This is the article I published in The Smart Techie magazine in Nov ’06, you can find the original article here. Following is a slightly modified version that I had in my draft that I submitted:
As managers in multinational companies we have to communicate with teams across different geographies. I present two instances of cross-site team interactions I witnessed recently, and then discuss some solutions briefly:
Joe from US office wrote a long, complaining mail to a peer Kris in India office, and copied it to the entire team. Kris and local team in India spent quite some time trying to understand why this complaining mail was sent and that too to everyone. The team decided Kris should call up Joe and talk about it rather than thinking too much. I also decided to talk to my peer there to understand what went wrong. I also asked Joe if he needed any help in resolving the issue. It turned out that he wasn’t being ‘heard’ by Y, talking to his managers locally didn’t help, and so he vented that frustration over the mail. After Joe and Kris spoke. I talked to Kris, and then again to Joe, and both said that they talked a lot, resolved their issue and were happy with the outcome. Multiple communication lines helped.
In another instance, the team was stuck with a process issue on an important project across sites (India and US). The discussions went on with lots of late night and early morning meetings involving the entire team, apparently with no results and lots of stress. Finally the team decided to try a different approach: each site would designate a representative who would discuss on team’s behalf and whatever these two agree upon would be binding to both the teams. This brought amazing results and they quickly came to an agreement and the teams were happy with the outcome.
I categorize these as different communication issues.
The first happens because we tend to read between the lines and get anxious. This happens more in cross-site situations, because you can’t go and talk to the person if you do not understand something (and picking the phone may not be practical due to time zone differences). Natural inclination becomes to try and get more information from existing data (the mail in this example) and they end up over-analyzing. Sometimes waiting for more data helps solve the problem.
The second instance is an example of large team sizes causing more (communication) issues to themselves: larger the team, greater number of communication lines exist between two members, and hence more chances of a line or more going wrong. If you look at it from a mathematical perspective, a team of size N will have ~N2 different 1-1 communication challenges. In case of the cross-site, this problem magnifies since most of these communication lines are created using phones and emails (analogous to low-speed and lossy satellite link in a communication network, compared to face-to-face local communication lines). In this example, by selecting representatives to interact with each other and cutting on other cross-site communications, results were obtained because communication lines were optimized (continuing the analogy: use the slow communication link optimally by having only 2 people use it).
In my opinion, all the communication problems are different and need to be treated differently in order to solve them. Often, companies fall into the trap of solving all communication problems by imparting communication skills training and then getting frustrated when it doesn’t work. Hopefully, next time when you face a communication problem, you will pause and dig deep into it to identify the root cause and then solve it accordingly.