Communication is not an activity — it is a process.
We often mistake communication for a single activity: sending an email, having a meeting, or talking with a team member. But communication is rarely confined to a single action. It is almost always a set of activities that form a process or a flow.
To communicate more effectively, we must think about this sequence of activities as a whole. As the communication flow becomes more complex and involves more people and activities, the more we have to consider the optimization of the flow as opposed to each of its components in isolation.
Like any other process, the communication flow can include various types of activities arranged in different sequences. Each sequence will change the process and may result in a different outcome. An essential part of optimizing communication is defining the optimal flow based on your needs and constraints.
Here are three things to consider when you design your communication flow.
The Context: People and Initiative
What you are trying to achieve and who you interact with obviously affect the content of the interaction, but how you manage the interaction can also be significantly affected. Different goals might require different types of communication, and different partners may find different types of communication effective.
If my goal is to make a business decision based on many data points and different aspects, I might share a written report to make the face-to-face more effective. My Associates in the discussion could process the data and form an opinion before the meeting. In the meeting itself, we could concentrate on discussing the different options. Seeing the data for the first time during the session is, almost by definition, a less effective flow.
How urgent the issue at stake is can also affect the design of the communication flow. If the topic under discussion calls for immediate action, we might use a communication flow that emphasizes real-time interactions instead of asynchronous interactions.
The identity of the people involved and their number can also impact the communications means we choose for each part of the flow. Communicating with the CEO is not like communicating with a team member; speaking with one person is unlike having a discussion with ten people from different disciplines. In some cases, the most significant activity in the flow would be to pick up the phone; in other cases, we might decide that a meeting is an absolute must.
Means of Communication
Once you understand the context, it is time to design the communication flow: What communication methods are best used, and in what order?
Should you write something before talking to your team? Should you send an email before setting up a meeting? What kind of preparation is required before a meeting? And how do you sync the scope and goals of a discussion before everyone is already engaged in it? All these questions and many others are likely to affect the effectiveness of the process. Without considering such questions, your communication flow becomes arbitrary, and a random process is rarely optimal. Designing the communication flow can help you make the most of each interaction by considering your goals, constraints, and the people involved.
My 1:1 meetings with my team start, for example, with writing and sharing a list of issues for discussion and a summary of each topic on the agenda. In this case, the communication flow is as follows:
In a different context, the communication flow is likely to be completely different. We have designed this flow for our concrete needs and based on what we (my team members and I) find effective.
Entry and Exit Criteria
When we communicate, we must have a Mission in mind and define a concrete Initiative that will take us one step closer to our destination. We must specify where we wish to be after the communication flow has ended.
Since communication is a process made of several activities, each must be aligned with our defined goal. But we need more than that for the communication flow to be effective. We need to define the entry and exit criteria for each step in the process.
Think of a meeting, which is part of a communication flow. For the meeting to be effective, it must be aligned with the overarching goal of the process, but verifying the meeting is done only after some predefined preparation has taken place is no less critical. Defining this precondition in advance is crucial and helps us align expectations with our Associates.
The exit condition of each activity in the process is as essential. When we plan a meeting as part of the flow, we expect it to deliver something that will help us in the next step. Defining this interim result in advance will help the participants achieve it.
And if this sounds trivial in the context of meetings, consider the entry and exit criteria for an email thread: What are the preconditions for starting the thread, and what do you expect to achieve by the end of it?
Defining the entry and exit criteria for each step in the communication process helps drive the flow forward and prevents us from going in circles.