Is There Such a Thing as Over-Communicating?

No fire fighter ever got criticized for using too much water

– Stephen Poloz.

Like the tree that falls in the forest when nobody is around to hear it, if we speak into our microphones while we’re teleworking from home and nobody responds, did we actually say anything?

Or, were we just on mute? 🤐

When it comes to communicating with each other, there’s nothing clearer and more complicated at the same time.

Clear in the sense that,

The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.” (Agile Manifesto Principle #6)

Complicated when the intimacy of a material tête-à-tête isn’t possible like now with the COVID-19 induced social distancing regiments.

For the last few weeks, we’ve had to adjust what and how we communicate at all levels. The COVID-19 stressor has simultaneously widened existing communication gaps and deepened nascent bonds.

The way one communicates tells a lot about the way one is.

Widening the Gaps in Communication

How fluid was the flow of information in your organization? Was information shared freely and transparently from top to bottom and end-to-end? Organizations that under-communicated and under-shared before the pandemic, will be hard pressed to communicate even the essential information during the pandemic.

How siloed was your organization? Functional silos that existed before the pandemic have now multiplied into individual self-isolated silos during the pandemic. Conway’s Law states that the product of an organization ends up shaped like its organization’s communication structure. The more siloed the structure, the more incoherent the product may be. If an organization’s products were less than coherent before, they may become incomprehensible now.

What was the predominant management paradigm in your organization? How reliant are your staff on management direction? A legacy of micro-managers hand-holding staff through each and every moment will grind to a halt when the traditional channels of command and control are compromised. In his book Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal of the US Army coined the term “The Perry Principle” to describe the tethering of visibility to control – people in charge tend to control what they can see. The principle was named after Commodore Matthew Perry of the US Navy who was given full authority and latitude on behalf of the US President in the mid-1800’s to sail his fleet of ships to Japan to open them up to foreign trade with the West. Nobody, including the President micro-managed him because they couldn’t . Once his fleet was in open water, they were out of sight. This pandemic has put our teams and staff into open water.

What now?

The Silver Lining

For organizations that placed a premium on effective communications, they’ve hardly skipped a beat. Their bonds of 360-degree end-to-end communication have adapted to the new realities and become stronger for it.

Team member 1: “One of our favourite activities during brainstorming sessions was to divide ourselves into sub-groups. How do we do that now?”

Team member 2: “No problem, we’ll just use the virtual break-out rooms capability in Zoom”

I’m also seeing positive communication implications for society at large coming out of this crisis.

  • A CTV News story about seniors in a nursing home learning to use Apple FaceTime for the first time in order to virtually visit with family. What used to be once-a-week physical visits from family has now turned into daily virtual check-ins. Needless to say, the seniors were delighted!
  • When it comes to politicians, I’ve become jaded by their party lines and evasive answers. On the other hand, this pandemic seems to have crossed all party lines. Everyone is united in choosing morality over politics. I was especially impressed by the unscripted reaction of our province’s Premier Doug Ford in angrily calling out price gougers on disinfectant wipes. His authentic self showed through in what he said and how he said it, unencumbered by his political machine. We’re starting to see the man, not the politician.
  • I try to get out for a walk around the neighbourhood with my dog every day. I’m grateful that we still can, unlike some parts of the world that are forcing people to stay indoors. In the past, I wouldn’t have thought twice about walking past strangers without nary a glance. Now with social distancing in effect, whenever I come upon a stranger, we both give each other wide berth. But the best part is the smile, nod and hello, we greet each other with while distancing ourselves. It feels like humanity re-discovered.

Some Options to Ponder

We’re only weeks into something that will most likely last months. None of us knows for sure and none of us have the answers. We’re all still figuring it out. In my opinion, how we communicate through it all will be key. Based on what I’ve experienced, here are some ideas that may help you as well.

  1. Max out your video communications capabilities in all people interactions. Only 7% of communications is verbal. The remaining 93% is made up of non-verbal cues such as body language including facial expressions. Can you afford to miss 93% of the message? One audience that can’t are the hearing-impaired. They are highly dependent on sign language translators not only for the content of the message conveyed by the hand signs, but also for the tone of the message conveyed by the translator’s facial expressions. This will not be an easy option for some companies to adopt. There’s the affordability of the extra network bandwidth required. The bigger obstacle will be cultural. The people in some organizations are just not used to turning on their video. At one company during a Skype meeting, one of the attendees discreetly said to me, “Frank, just wanted you to know that your video is on” to which I replied, “I know. Why don’t you turn yours on?
  2. Listen way more than talk. When you communicate, it’s not only about talking. It’s just as important if not more so to listen. If all you have is the audio in a teleconference meeting, you’ll need to listen to know how your message is being received and to know when to share the floor.
  3. Keep a communications channel open at all times. This can be whatever messaging groupware is most convenient and accessible for all – Slack, Skype, Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp, Google Hangouts, even plain old SMS. Use it to check-in often with each other. Not to check up on each other but rather to connect, empathize and uplift each other from solitary confinement. Take the opportunity to add colour and clarity or to query past interactions. With every check-in, you’ll get closer to shared understanding and a deeper bonding.

We Have No Choice

I’m waiting for the release of the 14th annual CollabNet VersionOne State of Agile Report. I’m interested to see how the question about Distributed Agile Teams was answered for 2019. While I wait, it’s a safe bet that the 15th annual report to be released next year will indicate that

100% of respondents said their organization practices agile with team members distributed (not co-located).

In 2018, I wrote a blog post about virtualizing communications. At the time I had said

It’s great to see all the technology advances and interest in enabling remote working environments. It’ll certainly help for those situations where we have no choice.

With COVID-19, that situation of “no choice” has arrived.

So, is there such a thing as over-communicating? What problems could arise if over-communicating leads to over-sharing? Let me end with Max De Pree’s thought on this

” …it is better to err on the side of sharing too much information than risk leaving someone in the dark”

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