erin Vang moderates panel discussion on software l10n

Cross-posted from Lingoport.com

So, you’ve developed a new software application, and have high aspirations in terms of selling your application to a global audience. Now what? Problems often arise between developers, localization managers, and business managers due to perceived lack of support, time, and money.

This lack of understanding can lead to great frustration within the development tiers. Join us for an hour long online panel discussion and learn how some of the best known industry thought leaders are contributing to bridging the gap between software development and localization.

The panel features the following industry thought leaders and experts from the software development, content development, internationalization, and localization industries:

  • Val Swisher, Founder & CEO of Content Rules
  • Danica Brinton, Senior Director of International at Zynga
  • Dale Schultz, Globalization Test Architect at IBM
  • Edwin Hoogerbeets, Senior Internationalization Engineer at Palm
  • Adam Asnes, CEO & President of Lingoport

Online Panel Discussion: “Bridging the Gap Between Software Development and Localization”
Date and Times: Wednesday, August 3rd at 9:30am PT / 10:30am MT / 11:30am CT / 12:30pm ET
Registration: Register for free @ https://www1.gotomeeting.com/register/964415249
Where: Your desktop

Erin Vang, Owner of GlobalPragmatica will be facilitating the online panel discussion. Erin has over twenty years of expe­ri­ence in sta­tis­ti­cal soft­ware doc­u­men­ta­tion, qual­ity assur­ance, project man­age­ment, and local­iza­tion, most recently as Inter­na­tional Pro­gram Man­ager for the JMP Research and Devel­op­ment at SAS, and pre­vi­ously with Aba­cus Con­cepts and SYSTAT. She is currently designing a localization program for Dolby Laboratories.

This presentation is intended for technical managers, software engineers, test engineering managers, QA managers, internationalization and localization managers, technical writers, content developers, and anyone wanting to learn more on how to optimize their global software releases.

We’d love to hear from you. Please send any questions or topics you’d like to have discussed during this panel to Chris Raulf @ chris (at) lingoport.com.

Update 4 August 2011

The recording of our panel discussion is now available here.

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How to hold better meetings

by on Jul.12, 2010 , under facilitative leadership, program management

Previously I wrote a response to Adriel Hampton’s thought-provoking blog post entitled “Five Reasons to Kill ‘The Meeting'” in which I argued why I think live meetings, preferably in person, are valuable, even though many of us hate a lot of them. Now I’m going to share some tips on how to make your meetings better.

I’m writing this primarily for people who run meetings, but most of these ideas can be used to good effect by mere “powerless” attendees. These are all classic facilitation concepts, and while a designated, trained facilitator will have advantages that attendees don’t, attendees can often speak up and “facilitate from their chair” with astonishing effectiveness, and in some groups, a peer will be far more effective than any authority figure.

What people hate most about meetings is feeling powerless.

Or ignored.

But it’s usually the same thing.

  • We all hate going to meetings where we’re talked at and nobody notices or cares if we fall asleep.
  • We all hate meetings where the decision has already been made, but nobody’s being up-front about that.
  • We all hate meetings where the people who need to hear the discussion aren’t in the room, or aren’t listening, or just don’t get it.
  • We all hate meetings where we know we’re going to have the same old fights and end up in the same old impasse, and nobody’s going to make a decision (or realize that their plan hasn’t been working and isn’t likely to).
  • We all hate meetings where only one point of view is important. I don’t really care if the CEO thinks this is the only way to save the company, if I know it can’t be done in the time and budget allowed, or if I know that the customers hate it when we do that, or if I know that’s the right thing to do but key stakeholders are too proud to accept a change in plans, or, or, or, or…

Meetings slow things down, and that’s good. (Sometimes.)

Central to many arguments about meetings is a premise that meetings slow things down. Certainly it’s true that many meetings are a waste of time for at least some if not all of the participants, and it’s not uncommon for people to have so many regularly-scheduled meetings that they effectively have only a one- or two-day work week. (More on that below.)

However, I question the premise that speeding things up is a good thing. The more important an outcome is, the more important I think it is to slow down and make sure it’s the right outcome.

“Go slow to go fast” is a facilitator’s mantra. It is far better to waste an hour in a meeting than to proceed with a plan that misses an important detail or a team that isn’t in full agreement.

A single team member who disagrees with the plan can sabotage an entire project. A good facilitator discovers who that person is and makes sure that person has a chance to voice their concerns. A good facilitator helps that person get the chance to explain what the others might not be considering.

Sometimes that person is just a nuisance. But even the troublemakers usually have useful points to make, even if you don’t like the way that they make their points.

When this person’s concerns are heard respectfully, and restated by others so that the person can be confident s/he was understood, then the group can weigh those concerns against the known constraints and competing concerns in a way that either incorporates those concerns or at least enables the person to go along with the plan. Even if the group reaches a different decision, if the dissenting concerns are acknowledged and weighed in a process that is transparent and is consistent with the group’s agreed-upon decision-making method, usually the dissentor(s) will be able to commit to the plan.

More on both of those ideas!

Transparent doesn’t mean public.

When I say that a group (or leader) needs to have a transparent process, that doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody is in on everything. It only means being clear and honest about how information will be explored and how decisions will be made. For example, a leader can say, “I want to get your feedback and ask for a show of hands on the different options today, and I will take that input to next week’s meeting with the directors, who will make a decision.” Most teams will accept that happily, but if they think they get to make the decision and then someone else does, they’ll be angry.

Transparency also requires following through on the stated process and being candid about any subsequent change of course.

Transparency and accountability means not pointing fingers at the team who tried to talk you out of it if it eventually turns out you were wrong. It might kill you to say it, but acknowledging that the team was right and you were wrong will buy you tremendous team loyalty—so much that I’d almost recommend doing that on purpose once. Almost!

Agree on (or at least announce) a decision-making method.

Decisions don’t have to be unanimous or even consensus or majority-rule. Many decision-making methods can work. The most important thing is to have one, and the next most important thing is to have group agreement or at least a candid announcement about what it is.

How do you decide how to decide? It depends on what’s at stake. Generally, the more say a team has in the decisions that affect them, and the more confident the team is that everyone on the team accepts the decisions, the more conscientious that team will be about executing on the decisions and being proactive about resolving issues that arise. The catch is that more say takes longer.

Here are some valid decision-making methods, from fastest and least engaging to slowest and most engaging:

  1. Leader decides and announces.
  2. Leader seeks input, then decides.
  3. Majority rule (discuss and vote).
  4. Consensus (keep at it until most people agree and those who disagree are satisfied that their concerns have been addressed or at least acknowledged).
  5. Unanimous (keep at it until everybody can agree with the plan).

Having a fallback is helpful. For example, “We want to reach consensus, but if we cannot reach consensus by the end of the week, then we’ll take a vote on Monday.” Or, “If the team can reach a unanimous agreement, that will be the plan, but otherwise I’ll make a decision based on our discussion today.”

When is something important enough to justify a meeting?

What is the value of a good decision, or an effective plan, or a group that agrees enough with the plan to remain committed to it? What is the cost of not reaching these? What is the risk of proceeding without certainty that everyone is onboard with the plan? That is the value of the meeting. The cost of the meeting is the number of people in the room, times the number of hours, times the hourly wage, plus any other costs such as travel, room rental, web-meeting fees, etc. You might multiply the number of hours by the number of people by an average cost of $50 per staff member or manager and $100 per executive or hired consultant. If the value is higher than the cost, you should have a meeting.

It’s often hard to estimate value objectively, but here are some subjective criteria that are probably good enough. Ask yourself these questions about the outcome:

  • Will more than a few people spend more than a few weeks working on it?
  • Will a customer ever see it?
  • Could a bad result lead to a lawsuit?
  • Is there anyone affected by it who might be silently disagreeing?
  • Is anyone’s influence out of proportion to his or her competence and credibility? (For example, a CEO who doesn’t understand crucial technical details, or a chief engineer who doesn’t understand business constraints, or a sales manager who is purely commission-driven?)
  • Are you worried about what you don’t know, or what you might not realize you need to know?

If your answers to any of these questions is yes, then it’s worthwhile to have a meeting.

Minimize the intrusion of meetings on the work week.

Meetings burn time, and not just the duration of the meeting but also the time it takes to get to and from the meeting and time spent with meeting logistics like calendar management, preparation, follow-up, and rescheduling other commitments. Worse, meetings have an interruption cost. If my work requires focused concentration for several hours at a time, then a meeting that runs from 10 to 11 am pretty much destroys my 9 am to lunchtime shift. The most I’ll be able to get done from 9 to 10 and 11 to 12 is handle some email and maybe an expense report or travel reservation. There is no way I’ll be able to debug and fix some code, or write a proposal, or intervene in a staff problem, or persuade my manager about something. If I have another meeting from 2 to 3, then my afternoon is also shot, and my most important responsibilities—the things I’m paid to do—will be postponed another day, or I’ll be forced to put in some overtime that night.

Minimize how your meetings intrude on the work week. Some easy ways to start:

Have designated meeting days.

If you can get all of a team’s meetings out of the way on Tuesdays, that leaves the rest of the week free for focused work. Mondays and Fridays tend to suffer from higher numbers of absences because of people taking long weekends, so Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday are better. Ask yourself whether your team benefits from having a break from work mid-week (making Wednesday a good day to meet) or from having several days in a row available to focus (making Tuesday or Thursday better). More important than which day(s) you choose, though, is that you choose, and you enforce the no-meetings-days goal as much as possible.

Have the shortest effective meeting.

Go slow to go fast—make sure everybody’s voice is heard when it’s important—but don’t waste time with unnecessary agenda items. Don’t hesitate to adjourn early. Offer breaks when people get restless, start yawning, or are clearly needing to check their messages. Start on time no matter who’s late, and never go over the allotted time without group agreement and permission for some people to leave. Don’t go overtime if it would deprive people who need to leave of their chance to be heard.

State the agenda and goals in advance.

Nothing is more frustrating than having to go to a meeting whose purpose is unclear, or worse, where some people might have (or seem to have) a hidden agenda. Send out a written agenda, with time allotments for each topic if possible, and with clearly-stated goals. The goals should be measurable and believable, and they should be nouns—for example, “a list of issues needing further exploration” or “a decision about how to proceed” or “a preliminary schedule with major milestones and goal dates.” Ask yourself how the group will know if they met the goal(s) of the meeting.

At the beginning of the meeting, check with the room: “Are these the right goals? Can we do this today? Am I missing something important?”

At the end of the meeting, even if you think you know the answer, ask the room questions like, “Did we meet this goal? Do we need another meeting? Is there anything for next week’s agenda?”

Protect your team from the risks of vague agenda items.

Your agenda might be vague or contain a vague element. If so, take steps to promote confidence that those vague areas will be handled efficiently and nobody will be ambushed by surprises.

For example, if you need to go around the room to get status reports, have everybody remain standing so that nobody will drone on and on. Add a fun element, such as “What progress did you make, is there anything you’re stuck on, and what’s the next movie you want to see?” (If you do something like this, include the list of movies in your meeting notes.)

Sometimes issues arise that might feel like an ambush to some people in the room. Do what you can to make people comfortable raising those hot-button issues, because sweeping them under the rug is never better, but take steps to protect people from unpleasant surprises becoming nightmare scenarios. For example, you might ask, “Does anybody need some time to research this before we discuss what to do next? Is there anybody else that we’ll need to include in this discussion?” Often the best course will be to allow time right away for the basics to be laid out, let people ask any immediate questions, and then schedule further discussion after people have had some time to ponder and research.

If the circumstances demand an immediate decision, do your best to let people be heard, to record objections and unsettled questions, and then take responsibility for the way you proceed. If you must make an executive decision, be transparent about that. Be honest that you’re making a judgment call with incomplete information, and remain accountable for it in future. Do what you can to revisit the unsettled points when time allows. If possible, plan ways to revise the decision as better information becomes available. If your decision turns out badly, be candid about that, too, and acknowledge that some people did raise pertinent objections.

Follow up with brief meeting notes.

Brief is the key here. All you really need is a record of the decisions and agreements, a list of points needing followup, an acknowledgment of any important disagreements or what have you, and a list of open action items with names and goal dates. Some action items might be incomplete, with names, dates, or other details to be determined. If you are ready to include the next meeting’s agenda and logistical details, great.

Always provide a method for people to correct your mistakes and omissions. For example, “Please REPLY ALL with errata and addenda. Have I missed anything important?”

Avoid detailed summaries of who discussed what or disagreed why; you can only lose at this game. Just record what was agreed and decided, and if appropriate also record the points that were left unaddressed, or the objections that were raised, or the points needing further discussion, without commentary. Ask yourself whether anybody who was in the room will be surprised by your notes or would state anything differently. Ask yourself whether somebody who missed the meeting will learn what they need to know.

Sometimes it’s helpful to consult with the room about what should go in the notes, as a way of preventing misunderstanding later on, or even as a way to bring discussion back into focus. For example, after a lengthy discussion or an uneasy resolution, you might ask questions like, “How should I capture this for the notes? Can somebody restate that for me? Does anybody disagree with this proposal? Are there any action items to go with that?”

Overtime costs a lot more than time-and-a-half.

Be especially careful about scheduling meetings that will force people into working overtime. Even if it doesn’t bring a direct labor cost increase, it usually brings a psychological cost increase.

Speaking for myself, I don’t think twice about working overtime to make up for my own poor decisions, for example, or to solve a problem that I just can’t wrap my brain around during the day. But I resent being forced to work overtime because somebody else wasted my time or made a poor decision. If I have concert tickets or a family obligation or am not feeling well, I resent it even more.

I will forgive my colleagues and take one for the team occasionally, and I’ll gladly go the extra mile when it’s the difference between success and failure for something I believe in. (And now that I’m a self-employed consultant who bills by the hour, I am extremely flexible about when those hours need to happen.) But if any work situation (or a social situation, for that matter) creates a pattern of abusing my time, sooner or later I will resent it. And that resentment will cost the organization in terms of my reduced commitment, my less-than-stellar attitude, my frayed nerves, my depressed health, and eventually perhaps even my departure. I won’t sabotage a project—I’m just not wired that way— but you’d better believe it that if you push some people far enough, they will sabotage your project. Maybe not consciously, maybe not deliberately, but they will find ways to undermine even their own success to get back at someone who has done them wrong.

Do you feel the same way? Do your colleagues?

I have some beliefs because of my experiences. You have had different experiences and reached different conclusions. I would love to hear from you!

What am I missing?

What have I gotten wrong?

What do you see differently?

What did I say that surprised you? Do you think I might be right, at least for some people or situations?

What do you think would surprise me? Can you tell me a story from your experiences that would help me understand your point?

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In defense of (good) meetings

by on Jul.12, 2010 , under facilitative leadership

Adriel Hampton wrote an interesting blog post entitled “Five Reasons to Kill ‘The Meeting'” that I felt compelled to rebut in his comments thread, and I thought I would write a bit more here on why I believe meetings can be more valuable—and less horrible—than Mr. Hampton and other victims of bad meetings believe, and in my next post, some tips for making that happen.

This post is an elaboration on the comments I made to his post.

Mr. Hampton’s argument is that groups can be more productive by replacing live meetings with online meeting spaces. His reasons are valid, and for many situations I agree with him. Certain kinds of topics can be explored and debated much more effectively in this way. I, too, have a lot of experience with virtual collaboration (in my case, internationally-distributed teams) and have even found that in many ways I can work more productively from a remote office than a common office.

However, even for topics that lend themselves well to offline discussion (such as a team wiki or shared documents), for anything that is important, I have found that final decisions are best made in a live meeting—preferably face to face, if that’s practical, but at least a teleconference. While anything is better than nothing, the effectiveness of the group’s interaction degrades along with the resolution of the meeting method. The most engaging way to meet is to have everybody together in a room—preferably with some social lubricants like snacks, games, a celebratory meal. This is far “stickier” than everybody scattered around the globe, wearing headsets, and distracted by who knows what else. Ask yourself how many times you’ve surfed the web or answered email during phone or web meetings, and then figure that a good portion of your team is at least as distracted as you have been.

Not everybody learns and communicates the same way.

The main point I made in response to Mr. Hampton’s post was that while his suggestions can work very well for visual/verbal learners and communicators, not everybody learns and communicates best by written word and graphics. Many people—in my experience, more people—learn and communicate best by auditory and kinesthetic means.

Here’s the comment I left on his article:

I agree that most work groups hold too many useless meetings, and for people with a visual learning/communicating style, your suggestions will be helpful for many goals that are not being met well by meetings.

The problem is that other people have auditory or kinesthetic learning styles, and they don’t grasp or convey information as comfortably through the written word as you might. Learning and communication styles also break down along another axis, logical vs. social vs. solitary (clearly your style).

If all of your stakeholders are visual, solitary learners, then shared written methods like you’ve described will work very well for a lot of meeting areas. But most workgroups have a mix of learning styles, and in my experience, auditory/social learners are the majority. Your strategies will tend to minimize their contribution.

Another problem is that even among visual, solitary learners, many important topics are best explored with real-time back and forth in which all participants listen as carefully as they talk, seeking to understand as well as to be understood, with clearly understood goals and decision-making methods. If that doesn’t describe the meetings you’re used to attending, I’m not surprised, and no wonder you feel this way! Most of us have attended far more terrible meetings than good ones—myself included.

Most groups benefit from some guidance and ideally instruction from a skilled facilitator. I have experienced for myself many times the incredible difference that good leadership can make, and if the meeting is about something important, hiring an impartial professional facilitator is something you can’t afford not to do. I greatly improved my own effectiveness as a program manager by learning and adapting facilitation principles and techniques, and I went from being someone who dreaded even my own meetings to someone who eagerly looks forward to facilitating for other groups.

Let’s break these ideas down a bit. First, about visual/solitary learners (writers and readers) vs. those other people (talkers, drawers, builders, tryer-outers).

Have you ever had an experience like this?

If you’re reading this article, then we probably have a lot in common. You write. You read. You think. Alone. And you’re good at it. Me, too.

But here’s what happens—right?

You carefully write up a proposal and send it around by email. You take pains to write a thorough discussion, detailed enough but not too long, with supporting illustrations and even good summary bullet points. You put a clear question or call to action at the end. You leave it in Drafts overnight and come back the next morning to fix up a few details before sending it out.

And then nothing happens.

You send another email. No response, or just a few one-liners come back. You phone a key stakeholder or ask them about it when you run into them at the coffee machine, and they say, “Oh, right. I read that, but…” and then they ask questions or raise objections that make it obvious they didn’t understand a thing. You’re pretty sure they didn’t even read it.

It’s frustrating! You know it was all there in your beautifully-written email, and you know that you covered all the most important points. But they don’t get it!

Why not?!

Try not to jump to conclusions. You’ll never know for sure.

  • Some people weren’t paying attention.
  • Some people read and understood but forgot.
  • Some people got behind on their email and are afraid to admit it.
  • Some people disagree so violently they can’t even think about your points.
  • Some people are too busy.

Story time!

I once had a boss who told me, “If you can’t get it down to one inch, keep it in Drafts until you can.”

Oh, my G-d.

I wanted to strangle her!

But eventually I learned. I found that the shorter my email, the better my chances that she’d sign off and support me later, or answer my question. The longer my email, the more likely I’d get a brusque response that made no sense, or no response at all.

At first I thought she just didn’t appreciate my attention to detail and the subtle nuances of the  situation. Eventually I realized that she appreciated all that and trusted my judgment but didn’t have time to get bogged down in all the grey areas. That was my job, and as long as I kept her informed, she’d support me to the end.

I (eventually) figured out that the thing to do was get her on the phone and tell her I had a plan but that I wanted her ideas on this or that aspect of my plan. She was great at brainstorming solutions and seeing when my thought-framework was off.

She learned, too. She figured out that where she was good at plotting strategy, I was good at anticipating risks. Where she was good at selling ideas, I was good at making sure her plans were bullet-proof. And together, we were better at collaborating over the phone or over lunch, even though sometimes I needed to write an email to myself to figure out what I thought, and sometimes she needed to enjoy a cocktail and ignore my babble while I worked something through.

So what do we writers do about all that?

No matter how well you write, you have to face the fact some people just don’t take in written information. Some people need to:

  • talk things out
  • touch things
  • draw pictures together
  • make physical models
  • conduct experiments
  • listen to descriptions
  • see people’s faces
  • think “out loud” and ask “dumb” questions
  • spell out the details of who, when, what, how

If you’re a good writer and you like working on things alone, in your own time, you might find this frustrating—I sure do!—but remember, other people find it frustrating having to read and work alone.

You’ll come out ahead if you take a variety of approaches.

I wrote more on the topic of written vs. phone and other communication methods in a Point/Counterpoint column with Tina Wuelfing Cargile.

Embrace diversity!

Rather than dwelling on your frustrations, take advantage of people’s differing skills and preferences.

  • The people who prefer talking things out are also often good at enrolling others in the decision and will enjoy presenting the plan to other groups (whereas many excellent writers would rather have a root canal than give a presentation).
  • The people who like to draw diagrams together often bring new insights because of their superior spacial reasoning abilities.
  • The people who like to build prototypes or conduct experiments will help you find the gaps in your plan, and often they’ll come up with improvements on your idea that you’ll wish you thought of. (Ask me how I know.)
  • The people who just don’t pay attention to their email are likely to pay closer attention and ask good questions when you talk to them.

But not just any meeting! A good meeting!

And how to have good meetings instead of crappy meetings will be the subject of my next post: How to hold better meetings.

What do you think?

What have I missed?

Which meetings should be killed and which should be resuscitated?

What are the tools you’ve found that work best at replacing meetings?

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Point/Counterpoint: Communication

by on Nov.10, 2009 , under program management

This article was originally published in slightly-edited form by Multilingual magazine, April/May 2009 and is reprinted here with permission. Erin Vang would like to thank both Multilingual and her co-author, Tina Cargile, PMP, for graciously consenting to republication of these articles in the GlobalPragmatica blog.

POINT: The “right” way to communicate depends on the other people

Erin Vang, PMP

I once started writing up communication guidelines for all the project managers involved in my program (including several at vendors) and after several pages decided that I’d better keep it to myself, because my list made it far too obvious how neurotic I am. Some of the greatest hits I later culled from that list for a slightly less neurotic-looking set of guidelines:

  1. Always put the project codename in the subject line (and various details that boiled down to “do me a favor and spell it correctly”).
  2. Also include a hint about the actual subject in the subject line (don’t just reply to whatever I sent you last to save yourself the trouble of starting a new thread)
  3. Please! No emails just to say “thanks.” Let’s just agree that we’re all grateful and polite and save the thank you emails for the truly heroic deeds.

And then there were guidelines to avoid the CC-proliferation problem—where you CC one person on an email as an FYI, and then the reply comes back with a few more questions and a few more CCs, and so on, and before you know it everyone from the vice president of your company to the assistant vacation substitute for your project manager from two years ago who’s no longer with the vendor are all involved in a lively discussion of whether Coke is “pop” or “soda.” (True story, only slightly exaggerated.)

Did anyone notice that I started right off with email and wonder why?

I didn’t think so.

Which brings me to my real points, which are far more important than learning anyone’s list of email pet peeves. First, the only right way to communicate is the way that works for the people on both sides of the communication. Let me illustrate with an example:

Not long ago I needed to discuss something with Tina, my collaborator in this “Point/Counterpoint” column. I didn’t want to write email, because the subject was sensitive, and to me it was quite urgent, so I phoned her. When she didn’t answer, I left voicemail describing the situation and asking her to call back. She never quite got back to me, which was frustrating. Sooner or later we did get in touch and worked it all out, but it didn’t happen quickly, and I couldn’t figure out why…

…Until recently, when Tina and I were exchanging ideas about this very column you’re reading now. She wrote, “It is clear that everyone has their own best ‘receiving’ style. For me, it’s written communication—gives me time to research, reflect, and basically not screw up my answer. I’m guessing you like the phone better, or maybe it’s a mix. I have an aversion to phone calls—it’s like a command to stop what you’re doing and thinking about. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Long distance was verboten when I was young—unless someone was near death. If they were already dead, a letter would do. And we wrote lots of letters.”

There was my answer—it was my fault! Although I’d left voicemail and asked her to call me back, I had intentionally made my message sound patient and low-key. Why? Because I was likely to be asking Tina for a pretty big favor, and I didn’t want to be pushy about it. (That’s how I was raised!) Next time I’ll know that unless I make it clear my voicemail is urgent, I’d be better off sending email.

As for my preferences, Tina guessed correctly: I prefer a mix of email and phone. For anything easy or brief, I start with email, for many of Tina’s reasons plus a few of my own. I don’t like to interrupt people. Often the details will be easier to understand visually than aurally. Email is often faster.

However, for anything tricky or lengthy, I switch to phone. I’ve found that many people either can’t or don’t understand things completely and accurately when they have to read more than an inch or two of text, and some topics are too complex to convey in two inches. In this case, a phone conversation is usually a better idea.

Unfortunately, writing a six-inch email is often the best way for me to think through the issues and state them clearly. If I just pick up the phone, I’m likely to frustrate the other person with a lot of circling around and unnecessary detail. In such a situation, I’ve found that it’s best to go ahead and write the long email to get my own head clear. Then I save it in Drafts, pick up the phone, and discuss the big concepts with the other person. Later I’ll follow up with email as needed to chase down final answers and details—and with any luck, the follow-up email will be much shorter and simpler than my first draft. [More on this idea within a blog post about meetings.]

One more point: both parties are responsible for both the sending and receiving of every message. I’ll explain.

For the sender: Don’t assume that just because you’ve said it or sent it that the other person has heard it or received it; lots of things can go wrong, including simple human error. (Have you ever read a message and then accidentally filed or deleted it before you replied or took action?) Also don’t assume that the other person has understood it. Even short, simple messages can be misunderstood. It happens all the time. Until you receive a reply that demonstrates the other person received your message and understood it correctly, you are still responsible.

For the receiver: Don’t assume that just because you’ve heard it or received it that the sender knows that. If it’s urgent to that person, have the courtesy to reply, even if only to say, “I’ll get back to you on this later.”

Does that contradict my third email rule, “No emails just to say thanks”? Sometimes. And if you talk to my project managers, they’ll tell you I’ve often left them dangling, not sure whether I received their important deliveries or not. They think it’s a stupid rule and I need to get over it. They’re probably right. Frankly, this is something I need to work on. I don’t like to reply before I’ve confirmed or answered everything in the email, because if I see that I’ve replied to a message, I’ll sometimes mistakenly assume later on that since I replied, that email is “done” and I can file or delete it. To avoid that mistake, I prefer to wait. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s taken me a while to get back to it, and in the meantime the folks on the other end might really need to know whether they can bill me, or release a resource, or go home to bed, or whatever.

Which brings me to my last point: most of us need some work on our communication skills, and in the meantime, we owe some apologies when we drop the ball. To all my project managers who have wanted to smack me for too often not sending timely replies: you know who you are, and if you’re reading this, I’m sorry!

COUNTERPOINT: Be clear about what you need, and consider your audience

Tina Cargile, PMP

As Erin says, there are different sending and receiving styles and preferences—lately it has been fashionable to complain about email, but there are complaints galore out there regarding both verbal and written communications.

We work in an industry that is all about meaning and communication, yet we don’t do much better than folks in other industries at employing effective messaging. There are missteps and irritants possible no matter how one sends a message–either phone or email. How often I have written a draft message and then returned to discover that what I “said” wasn’t what I “meant” at all! Or realized that the receiver was apt to see any suggestions as criticism, which called for a softening of the message.

As a lousy notetaker with a decent, yet aging memory, storing the call notes is essential—but by the time I get around to doing that, some details might have drifted away. With email, I can review every word and confirm that I received the complete message.

Finally, I’m trying to keep up with three different phone numbers (home office, office, and Blackberry), but I can always go a single place to check email when I’m about to board a plane or walk into a client’s office. It might take a couple of hours before I get a moment to check voicemail messages on all three phone lines.

I agree with all of Erin’s ground rules for email communication—having received one too many messages that essentially say “Hey, you know that thing we were talking about a couple of weeks ago? I vote yes.” Huh? Preparing a coherent message includes some preparation. Don’t assume I remember what we talked about a couple of weeks ago—I’ve slept since then.

The same goes for phone calls—I love Erin’s idea of composing an email to get your thoughts in order, and then placing the call. Nothing is as irritating as spending 15 minutes on the phone with someone who clearly doesn’t have a handle on the question they’re trying to ask. Except maybe those who don’t have the information handy on the subject of the call (“hold on for 5 minutes while I print all of this information out”). I usually request that they call back once they have all the data in order. Nicely, of course. [Erin’s comment: I once apologized to someone for answering their call at a time that was inconvenient for them. They didn’t get it.]

In fact, when planning a call to discuss complex issues or a number of related topics, I find it useful to send a call agenda before the call, if possible. Bullet points only! This means the receiver has some idea of the scope of the discussion and can be prepared with supporting information, status, what have you, before I dial the phone.

There are also differing schools of thought among those email aficionados among us. For example, some of my colleagues prefer that I gather up every single topic or action item needed that week to be sent in a single email. I can assure you that such an email would filter down and down in my Inbox; at the very least, I would likely miss one of the to-dos as I circle back to the original email over and over again. Personally I prefer discrete, individual messages, at least grouping by a single topic. This way, I can complete a task and it’s done and done!

On the other end of the spectrum, I despise voicemail messages that say “call me!” If there is a sensitive communication that you’d rather not write down, at least give me a hint. Often I will call back and find that the issue is something I could have researched and been ready to answer right then—but I have to call them back again, once I’ve gathered the information needed to answer.

I agree with Erin completely about the no “thanks” rule. If you must have a response within a certain time–don’t be shy—tell me! Another option is to request a read receipt for urgent matters only. I’ve run into correspondents who request a receipt for every single message they send, which tends to dilute the impact when something is truly time-sensitive or urgent. As I’m fond of saying, “when everything is urgent, nothing is urgent.”

Whichever “tools” you use to send and receive information, the most critical task is to be clear about what you need or are asking, and to think about the preferences of those you’re communicating with. It makes life much easier to remember that this client always wants a phone call and that client responds to voicemails with an email reply.

Finally, read your message before sending with the personality of the receiver in mind. Whether or not you meant to say “you really screwed up on this,” some receivers will hear that nonetheless, unless you include a line like “great job on this! I have some ideas that may or may not be useful—you let me know.”

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