It has become even more clear to me during the era of COVID-19 that poor communication is the reason systems and relationships fail. Every time I've failed to get what myself, my team, or a community wanted out of an engineering team was because I neglected to communicate why and how it would be impactful to them in a digestible way.
I’m a professional communicator, and when I reflect on the biggest mistakes I’ve made in my career, they were all due to a communication breakdown. We’re all biased, imperfect humans, and the sooner we drop the assumptions, get curious, and start listening, the sooner we are able to build better products faster.
In this post, I share a few lessons learned as a non-technical launching hardware and software products over the last decade. We’ll explore tactics and skills teams can use to communicate more effectively between those who build the products, and those who sell them. This touches on async, documentation, AND storytelling, which is the thing I think we lose sometimes when we’re demanding a feature be built quickly. If we’re able to understand why we need “x solution,” and the why has been documented, it’s easier to keep morale up and meet the deadlines for all teams.
Start with why
Take the opportunity to educate whenever you can. Often our frustrations at work come from a lack of understanding the why. Why we are going in this direction, why we can’t build that, why is this a priority right now, etc. A little storytelling can go a long way. Explaining to someone what the product roadmap looks like, and where what they’re working on might fit into that roadmap, while also illuminating how prioritization happens (ideally through awesome documentation and discussion) can take the sting out of rejection. Using a case study or user story can make this easier and less personal too.
Deliver value, earn respect
Illustrating value is the most powerful way to earn real respect across an organization. Nothing you say, and no title you earn, will do that for you. And know that you have to earn that respect each time you enter a room or sit down at the table. Be kind. You’re entitled to nothing. You’ve been given a shot. Earn it each day. Don’t be a brilliant jerk. This attitude of gratitude is contagious and people will notice even if you’re not vocal about it. They’ll respect your kindness, and pay closer attention to your work.
At one point in my career, I assumed that people would respect the new marketing department (of one) at the first Silicon Valley hardware design firm I worked for. I was humbled (repeatedly) until I STFU and produced some quality results. The conversations changed and the respect started to grow.
Be curious, ask questions
Curiosity is the next best thing, and the easiest way to gain trust (the primary factor in respect.) No one understands every aspect of an organization (not even the C-suite, so I hope they’re listening, too) and we can all learn a massive amount from each other. You may not be psyched about every aspect of the operation, but you’ll be surprised how empowering it is to ask questions about your peers goals and daily activities. Just understanding what everyone does can break down the first layer of miscommunication and distress that comes from going to the wrong person or team with your issue.
Obviously you don’t need to know the personal details of a 500 person org, but at least getting a feel for their team culture can be illuminating. Once I realized my complete and utter ignorance, I asked for help from a senior engineer and lead designer that I trusted. They (very kindly) taught me a design and engineering word a day for months, until I at least seemed like I knew what I was talking about in pitches. I have not forgotten their generosity or this lexicon a decade later.
Pro-up your team while you’re at it. Don’t assume they know everything you do just because you build the same things. I also recommend taking a note from GitLab’s Remote Playbook to document things like this for your company.
Don’t assume, listen with empathy
Listen, and ask guiding questions before you say no, and before you assume you’ll get a yes. Context is everything in negotiation.
Even if you know a request is impossible to execute on, consider the source. Is there a way to better understand the original need of the request and perhaps reframe it into an addressable problem, or at least give them a time frame to re-raise the issue? Try to listen compassionately. Stop yourself before you assume what Pat from marketing is going to say. Think about the problem they’re trying to solve rather than the words that they’re using to communicate that problem.
Picture a user in their place. That’s what marketing is. A facilitator for the voice of your community. Yes we’re grabby and want the world instantly, but it’s because we’re trying to serve our customers best. And sometimes we’re clueless as to why you can’t do the impossible.
Find approachable ways to relate
You don’t need to be BFF with everyone on your team, but you do need to be able to be able to clearly communicate if you want to work well with them. Build communicative bridges that aren’t work based, not to be BFF, but because you need a lexicon you both relate to that isn’t charged with professional tension. This will help ease and reduce conflicts. There are threads that bind us all, even if they’re tough to discover. This has never been more of a challenge for me than when I worked for a 3D Printing ecommerce platform and community in 2013 at the peak of the hype curve. We thought we were going to change the world, and everyone passionately advocated (read: fought) about what features to prioritize. Supporting a community of creators while optimizing an ecommerce platform was a constant seesaw of tradeoffs. Despite ourselves, momentum continued to build and we raised a healthy Series C. And that’s when the old guard showed up. The seasoned executives called upon by investors to tidy our business model and sturdy the ship for scaling properly. We, the scrappy millennials, were less than thrilled about it.
You don't need to be BFF with everyone on your team, but you do need to be able to be able to clearly communicate if you want to work well with them.
I was middle-management reporting to a 20+ year Fortune 100 veteran, 50-something white guy. He was classic old-guard, and wanted 8-6 business hours daily. This was impractical running a global community, but he knew no other way of working. I poorly pleaded our case for months, until football season provided a rogue respite from the feud. We were both fans, so in addition to talking about leadership, we now talked casually about our favorite teams.
This wasn’t enough, however. It wasn’t until the Seahawks won the Superbowl that year (my team, Go Hawks!) and their coach, Pete Carroll, was asked about how he coached such an eclectic lineup (not dissimilar to managing an internal team.) He had some notorious characters on the squad, but they had proven to be the best in the league and his answer was priceless. He said that he respected the professionals on the team to optimize their own performance and honored the unique ways they do that.
What would have been an already lovely day at work that following Monday, was made even sweeter when this executive called me in for a meeting. He congratulated me on the win, and surprised me by saying he now understood what I was trying to do with my team. “You’re just like Pete, accommodating the different personalities on your team, so they can perform best. I get it now. You can set different team hours/work remote sometimes.” An outcome I’m confident we couldn’t have reached without establishing common ground.
The next time you’re frustrated with another team, or a teammate, start with why, listen with empathy, ask questions, and find approachable ways to relate. You just may be surprised how far it gets you.
If you enjoyed this post, continue down this path by listening to Brain Science #29: Clarity and expectation where Mireille Reece and Adam Stacoviak discuss the topic of clear communication and expectation, two of the most important ingredients of success.
Editors note — Special thanks to Savannah Peterson for sharing her wisdom in this post. Savannah is the Founder and Chief Unicorn of Savvy Millennial where she helps the people, products, and brands she loves to grow. Savannah works with authors, startups, and companies to develop go-to-market strategies and building communities.