We Need a General Communication Process

When we gain new information, context is key. During my last year in business school in my Professionalism Class we had a guest lecturer, Greg Merten. He is a former VP at Hewlett Packard and led the colossal rise of Inkjet printing. What he spent his time describing to us was a communication process that helped form the cornerstone of Inkjet’s success. He referenced a book called The Communication Catalyst. Being so enthralled with that lecture, I immediately bought the book. I then proceeded to not read it for 4 years. 

It wasn’t until I was immersed in a software startup where process improvement is so pervasive that I thought about the book again. Lean, agile, scrum, kanban, are in most conversations now about building effective organizational processes. These conversations continually lead me back to this book and the larger concept that all innovation is built upon good conversations. 

The Communication Catalyst is based upon 3 big concepts under the “cycle of value”:

  1. Align – Where most of the effort is expelled. These are conversations that make sure everyone is on the same page and all relevant context is shared. 
  2. Act – Communication that clarifies expectations, roles, and goals. 
  3. Adjust – Conversations that take the learnings from the previous two processes and discuss necessary improvements leading into new alignment conversations.

Each of these three 3 main types of conversations have their own subcategories. Now, at the risk of this post being a book report, I would encourage you to check it out for yourself. What I have come to appreciate though is that after several years in product, this high-level conversation categorization breaks down surprisingly well into a standard agile cycle. 

  1. Sprint Planning – discuss the backlog and plan work that is going to be accomplished and its priority. (Align)
  2. Sprint Kickoff – Start the process of executing planned work. (Act)
  3. Sprint Review – Show what has been accomplished and likely perform a retrospective on what went right/wrong and how to improve for the next sprint. (Adjust)

The categories in The Communication Catalyst didn’t make sense until I could compare it against a process that I work in every day. What’s more, I started to see how other organizational processes for strategic planning (like OKRs) fit a similar framework. However, often where these frameworks fall short is trying to apply them outside of the narrow purposes they were designed to achieve. This is where a broader communication process is useful to have in your tool belt. 

We have so much process for how we get the specifics of work done, why don’t we have a process for how we communicate generally? Likely, we take for granted that good communication takes just as much thought and discipline as our process for planning and implementing features. We should be putting just as much energy into all our other conversations within an organization. 

I encourage you to start thinking about the way you communicate outside your narrow and rigidly defined structures. You will probably find there are a lot of opportunities to increase velocity generally in your organization. Personally, I often find myself slipping back into poor communication habits. I want to be more purposeful in how I am communicating. Over the past few months, I have tried to be more aware of what types of conversations I am having and make sure I am not getting too far into the acting of work without first making sure there is alignment. My goal is to be a better communicator not just within an agile framework so I can be a more effective participant in all the organizations and groups I am involved with. Good communication takes intention.