Three Little Words for Better Team Communication

Giff Constable Jotto, product management, startups

For the last several years, I’ve been very focused on how to get the most out of product and entrepreneurial teams. Three little words keep on coming back to me. They bite you when you forget them, and pay dividends when you pay them respect.

Write it down.

Doesn’t seem like much does it? Jeff Patton’s timeless cartoon explains why:

By writing (and drawing) things down, you solve two problems. First, you clarify the subtle but deadly assumptions we carry around in our own heads. Second, you combat the dual facts that human attentions are constantly distracted and human memories are extremely fallible.

Example 1: team working agreements

At my last company, we had new teams forming on a regular basis, and while everyone shared a common set of beliefs around agile, lean, and design thinking, there were big differences in how to actually put those concepts into practice. People were getting upset with each other and calling each other unreliable. We solved this with written team working agreements. Our goal wasn’t to be prescriptive and bureaucratic. The magic was having the teams edit the document together, so that everyone was on the same page and everyone knew what the expectations were.

Example 2: a pricing change

The need to move from assumptions to clarity came up last year with a pricing test we ran. Pricing touches all corners of an organization. It was near-impossible to keep track of who knew what about a fast-evolving set of ideas. The act of writing down the latest plan and sharing it on Jotto (an internal blog) caught everyone up at the same time without loads of extra meetings.

Example 3: Changing a KPI

I hit the problem of busy minds leading to mismatched memories in a leadership meeting when I unintentionally surprised everyone that a KPI (key performance indicator) was not going to be hit that quarter. The KPI had been set months before, but midway through the quarter we decided as an executive team to prioritize some other work. While I had verbally mentioned, repeatedly, how that would cause the original goal to slip, I had not written it down and made the impact literally black and white.

When I actually got around to writing this down and sharing it, I was initially surprised that they were surprised. Of course I shouldn’t have been. Everyone is busy dealing with their own goals. Verbal isn’t good enough when everyone is distracted. Of course, neither is just writing it down — you also have to put it in front of everyone’s nose.

So yeah…

“Write it down” applies to product ideas, financial assumptions (yes, Excel is aversion of writing it down), culture guidelines, business risks, and on and on. Writing it down helps you define your own ideas and move them to a point of specificity that others can react against them.

It’s important to note that writing it down does NOT mean a few things. It does not mean getting lost in rigid documentation. The planning and communication process is usually far more useful than the plan itself. The other key thing to remember is brevity, with clarity, is golden.

And if you are looking for ways to bring more clarity and alignment to your teams, you should check out Jotto.