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How Critical Is Clarity on Government Projects?

Sometimes pronouncements get made and distributed in email format about a change in direction, etc.

When this happens, I sometimes find that the person sending the message doesn’t have an understanding of the recipients. They have not put themselves in the “other person’s shoes”. Therefore, the message is confusing because key points are not addressed.

So what usually happens when a message is confusing, especially when delivered in a formal top-down manner?

People Guess What It Means

Most people won’t raise their questions; it’s easier to just guess. Which leads to more confusion as people are following different directions they’ve interpreted into the message.

When someone does have a question, they reply-to-all and a painful email chain ensues, trying to clarify what the heck was trying to be said in the first place.

What To Do Instead

Here are a few ideas, I’m sure you have more you can share in the comments:

  • Have the message reviewed prior to mass distribution – Grab a few people you know and trust to raise questions. People who will be critical.
  • Have a meeting or wait until a regular meeting – Face-to-face communication is always best. Many times, we send out an email when we have a standing weekly meeting we could have just waited for and added it to the agenda. Email should be a last-resort communication method for important messages like a change in direction or process.

What else? How do you communicate effectively and clearly?

Image credit: P Shanks

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Jaime Gracia

It is hard via email, but the most efficient means of communicating. I find that the message determines the format. For “important” messages regarding change in policy, deliverables, etc. in-person is best. It is important for the team leaders, supervisors, manager types to ensure they understand the message. I prefer the smaller group one-on-one sessions.

However, it is also incumbent on the leader to ensure that the message is received, understood, and will be carried out. Ultimately, the leader needs to be held accountable for success of the project, and thus needs to ensure that the communications are understood.

Josh Nankivel

Good points Jaime, thanks! The format comment is spot-on…if you are sending a document for someone to review, email is the way to go. (Unless it’s a new policy document, in which case call a meeting!)

Dave Hebert

So much to touch on here, but I’ll try to keep it a few relevant, lucid points (in the spirit of your post, Josh:-)

1. Email is fairly well-suited for transmitting facts and straight info. It’s terrible for conversation, nuance, etc. Tone and body language are completely lost in it. Jaime is right — find a way to get together with people for important things.

2. Know your audience. You’re dead right about that, Josh. And that means more than one thing: You need to know how info will affect people based on their roles and responsibilities the organization, and based on personalities and culture.

3. Put the important stuff at the top. There’s a reason newspapers do this (the inverted pyramid) — people need to know the critical stuff first (what action they need to take/what big change is happening, the related deadlines, etc.), and then be given the choice to drill down.

It’s pretty unfair/unprofessional/thoughtless to tell people that they have to understand the origin of a decision or the structure of the office making that decision, or what law requires the decision before they can know what the decision is and how it affects them. But we do this all the time in memos, emails, and web content.

OK, I’ll stop there. Thanks for bringing this up!

Josh Nankivel

Excellent points Dave, thanks so much for your comment!

I completely agree and really love point 3 – Since I started blogging in 2006, my email communications have become more effective too…

The importance of the subject line, and that first leading sentence or paragraph. Using bulleted lists and short paragraphs instead of mega-paragraphs, etc.