Are you giving your team enough context? Real examples of how to better communicate with your team.

Are you giving your team enough context? Real examples of how to better communicate with your team.

Sarah Zou Business Operations

April 2023

"Effective communication makes the world go 'round."...that saying exists somewhere, right? We certainly believe it's true. However, communication is not just about the words we use; it's also about the context in which we communicate.

We're all familiar with the concept of "Starting with Why", popularized by Simon Sinek. However, oftentimes the "Why" is just the beginning. More context is generally needed, and depending on who your audience is, different kinds of context.

Context helps communicators select an appropriate communication style, approach, and content while being sensitive to the needs and expectations of their audience. Moreover, understanding the communication context helps minimize misunderstandings and misinterpretations, which can lead to more effective and agile teams.

Having previously worked as an Agile Coach, I’ve been a key partner to senior Engineering and Product leaders when they've needed to prepare difficult news and/or facilitate internal debates. From preparing reorg announcements to OKR alignment, I’ve learned context is key.

Below, I detail three examples of what I've recommended managers to include in their messages when communicating with their teams, management and peers. These rules of thumb will help you promote trust, transparency, and buy-in in your various interactions.

1- Communicating with your team

While the ideal result of the communication is buy-in from the team on the decision, it should not be the sole goal. Helping them understand why the decision was made and how it affects their time is key.

Let's take a sample scenario: you need to communicate with your team what the product priorities will be in the following quarter (and it's not what was expected). When communicating, try to include all of the following for full context:

What: though a bit dependent on cultural context, it's best to go directly to the point. Bring up the reason for the communication right away, so as to avoid creating additional anticipation, which can cause unnecessary anxiety depending on the communication. From our example, this can look like directly stating the feature which will be prioritized in the upcoming quarter (and what will therefore be deprioritized). 

Why: directly following the what, the "why" should be shared. What were the considerations taken into account when deciding to prioritize this new feature, and why were they important in driving the decision? 

Who: when receiving news, we tend to think about how it relates to us - it's human nature. Therefore, try not to focus solely on the ways the product or company will benefit from the prioritization, and bring the human factor in. Directly address the learning opportunities this will create for different people on the team, or by highlighting the benefits it will bring for the team as a whole. 

When: this refers to when the decision will take effect. If the timeline is anything less than 3-5 days out, then give context on why the change will take effect so quickly.

2- Communicating with management

It's important to set expectations with management on when expectations cannot, or should not, be met. As a senior leader, you are seen as an expert in your domain, and your team will look to you to be their voice when the situation calls for space to push back. 

Let's use the following scenario: you need to communicate to management that the following quarter's goals are unrealistic given the existing headcount, and that you need additional budget for more people in order to achieve what's planned.

Why: Explain why the current capacity cannot handle the work, as well as why it's not possible to shift existing resources to make it work. Don't be afraid to also challenge the ask from management in the first place, to ensure that the need to add headcount is necessary.

Who: Highlight other teams with which you have dependencies on, and inform where you could use their help with unblocking some of these dependencies in order to achieve the goal on time. Be sure to also clarify whether there are other stakeholders involved you need to speak to before moving forward.

How (much): Management will always be thinking about the business in terms of value in and value out. Help them contextualize this by putting a figure on how much the additional support will cost, but also how much additional value it will create.

3- Communicating with a cross-functional peer

Example scenario: you need your PM to prioritize more space in the roadmap for refactoring work.

Why: Starting with "why" here makes sense. Though the importance of refactoring work might be obvious to you, it can be difficult to see the tangible benefits when there are many other product priorities to juggle and complete. Frame it in terms of your PM's priorities: spending X amount of time on refactoring on the next few sprints will speed up the future development of feature Y.

How: As peers and teammates, it's important to bring solutions to the table rather than just requests. Understand that your ask will require a tradeoff from your colleague, and offer solutions on how to mitigate this tradeoff. This will show that you empathize with them, and that you're willing to come to a win-win solution for both parties.

When: Time is of the essence, and every PM generally has a large backlog of product features, bugs, and improvements that need to be worked on yesterday. Give your peer a few date options on when this needs to be completed by, and the corresponding consequences of each.

Communicate with transparency to build trust

Communicating with context is an avenue to building trust with whoever you're speaking to. By showing that you've given thorough thought to how they might receive the message, and getting ahead of some of the questions they'll have, you'll create a foundation of trust and transparency that will strengthen your long-term relationship with your team, management, and peers.