Whether in grade school or at summer camp, most of us played a game that offers insight into team communication. While its name, the "Telephone Game" may not be familiar, how it's played should quickly refresh dusty memories.
Participants form a line and the facilitator whispers a story to the first person. That person is then asked to whisper the story to the next person. The process is repeated until the story reaches the line's opposite end.
At the point, the first person and last person in line are asked to repeat what they've heard. What follows is predictable. Usually the room breaks out in laughter as participants enjoy with disbelief how distorted the details have become.
For project teams, one of the game's lessons is obvious. Keep communication paths as short as possible.
The Real World
Of course, the game is simplistic and doesn't fully reflect other real world challenges.
For example, each of the Telephone Game's participants are more or less equally qualified to pass on a basic story. On project teams, this is not the case. Experts often need to collaborate with experts on the same team or on a partner team. This communication is most effective when it's direct.
The "Single Source" Problem
A common disruption to direct communication comes in the the form of a well-intentioned, but dysfunctional rule. Project managers sometimes insist that all communications be routed through them.
Their argument is that they need to know what's happening and want to provide a "single source" for accurate and "simplified" communication. Of course, there's another unstated and usually less than beneficial purpose - control.
When inter or intra-team members can't collaborate directly:
- The communication path is lengthened by at least one person.
- Due to lack of expertise, distortions can be introduced by the intermediary.
When applied in a measured way, the "single source" idea has merit. Project status updates are best handled via communication from the project manager.
But even this has its downside. In an effort to look good, project managers may downplay or hide problems. This issue is surprisingly common and often has serious consequences.
According to the NASA investigation, the Challenger disaster was due in part to team member concerns not being communicated to upper level management. For more on other contributing factors read Can Good Graphical Presentation Change the World?
To avoid problems:
- Let people collaborate as needed. Ask that they keep the project manger informed and "in the loop".
- Use "single source" communications with caution
- Allow team members to review project status updates before they're sent out by the project manager. Encourage them to express any concerns to the project manager or to higher level executives if necessary.
- Finally, reiterating the lesson from the Telephone Game - continually look for ways to keep communication paths as short and direct as possible.