7 Communication Fails that Improve Your Team
Clear communication is a critical element of any successful team. It’s what allows leaders to lead and team members to engage, yet it can also be one of the biggest roadblocks in moving projects forward.
At Artsy we’re constantly—and emphatically—adapting the ways we correspond, both in person and online. As our numbers grow, it’s paramount that our communication systems scale to the same degree, though in practice this isn’t always easy.
Many times we’re successful: We consistently deliver company-wide presentations, we share our goals broadly, and we foster a culture that values open interaction. But there are times when these structures break down.
The best thing about communication is that it’s fluid. When communication fails it doesn’t mean the entire system is broken, but rather that certain mechanics within it need to be tweaked. In sports, when a play goes awry, it doesn’t necessarily mean the play itself is bad: In the same way that players need to practice, team members need to adapt and iterate.
The first step to understanding communication failures is addressing them. As such, the goal of this post is to take a hard look back at the times we made mistakes, noting the areas we can improve, and savoring lessons we learned along the way.
1. The Missed Pass
Working in groups and communicating between individuals each have different pitfalls, but the likelihood of messages being lost in translation is compounded when people are moving back and forth from big groups to small, as happens frequently in nearly any working environment.
The Design team at Artsy innovates individually and collaboratively, coming together several times a week for Design Review. The team typically does a group discussion and critique before breaking out to develop concepts independently.
Recently, the team lead asked a designer to prepare a few slides for an upcoming feature. It was early in the process, so there weren’t too many guidelines for the project: The goal was for the designer to come up with a few high-level sketches for the team to weigh in on.
Instead of preparing a few sketches on a napkin, the designer went full-throttle into preparing a high-fidelity mockup without getting further clarification, and putting all their other work on hold. When push came to shove, the mockup was too far along for there to be a truly collaborative design critique. In a sincere effort to produce high-quality work and move the team forward, the designer actually hindered the progress of the team as a synergetic entity.
The miscommunication here was twofold. First, it was the responsibility of the team lead to make sure everyone left the meeting with a clear understanding of next steps. Second, knowing the process, the designer could have shared their progress on the design more openly, especially as the success of the team depends on broader input.
Moving forward, increased clarity from the team lead and a team-wide emphasis on a process-oriented design critique have helped everyone to be productive and purposeful.
2. The Punt
It’s easy to create obligations for your future self. In a week, you’ll be at ease, prepared, clear-headed, and will have had several full days to reflect on the task at hand. This is why it seems like a great idea to have a meeting in a week to discuss a problem you have now -- by virtue of time, chances are you’ll be better prepared. (Note: this is never the case.)
It’s easy to think this way, particularly when current obligations feel more pressing than anything in the future could. It’s exactly this thought process that allows us to punt our questions forward into another meeting, say, a week away. It’s all too easy.
But as a member of our Gallery Partnerships team recently reflected, if we punt ahead deadlines—“Let’s meet next Wednesday to discuss”—we give ourselves the space to forget and to lose touch in the interim, with the result that everyone arrives at the meeting without appropriate preparation, resulting in an unproductive hour.
There’s a reason scheduling meetings for the future feels productive, and without advance preparation, it is indeed easier. The prospect of a convivial discussion with teammates is likely more palatable than the notions of thinking through hard questions alone beforehand or prompting people to reschedule their already busy week to immediately prioritize something else.
The take-away here is that meetings are often worthwhile, but they nearly always require up-front grunt-work, structure, and planning. Without concrete measures, meetings can actually negatively disperse ownership of responsibility and create unnecessary ambiguity on a team. Ideally, they should reflect work that has already been done rather than shifted responsibilities across people and time.
If a meeting is indeed necessary to address a current issue, then the meeting should be prioritized rather than punted. It should be approached with a circulated agenda that is both straightforward and brief, and team members should leave the meeting with clear decisions or specific (and immediate) calls to action.
3. The Detour
99% of the time, leaving your comfort zone is a good thing. That said, leaving your comfort zone solely to benefit someone else can compromise your own ability to communicate in a way that negatively affects everyone involved.
In this vein, messaging systems like Slack provide real opportunities to save time, and are ideal for communicating about brief requests, reminders, or one-offs. But there isn’t (and can’t be) a one-size-fits-all method of communication; teams and individuals vary greatly in how effectively they use various tools to communicate.
As a non-technical person working with engineers, one team lead noted, “I’ve sometimes tried to be ‘cool’ and ‘tech-savvy’ by having ‘Slack-ups’ rather than in-person standups. Usually it just results in 15 minutes of furious typing and confusion, when we could have solved our problems and enjoyed each other's company by doing a 15-minute in-person chat.” In an attempt to join another team member in her domain of comfort, the team lead actually compromised her own ability to communicate by forfeiting the system they know best, which, in turn, hindered the progress of the project.
Switching communication channels solely to benefit another person doesn’t work if it doesn’t provide the best solution for both of you. Best results are achieved when you communicate however you can be most eloquent, whether it’s in person or offline. Even though it might seem easier to type something out from where you’re seated, taking 15 minutes to chat directly with a team member can pay off. On the other hand, if your thoughts are most thoughtfully expressed in writing, perhaps it’s better to communicate that way than rashly off the cuff.
4. The Pack Mentality
The People team plays a key role in all parts of the employee lifecycle at Artsy, as well as in day-to-day operations; members of this team are extremely adept at staying abreast of individual and team-wide developments, and play a critical role in launching and sustaining initiatives. Life moves fast at Artsy, and it’s crucial that the People team is able to stay up-to-date, even (and sometimes especially) with subtleties.
One of the biggest challenges for the People team is maintaining enough communal knowledge so that everyone on the team is as up-to-date as the work itself requires. While this may seem simple in principle, the mechanics of it can be tricky and unpredictable given that each member of the people team has myriad independent conversations with various team members every day.
On the People team, this boils down to the group sometimes moving more quickly in one direction than individuals are able to communicate internally. One facet of a certain issue that one team member deems to be peripheral could become become central to another conversation—things become relevant, often in unpredictable ways. On the People team, this is especially prescient because people’s positions at the company as employees, and their futures at this company and others, are at stake.
The bottom line here is that that the speed and frequency of internal communications on a team needs to match or even ideally exceed the frequency of external communications. As a group moves forward accomplishing collective goals and communicating outwardly, it remains paramount that internal synapses are firing just as efficiently. When this system is working, the result will be that all members of the team are fully updated on key items before they are presented outside of the group.
5. The Double-Team
A big risk of teamwork is redundancy. It’s often helpful for teams to have similar goals and priorities—many hands make light work—but when ownership and direction are ambiguous it’s all too easy to overlap and create unnecessary inefficiency.
Recently, two people on closely associated teams were separately asked by their respective leads to create decks debriefing an Artsy event. Each did so, dedicating a day’s worth of effort and resources toward the project, and each coming up with a well-executed result. When the project could have been independently completed by one member of one team, it was separately spearheaded by two teams, meaning that twice the hours necessary were spent on one project.
While it’s possible that the two individuals could have collaborated, there was no reason they should have had to, given that the project required only one person. Each was taking what they saw as the most efficient path in acting directly on a deliverable.
There are both long- and short-term solutions to this kind of problem. Long-term, it helps to build out processes so that follow-up tasks of this kind are automatically—and systematically—delegated. Secondly, it is always the responsibility of the team leads to actively create and maintain this kind of clarity for their team members by checking in with one another. Not only is this helpful for the overall efficiency of each team, but also it’s actually necessary for team members to see the impact of their individual contributions.
6. The Grand Slam
One big challenge we’ve faced as we grow and scale is putting communication pathways in place between teams that don’t necessarily interact on a day-to-day basis. As our team expands, we continually approach new frontiers: Where communication channels didn’t exist between teams, we’ve trailblazed.
The Gallery Relations team does an immense amount of hands-on account management—every month, each liaison creates an in-depth breakdown of their galleries’ activity on Artsy. Up until a few weeks ago, this process was entirely manual—liaisons pulled data, which was only aggregated in one place, to share with our partners. Though obviously a necessary exercise, it proved to be unsustainably labor-intensive.
The frustration came to light one day in a casual exchange between a liaison and an engineer. Before long, the Analytics and Engineering teams implemented a new data pipeline that could roll up the data and put it in a new, highly efficient dashboard that cut down the amount of work from 3 hours to 15 minutes per report. Altogether, this now saves the Gallery Relations team a combined 275 hours of work per month.
The main issue here is that communication channels to discover this kind of inefficiency had simply not been created: There were very few outlets for the Gallery Relations team to communicate directly with engineers, and vice versa. Now that we’re aware of this as a potential phenomenon, we can do more to directly create pathways—both casual and structural—for questions and feedback between teams that don’t always interact.
7. The Mass Tackle
Every team at Artsy will at some point edit documents, playbooks, or communications together using Google Docs, affording every member of the team a chance to weigh in with comments, edits, and suggestions. There can clearly be immense value in gathering input from a broad variety of sources: It supports a democratic vision, provides space for discourse and constructive disagreement, and, overall, increases the likelihood of the end product having team-wide buy-in.
There is also danger in having no definitive stakeholders: Decision by committee is not always best. When 10 people “own” a document or communication, it is difficult to determine how to accept and integrate everyone’s feedback, and to determine when the windows of opportunity for discussion open and close. Commentary offered by team members often has no boundaries, both in terms of content and timing, and editing can be like opening Pandora’s box: One suggestion leads to multiple, often ending in further disagreement.
Be definite about the scope and timing of the feedback expected. E.g., at the beginning, large, course-altering questions may be asked, but after a certain point, grammatical edits only. Carefully define people in this way as well—it’s often more useful to open the document to certain groups at certain times, rather than to create “open season.” On top of that, living up to the expectation that deadlines are deadlines is never a bad thing.
It is absolutely possible to achieve a balance between achieving group buy-in and establishing boundaries. The key is to make sure that process, stakeholders, scope, and deadlines are defined ahead of time, and understood by every contributor.
We describe these instances as failures because that’s exactly what they were—times when we didn’t live up to the communications standards we strive for across the board. Excitingly, each time we fall short, we circle back. We set the bar higher and higher, we apply more experience and insight, not getting tripped up by failures but taking them into account. In communication, individual changes really matter, and feedback is immediate: We are constantly evolving, innovating where we’ve fallen short, and iterating on processes that work.
Susannah Shipton is Executive Assistant to the COO at Artsy. She helps to implement and maintain efficient and effective operational structures. She graduated from Princeton in 2014, where she majored in History and French and was a varsity rower. Prior to joining Artsy, Susannah spent a year on a teaching fellowship in Laos.