Communicating the Big Picture


Last week I spoke with a friend of mine, Sara, about a recent retrospective in her company. "The top priority issue for the team was communication," she said. "The team feels it can improve team communication, but what they really want is management communication. The team is starved for the big picture of where the company is going and how the team's work fits in."

Sara and her colleagues aren't alone in wishing management would tell them more. An online survey reports 92 percent of executives and managers rate themselves as doing an excellent job communicating how an individual's work fits into the big picture. But only 59 percent of respondents agree their managers are doing a good job.

Good communication is in the ear of the listener.

Connect the Dots
Once-a-year meetings where bigwigs present the annual strategy aren't bad, but those yearly meetings aren't enough. Employees need to hear about company strategies and goals not just from the bigwigs, but from their immediate managers as well.

Company goals stated in terms of market shares and revenue can seem far removed from the daily work of testers and developers. As a manager, you can help connect the dots by articulating the mission of your group. Clearly state the top three to five goals or deliverables of the group and how these affect the company's bottom line. Then explain how individual work fits into the mission and supports the company's goals.

For example, suppose you manage a test group for a company that aspires to garner market shares by delivering features ahead of competitors. The mission of your test group is to provide information on the state of the features and assess the risk of releasing the new features. Knowing the expectations help testers focus on testing and manage their time.

Once Is Not Enough
Most people need to hear a piece of information several times before it is completely internalized. Even when it feels like you are repeating the same phrases over and over again, say it yet again both in team meetings and privately in one-on-ones.

Use your one-on-one meetings to discuss how individual assignments support corporate goals. For example, comment on how a specific task supports the company's goal of delivering features ahead of the competition: "I'm glad you're testing widget x. That's one of the features we need for this release to stay competitive with the other company. I'm glad you're done with the positive testing. How's the negative testing going?"

During group meetings, consider brainstorming on how to test more quickly or provide different information by using different tests. One technique that works for my colleagues is to ask, "How haven't we tested this yet? Are there techniques that could help us meet our goals that we've overlooked?" Use Multiple Channels
Face-to-face communication is only one way to convey the message. Address how tasks tie to strategy in written communication as well. When you create a project charter, state how the project's objectives meet company and department goals. When you develop release criteria, include an explanation of how the criteria relate to market and revenue goals.

It's an Investment
It's not as if you didn't already have enough to do, is it? And now I'm suggesting you take more time to communicate company strategy to everyone on your team. It is an investment, which will save you time in the future. You'll spend less time backtracking, you'll remove yourself as a communication/decision-making bottleneck, and you'll begin to see people function more independently. When people understand how their work fits in the big picture, they'll be better equipped to make decisions and set priorities.

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