The summer was quite a whirlwind… A new job meant lots of adjustments for me. From the simple stuff like commuting every day instead of working from home to learning to have people around me again. It’s been rather interesting to say the least. I have been having some communication challenges in the last few weeks and it’s made me question myself a bit. Tonight, when I got back from work, I had a bit of an epiphany and I think I finally figured out hot to address these challenges… Is this teaser just vague and intriguing enough to get you to read on?

In the last six years or so, I worked with a lot of distributed teams, with members in different locations around the world. The last few years, my basement was my office (or dungeon, or torture room… oh wait, we may be entering the “too much detail” realm here…) and most of my interactions with co-workers either occurred through instant messaging, teleconference calls or e-mails, but rarely face to-face. Figure 1 below from the communication page of Scott Ambler’s Agile Modeling site shows a scale illustrating the effectiveness of communication while using different communication channels.

Figure 1 -  Modes of communication

Modes of communication

As you can see, the channels I was using (e-mail, phone conversations) were more towards the bottom of the scale because the interactions between the participants is fairly low. With e-mail, there is a delay in sending the message and getting a response back. With a phone call, the back and forth communication is instantaneous BUT you are lacking a lot of visual cues such as body language. In my days of being remote, I learned how to write effective e-mails and how to use my limited means of communication as best I could. These skills often helped bridge the communication gap between people in different countries.

My new working context has me dealing with people face-to-face on a daily basis and in the last few weeks, I faced a couple of situations where I was talking with colleagues and had the feeling I was talking they did not understand what I was trying to say. It was almost as if I spoke Chinese or something! 🙂 Worst yet, I could not help them understand what I was trying to say with my explanations, which was causing frustration on my side and probably on theirs as well. It is not that I was not bringing something valuable to the table, it was that I could not find the right words to help them understand what I was trying to say and I was often responsible for slowing meetings to a crawl because I felt my point was important enough to fight for.

This new situation kind of took me by surprise to be honest as I kind of expect myself to be able to communicate effectively after years of successfully communicating while being remote. On my drive home tonight, I was thinking back to my previous job and wondering, is there a pattern here that I never paid attention to before, or is this something new and recent. I came to a couple of conclusions, the first one is was that it did happen before on some phone calls, but I may have put it aside thinking I was easy to ignore on the phone. The other conclusion was around the new presentation style that I developed for myself in the last few months. Figure 2 and 3 below shows two slides from one of my recent decks.

Figure 2 – New requests initial slide

Figure 2  - Initial

Figure 3 – Impact of new requests slide

Figure 3  - Impact of new  requests

The purpose of theses two slides is to allow me to talk about what occurs to a sprint plan once new requests start coming in during a sprint by showing the initial plan in the first figure and the result of the interruptions in the second one to help me illustrate the point I am trying to make in the end. I think one of the reasons why I was successful at e-mails as a means of communication was because I would include such graphics in the e-mails to help show the point I was trying to make.

So thinking about this new presentation style, my thought then becames “Ok, I can communicate things in a way that helps people understand, so why am I facing these challenges at work? What am I doing wrong‰”. I let the little mouse in my head keep analyzing things on the rest of my drive back and as I was making supper the epiphany came…

I thought back to the slide in Figure 1 and asked myself: “How rich is your communication channel Stef?” and then it clicked… I would probably get a different result in these situations if I used the whiteboard in the conference room to draw pictures instead of relying on my ability to find the right words to explain what I am trying to say?  In the words of Homer Simpson: Doh! It seems so simple now, but you would not believe the level of frustration this caused for me.

I will chalk this up to learning to work with people face-to-face again, but I definitely learned a lesson here… One piece of advice when facing situations like this… Do not be afraid to question yourself about how you work and how you interact with people. Do regular retrospectives on yourself, figure out what you need to improve and fix it…