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How to Avoid Communication Breakdown While Managing Your Projects Online

Aidan HornsbyLast Updated: May 11, 2017

In a perfect world, we would be doing all of our communicating in person. 

In our modern, increasingly connected world, however, it is becoming increasingly difficult to not work on a project online. An increasing amount of our communication with clients, remote employees, and even team members in the office is being funnelled through email, video conferencing and project management software.

And while project management tools and technology have sped ahead, human habits surrounding communication have been slow to adjust. Communicating online is a minefield, and the best way to prepare for it as a project manager is to assume the worst.

Realize that communicating online will suck

Communication is one of the hardest things we do. 

Even in real, face-to-face conversations, people regularly struggle to put into words exactly what it is they want to convey without offending, confusing, or boring someone. Fortunes have been made trying to teach people how to communicate effectively.

Throw in a layer of technology and a project plan with tight deadlines into the mix, and you have a recipe for chaos.

The only reliable way to pierce through the haze and prime ourselves against the pitfalls of online communication is to understand the many ways in which online communication can suck, and counteract them with a few good habits.

Never assume

Rule #1 of communicating, working and project planning online is to remember that online communication is extremely context and information-poor.

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity, or poor information, or a bad day, or fatigue, or a mis-addressed email, or distraction, or a typo, or a faulty Skype call, etc. 

Remember that there are so many things that can go wrong along the online information pipeline that it is almost always safer to ask when something isn’t clear.

If you’re encountering resistance or poor follow through from a team member, dig in, ask questions, and try to understand the cause.

Don’t worry if your questions sound stupid—doing so is much better than acting on false information.

When responding to someone online, sometimes the best thing to do is to simply avoid adding to the confusion and ambiguity of a situation. If an email chain is getting particularly crowded and hairy, the best thing to do might be to simply not respond. Don’t add to an already unreadably long list of messages.

When you do send a message, nip confusion in the bud by being very explicit in what you mean. Don’t be a black box—explain your thinking, what you want out of the conversation, and any actionables you want to emphasize.

Something that always gets lost in the soup of online communication is actionables. Don’t make your conversations online personal. Stick to the task at hand. Make sure that your messages always contain items that someone can act on. 

This doesn’t just apply to communication with team members. Client communication follows exactly the same rules. Transparency with clients can be the best way to avoid wasted work and client anxiety.

The biggest project management tip I’ve ever received is to open up the goings-on of your project in as much transparency as possible to your client. Many service companies offer client-facing updates once or twice per week, frequently via a simple email thread. This is not good. Professional Service companies should not be an unknown ‘black box’ where clients put projects and they pop out a certain amount of time later completed. Be transparent with your process, let them into your project management software of choice, and this will reduce your client phone calls by 20% right away.

—Keith Shields, Partner,

Remember the person

The most important piece of context that often gets lost in online communication is the social dimension. Remember that there’s a person behind that email, with their own idiosyncrasies and style of communicating, and that you owe them the same amount of forgiveness and social leeway as you would in a real life conversation.

When in doubt, treat all forms of online communication as you would a professional letter. Default to courtesy: address people by their name when talking to them, use proper grammar and punctuation, treat people with respect, and keep things positive. 

Ad hominems and personal attacks are out, obviously. If there is friction to be resolved, take it to a phone call or an in-person meeting.

Do you like to sprinkle your real life conversations with jokes and sarcasm? Keep those down to a minimum in online conversations, where tone is often extremely difficult to detect. 

Choose the right tools

Communication doesn’t just mean emails and skype calls. It also increasingly involves a suite of online task management tools, like Flow, that blend communication with planning. Choosing the wrong tools can add yet another layer of complexity between you and your team members and compound the problems of online communications

The best way to avoid this, as a small team, is to make sure that the online communication tools that you’re using were built with small teams in mind. A ten person startup should simply not be using task management software for Fortune 500 teams. It’s as simple as that.

Once you choose the right tools, avoid abusing them.

Just because you have the ability to create sticky notes and lists of actionables for other team members doesn’t mean creating an endless list of them is okay.

Be as careful with what you put in someone’s schedule or inbox as you would be about placing something on their physical, real life desktop.

At the end of the day, successful communication online means realizing that you’re communicating with real people, and adjusting accordingly.

Read on to learn more about Simple Project Management habit #5: Putting out fires, without starting new ones.

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