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What is the best way to communicate between project teams so that your staff feels "in the loop"?

Context: I work in a small research center (about 40-50 researchers, statisticians, and support personnel at any one time). Our staff values communication highly, but in a recent SWOT it became clear that each project team feels isolated and has no idea what the other teams are working on. While they don't need this information to do their our tasks, the opacity is contributing to resentment and frustration.

Can anyone suggest a simple, practical way to keep our people informed? (Caveat: We are trying to avoid the dreaded All Staff meeting approach.)

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You may take these three ideas from Scrum that may be useful to you.

  1. Scrum of Scrums - a regular meeting of team representatives (usually one per team). In Scrum, the point is to communicate and resolve team level problems and blockers together. So the meeting is focussed (although not as strictly as the daily calls) to avoid wasting time. But you may adopt it to your needs.
  2. Product demos - whenever a team completed an important milestone or new feature, arrange a public demo and invite other teams as well.
  3. Communities of practice - these involve subject matter experts across teams. I.e. you may create a CoP for testers, another one for statisticians etc. These may run own mailing lists, organize more or less regular events like brown bag sessions, pub nights etc.

As David Espina points out, communication has its cost so it should be kept under control. However, not all communication can be planned in advance based on project needs; we don't always know what we don't know! So one should leave some room for unplanned ad hoc, free form discussions as well. The question is of course, how much that some should be; too little is as dangerous as too much. The needs and ways should be tuned individually for each team / organization via inspect and adapt cycles.

To show the other side of the coin, insuffficient communication may also lead to problems in the long run, including:

  • duplicated features, reinventing the wheel again and again
  • misunderstandings, which may even result in costly project failures
  • "us versus them" type of conflicts between persons / teams, resulting in burnout or high turnover as well as project problems
  • Product demos bring visibility to other teams. The cost of these are cheap, given your audience allowing for an informal presentation. Perhaps most importantly, internal product demos are an ingredient to your customer facing product demos, significantly decreasing their cost of initial preperation. – paragbaxi Dec 20 '14 at 1:25
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As you have mentioned

While they don't need this information to do their our tasks, the opacity is contributing to resentment and frustration

  1. If this communication is not important for their daily tasks, a suitable interval needs to be identified.If not teams will be overwhelmed & their productivity will be impacted
  2. Product Demo's / 'Tech' talk is probably a good idea ( In my current organization we do this weekly but essentially it will depend on how frequent different teams have success stories/ lessons learnt to share). This will also create a platform to increase visibility for teams and will also create a seamless knowledge sharing culture
  3. Enterprise Social Network :) - My current organization has recently adopted an enterprise social networking platform and many teams (including mine) use it effectively for collaboration. This also improves visibility to teams within the organization and I think this motivates teams to use the platform more.. You should be able to find services which allow free accounts for a small team.

Hoe this helps

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Assuming that each project team has meetings where they discuss progress and actions, make these meetings open for everybody. Have a board / webpage listing all such meetings. This works best if these meetings are short and don't overlap. To make this light weight:

  • only one person at a time goes to an other teams meeting and than informs his team.
  • a different team member every time
  • only interested people go

The people who want to know will participate without spending all their time on it. The people who don't care will not have to go to any extra meetings. The manager have no extra tasks but to check once in a while whether the teams stick to the rules.

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Distributing information is not the problem. The problem is making people feel like they are in a collaborative environment and not restricted to the silos of their projects or domains, which is a communication design challenge. This is especially important at research centers where people are focused on sharing and creating knowledge.

There are multiple paths you can go down to design the right communication environment to foster this feeling. I've written a book on the subject so could go for hours. But, in the near term, make sure there are unstructured activities/times (like lunch) where people can freely communicate and are encouraged to discuss their work in a judgement free environment. You can also create office activities that require people to work together across departments/domains.

If you find it helpful, a link to the book and other communication resources can be found on my PMSE profile.

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Feels in the loop is not a communication need. Communication should be dictated by a project's stakeholder analysis. In other words, a project will scan its stakeholder environment, segment accordingly, and determine what communication requirements exist both outgoing and incoming. If a stakeholder segment is determined not to have any real requirements of either being informed or informing, then no communication message should be transmitted.

The problem is, communication is costly and have risk for various penalties. Peppering stakeholder groups with messaging, e.g., group emails or newsletters or some other mass distribution solution, costs money to build and distribute and you run the risk of training people to ignore these transmissions if the information provided becomes irrelevant. And "feeling in the loop" type messages run that risk.

So your stakeholder analysis for each project needs to dictate the communication plan and segmented requirements need to be real. Otherwise, it is far more beneficial to disappoint your people and making them "feel out of the loop" then to try to satisfy that and open the door to secondary risks and penalties. This may feel counter intuitive in the feel good management style that is promoted these days, but the costs are real and you must, as a manager, weight the benefits carefully.

EDIT to respond to rwong:

If there was a true psychological need by an entire stakeholder group to be kept aware of something, then there would likely be consequences of not keeping them in the loop such that your analysis would reveal a beneficial communication need. If it is solely to be 'kept in the loop', which suggests someone just wants to know something, then I stick by my answer. It is not likely there would be any real consequence of denying him information but you would have other secondary risks, penalties, and costs of not denying him that information.

Management, including project management, sometimes is about tough decisions that benefits the organization as a whole but can make individuals mad. It's a tough job. You cannot please everyone all the time. Pick and choose.

  • It would be useful to distinguish between "social communications" vs. "technical communications". In any kind of enterprise environment, both forms of communications are necessary. "Social communication" is necessary because a lack of such will create psychological barriers between the different teams and reduce overall employee satisfaction, and eventually this animosity will spread out to the detriment of technical communication and collaboration. The telltale sign is that if inter-team communication has regressed down to "paper-based", because they find it more "comfortable", the damage... – rwong Jul 5 '14 at 8:04
  • Although my understanding is that you are a very successful PM while I'm a nobody (I'm not a PM), I must still give you a downvote because your answer implies that as a PM it is necessary to "un-fulfill" the sentiments of the workers by leaving their psychological needs and assessments unmet. I will remove my downvote should you decide to reword your answer. Thanks. – rwong Jul 5 '14 at 8:12
  • @rwong - That was one of the things MarkPhillips talks about in the book in his user profile. I've definitely felt the cognitive costs of having too much information thrown at me to where I create filters in my email to remove some stuff I don't need to see. Sometimes one's psychological need can be met simply by being able to stay focused and minimize distractions. – jmort253 Aug 7 '14 at 8:29

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