Lisa leads a project team consisting of six people that includes Sam. Sam produces consistently good work and is well liked by everyone, but frequently, he presents a piece of work to Lisa and hears the following statement, “That’s not what I was looking for.” Of course they both are frustrated when this occurs and together review what was said, what was heard, and then try to restate and clarify the misunderstandings and move on. Eventually, Lisa is pleased with Sam’s work. To be clear, it’s not the quality of the work that is in question: Sam does good quality work; but it truly is not what Lisa was looking for.
Lisa plans carefully for meetings, outlines key points, speaks clearly and precisely, and leaves team members with a bullet point summary of what they’ve discussed, goals and action plans. Therefore, she is confused about why Sam doesn’t get it right and why the work goes back and forth, sometimes two or three times before it’s done to her liking. This troubles Sam, too, who prides himself on being organized, logical, and precise, which he is.
When I began exploring the Communication Styles Framework with the team, Sam had an insight: “The logical component to my communication style is one of my strongest areas. Part of how I process logically is by organizing everything on a vertical timeline.” This type of insight is common for people learning about their communication style strengths.
Spontaneously, Lisa said, “I think in storyboards.” This was a pivotal moment, and the pause that occurred felt charged. Lisa’s epiphany put her problem with Sam into immediate perspective. Realizing that her mind processes information pictorially (she has a strong visual-spatial component to her communication style) opened a discussion with Sam that changed the way they work.
Although Lisa sees pictures and images in her mind’s eye all the time, she doesn’t directly make reference to them in conversation. She translates them into words to convey her ideas. My recommendation was for Lisa to sketch out the storyboard and share it with Sam and that Sam draw the timeline on the same piece of paper as they discussed the work Lisa was looking for from him. Lisa asked if they could try doing that right then, which they did. She made a rough sketch of eight different pictures encompassing a project they were working on. Sam drew the vertical timeline next to the eight frames. Then Lisa began describing the pictures, while Sam spontaneously began making notes. Next, as Sam drew lines connecting the picture frames to the timeline, Lisa began questioning—asking him why one thing proceeded another. As they talked back and forth, they erased some lines and added others, and Lisa changed some of the sketches.
We all watched this process unfold, captivated by the natural give and take, problem-solving, and genuine collaboration that was taking place in the workshop. Within a few minutes Lisa and Sam concluded their “meeting,” clear about what was expected and satisfied that they worked efficiently to a solid conclusion. Of course, others in the workshop made similar discoveries based on their own unique strengths, which improved communication and further strengthened the team.
Pleased with what had happened, I wanted to make sure that Sam and Lisa had indeed solved the problem, so two weeks later, I checked in with them. Sam told me that he needed further clarification from Lisa on a couple of points and asked her to “describe the picture that…” This tactic, he said, of asking her to describe the picture allowed Lisa to get into details she might not have thought of if he hadn’t used those words. Lisa confirmed that. She was delighted when Sam had thought to ask her directly about the pictures on the storyboard. It put her in touch with her expectations and allowed her to give greater detail. The result was just what they hoped for: Instead of hearing “That’s not . . .,” Sam heard, “Thanks Sam. You really nailed it!”
As the boss, you’ve undoubtedly heard a client say, “That’s not what we were looking for.” Like Sam, your heart sinks and you probably start calculating how much it’s going to cost you to “fix” it so the client is happy with the product.
What if, at the initiation of a new project, your team and the client team got together for a cross-company communication styles workshop to:
- learn how key individuals process information
- decide what forms of communication work best in a range of situations
- anticipate areas where communication breakdowns are likely to occur
- clarify the decision making process in each organization
In the same way that Lisa and Sam discovered communication strategies based on their natural processing strengths, team members in two organizations working together can develop their own unique structures and tools. The result is a collegial atmosphere with a common set of problem-solving tools, along with clarity about decision-making. Creating this type of atmosphere and structure safeguards success.
Cross-company team development is not a new concept. Using the Communication Styles Framework as the structure is new. This innovative, concrete approach goes beyond the outline delineated in a contract. It accounts for real people doing real work in a highly collaborative, transparent environment—and is a powerful way to initiate a project. It not only helps people get acquainted, it creates a pathway to share responsibility and be mutually accountable for outcomes, while saving money by not having to re-do work.
Just imagine eliminating those dreaded words, “That’s not what we were looking for!”