On communicating in an organization
Sean J. Taylor
1 Sept 2022
If we’re to say anything prescriptive about how to communicate, we need to understand the underlying goal and how it serves the purpose of the organization. We start with a discussion of common goals one might have, and discover a wide variety of reasons why communication is useful and necessary. We then outline some principles and frameworks that guide our choices about how to communicate. This document is mainly focused on the perspective of a data scientist (and manager), but should be broadly useful within most large organizations.
Before we start with concrete advice, I want to acknowledge there are broadly two lenses to think about for improving communication:
1. Individual-oriented: you the individual change the way you communicate in order to make your career, project, team, etc more successful.
2. Organization-oriented: you are trying to change the way your entire organization communicates in order to make it more successful.
Much of the advice in this document is geared toward the first case. You personally have a lot of agency in deciding how to communicate with others, and can exert control by simply making changes to your own behavior. However, often a more important and impactful change is when you can nudge a broader set of people toward more effective communication.
As a leader in an organization you can simply demand people communicate in a certain way, but I find this is challenging in practice. I believe you realistically have two main tools to disseminate better communication practices:
1. Modeling the changes you want to see. Commit to making changes yourself and stick to it. People naturally mimic strategies they see in practice because they are often seeking more structure for their own work. [a]
2. Recognizing and rewarding positive examples. Give positive feedback, publicly, to people who have communicated in a way that you find is aligned with your organization-wide goals. People will naturally tend to do what they see others get positive recognition for.
So if you’re a leader within an organization you should be thinking about these strategies, and if you’re earlier in your career or an IC, you may gravitate toward implementing changes on your own.
Project-based communication goals
Work within an organization is often broken up into projects or initiatives of 1-6 months. This unit of work is useful because it allows us to constrain the time involved (see Who does what by when). The arc of a project involves several communication goals, which vary depending on phase.
This is an ideal project story, but many projects do not make it through all these phases, or do not make it through them linearly. Still the rough goals at each phase are relevant in different situations and should be portable.
Before a project
Many, many projects are dreams people have that need a variety of things to happen before they can turn into reality and impact. It’s worth acknowledging that the majority of projects cannot and probably should not happen, because they may either be not important or urgent. Thus the primary goal of “before the project” communication is to be convincing that the project should proceed, agreeing on scope, and securing the resources needed for success.
* Get buy-in: “This is an important project, you should support it.”
* Agreeing on scope: “This is what we’ll be doing” (alignment!)
* Feedback on the idea: “Does this make sense to do? How would you change it?”
* Secure resources: “This is what we’ll need to succeed.”
One successful outcome of this phase is to decide not to do a project! If you can normalize that within your organization, you can prevent wasted resources on projects that aren’t aligned with your current priorities. As a manager, nudging ICs to communicate effectively at this step and to receive (potentially negative) feedback is very important.
During a project
When a project is ongoing, a phrase I often use is bring people along for the ride[b]. People naturally tend to lose awareness, confidence, and trust in projects that they don’t hear about. Others may initiate redundant projects or there will be opportunities for collaboration where connections are missed. If the project is not going well, that is all the more reason to discuss that proactively. This builds trust and can be fixed with more resources or course-correction.
* Reinforce alignment: “This continues to be what we’re doing.”
* Spread awareness: “This is the progress we’ve made so far.”
* Continued buy-in: “This project continues to be important.”
* Secure more resources: “We need some additional help, can we have it?”
* Ongoing feedback: “How do you think this is going? What should we change?”
A very reasonable outcome of “during a project” communication is that you decide to stop doing the project. If your resources or priorities have changed, or the early results are not promising, then you should be prepared to have these kinds of hard conversations.
After a project
When a project is complete, but not adequately communicated to the organization, there is still value left to be created. This is the “last mile” of knowledge work – if you complete the project and do not adequately communicate about it, then you’ll have missed an opportunity to generate impact from the work, to get credit for you and your team, and to disseminate knowledge that helps others.
* Convincing people to do something: “Here is what we need to do next.”
* Share lessons: “Here is what we learned while doing this project.”
* Get credit: “This project had an impact, remember that around performance reviews please.”
* Create connections: “Do you have any ideas for extensions or new use cases?”
Non-project based communication goals
Not all work within an organization occurs within projects. Often this effort to create and facilitate discussions can feel “hidden” and difficult for folks involved to motivate[c][d] or get credit for. However, a healthy organization will spend a lot of time and effort investing in shared knowledge, skills, and culture. This creates two main things:
1. Knowledge capital: people who have context and/or experience with specific methods or problems are more valuable to the organization.
2. Social capital: people who trust and understand each other will be able to do better work by spending less time convincing each other and (potentially) being involved in various kinds of conflict.
Teaching and learning
We should admit that, particularly for data science, a large fraction of people’s time should be devoted to learning new things and teaching other people what they’ve learned. People are more engaged and motivated when they are challenged by learning something new. There are broadly two kinds of knowledge to acquire:
1. Just-in-time knowledge: stuff we absolutely have to learn as we hit blockers during our projects and tasks
2. Just-in-case knowledge: stuff we know that might use someday if the right opportunity arises
There are several communication tools to create knowledge within an organization:
* Reading/discussion groups: rotate people and present papers or topics that could be useful to problems facing the organization. Must be topic-focused and have a consistent meeting schedule.
* Project recaps: ensure the lessons from projects (particularly implementation, how they were done) are not lost after the project is completed. I’ve sometimes seen this called a “Deep Dive.” As a manager, I’ve often found myself encouraging people to schedule and invite people to these.
* Invited speakers: source outside experts who may already be prepared to speak on topics that are relevant to what the organization is facing. This works best if it’s a regular thing people can expect and they are encouraged to participate.[e]
A side-benefit of devoting time to learning is that it gives some people opportunities to teach. It is a way for motivated members of your organization to have impact beyond their immediate work.
Any meeting time where people leave feeling better about their co-workers, their organization, and themselves has added value to the organization. We should devote some specific time to:
* Give people space to talk about themselves. Our work relationships are layered on top of our personal relationships with people. We need to know something about each other in order to build social cohesion and trust.
* Give people a safe place to complain and commiserate. Things aren’t always going well within organizations, and it’s important that people can voice their concerns and frustrations during these times. First of all, just being heard can make them feel better. Second, it may help us identify opportunities to improve things for them.
* Having fun. People stay at jobs they enjoy, it’s worth investing time and effort in letting them enjoy the jobs more.
I have less prescriptive things to say about building community except that creating space and trying to be consistent appears to be important. This is an investment in the health of your organization and in people feeling good about their jobs. I will say that this effort seems to fall onto a small number of people who find it more important than others, and it’s nice if you can find a way to rotate ownership in order to share the work in a fairer way.
Here we list out a few principles that guide how we should think about using communication as a tool to make our organization more effective.
1. Information consumes attention: this is a trivial point to make, but worth stating upfront. Most people will not read most of what you ask them to, they will not pay full-attention in your meeting. They are inundated with other people trying to communicate with them.