The fallacy of over-communication

Read time ~ 5 mins

“I did not know about this, you are not communicating enough”. 

As a product manager, you probably hear this phrase more often than you would like.  You have sent weekly status updates, published the product roadmap, published the product plan and the individual product initiatives, held go to market meetings to inform people of status and ensure alignment, hosted webinars, launched marketing campaigns, and yet there is still somebody within your organization that somehow was not informed.  They, of course, blame you for this.  Your initial reaction may be to further increase your communication efforts to ensure that this does not happen (or at least to provide a defense next time it does). 

You may start holding brown bag sessions, or holding more meetings with each department. Perhaps you are recording videos of new product features or recorded presentations in the hopes of further “getting the word out”.  While those efforts are noble you should be focusing on working smarter, not harder.  No amount of getting the word out will resolve this communication issue.  Don’t get me wrong, as a product manager you have to communicate in all the ways that I mentioned above. 

However, don’t lose sight of the fact that communication, by its nature, involves more than one person.  You can scream from the top of every mountain, but if nobody relays your message then you will always have communication problems.  So, what do you do if you are product manager that is sending status updates, have published everything, and are holding routine meetings to get status and disseminate information, and are still being plagued by communication problems? 

Take a page from a first responder’s handbook

A long time ago I was a lifeguard.  When you take a first aid course of any type you will learn that in an emergency situation somebody needs to call 911.  You find out that it is not enough to simply tell somebody to call 911, but that you have to tell them what to say, and they must come back to you and tell you that they did it.  This is often the missing component of communication in most organizations, dissemination of the message, and reporting back that the dissemination occurred. 

Even in a small company, it is simply not possible for you to talk to everybody about everything.  As a product manager  you have to rely on your peers to spread the word.  So, when you are setting up your teams for a given initiative set the expectation that when you provide an update that you are expecting them to share the update with their department, to talk to individuals to make sure that they got the message, and to report back to you that all this happened. 

This will probably be culture shock for a lot of people if they have never been held responsible for doing something like this.  Don’t be surprised if people say things like “isn’t that your job?”, or the worst version of that statement “that is not my job”.  Anybody who represents their department on an initiative like a product change or launch is accepting responsibility for proper communication within their own department.  Anyone with any type of leadership role in the company should understand that this is one of the most critical parts of their job, and should clearly understand their link in the communication chain. 

If you face people that just don’t understand their role in communication, I would wager that your annual employee survey includes “communication” as a top 10 or even 5 issue year after year.  Your first challenge is to (gently) educate all of your peers (within product management and with all departments you interact with) about this concept.  To accomplish this you probably want to work with your people and culture team (HR) to host training sessions on corporate communication.  

Once you have established this type of communication as expected you can move on to reinforcement of by holding individual team members accountable when somebody from their department says “I did not know about this”.  After a time this type of communication will be part of the culture and you should see less instances of comments like this. 

It is at this time when you will have overcome the fallacy that communication problems within an organization stems from just one person who is not “communicating enough”.