Writing the Patch for Communication Gaps

Using project debriefs to solve problems and nurture new ideas

You might need a bigger jar. (David Fant)

Deep dives on project management, process, workflow, newsroom culture & more

It’s usually during the debrief when the truth comes out. After the project has shipped and the dust has settled, your calendar notification goes off, reminding you of one last exercise: it’s time to debrief and look back over ground covered.

This is when we ask questions like, “What went right?” and, “What went wrong?” You may or may not compile these notes. And then there’s the last question on the list: "What can we do better?” Seems like a reasonable question to end on, but it’s actually where the real work begins. More than that, it’s time to ask: “How will we reference the ideas we just generated?” When I put on my developer hat, I would file questions like these under “issues” as bugs.

That Same Old Refrain

Each time we debrief, the trend I notice is painfully obvious: We can do a better job communicating on projects. What’s strange is the tiny amount of time we devote to finding a solid solution to the problem. How much time does your org spend? If your answer is "not enough,” then join me as I create a branch, and start laying out the issues that make up this dizzying challenge.

Disclaimer: I don’t specialize in systems organization, workflow, or GitHub. Should you find a jarring bleep of an idea that deserves to be corrected, please, by all means share your thoughts. I’m a true believer that sharing ideas on how to bring communication savvy into newsrooms is a much-needed conversation to have, and I’m all ears on how to improve my own perspective.

Branch 1: Fixing Communication

BUG: Debriefs Aren’t Identifying Our Communication Problems

Despite having an open discussion on issues that arise during projects, the methods with which we communicate remain unchanged.

PATCH: Turn Debriefs into Investigations

Don’t let debrief meetings happen in vain. Take them further by sniffing out where production leaks are coming from. This may require a bit of research but chances are, a more detailed debrief will reveal clues. Your investigation will uncover the inner communication workings, processes, and workflows of each desk.

When you’re done, create a list of take-aways like “good ideas” or ”communication gaps” and convert them into actionable items: bugs, issues.

BUG: Communication Occurs in Silos

Another bug uncovered in my investigation is that conversations happen in many separate spaces, which fragments the dialogue and makes it hard for everyone to know what’s going on.

Part of this is due to conventional communication methods (like email) that can get in the way of productivity.

I won’t harp on email, but it’s one of the least productive spaces for actionable items. With the exception of new features being built into the email clients of late, email is still very much just email. (Most productivity features that make email actionable still lack the ability to translate things like ownership of a tasks or sharing of progress with a group. Sure, you’re productive on your own, but these are secluded methods of productivity.)

Next on the list of counter-productive communication can be, surprisingly, the "walk-over” conversation. These person-to-person meetings are great for nailing down specifics, but they may come with the possible downside of going undocumented.

The result is that other stakeholders are behind from the start. Once others realize they are uninformed, valuable time has already been lost.

PATCH: Loop In and Document

Whether you’re having email or person-to-person interactions, the key to better communication is awareness. That is, when an important detail has surfaced or a key decision has been made, the light bulb should turn on, signalling these are new developments you should share with the group.

When developments occur between two or more people, translate them out to the group. You may not know the level of importance this news is to other stakeholders until you share it. This will get you feedback when it counts. By proactively looping the right people into a conversation at the right time, you can (mostly) avoid surprising others.

The good news is modern task management tools are getting better and better at organizing both projects and communication. If you’re in Slack, Asana, or Trello, for instance, @-ing people should and will become part of your daily habit. @-ing is a tap on the shoulder that says, “Hey, you need to be a part of this discussion.” And as on Twitter, a hashtag keeps conversation centered on a single subject. In task management applications, on the other hand, the task functions much like a hashtag, organizing a conversation around a single subject.

Organized conversation can take place in an email, but email tends to deviate. Subject lines can quickly become non-representative of the direction of the conversation, or of decisions that have been reached at the close of a conversation. Task-specific communication is the secret sauce to productive conversations.

BUG: Terminology Changes on a Whim

Yet another bug I’ve discovered is how much vocabularies and naming conventions can differ by department or person.

In one meeting I noticed we (the group) were referring to a single content type using three different names. (Yes, three.) To avoid confusion, I hit the pause button to point this out noting that this is, in fact, a nomenclature issue.

PATCH: Establish a Nomenclature

Insisting on getting solid on terminology we use for all the things is a crucial step in the process.

In the session “Big Ambition, Small Staff, How the F*** Do I Prioritize?” at SRCCON, this topic came up. The question “How do you communicate with our others who don’t share our jargon” was posed by session leader Rachel Schallom, then interactive editor at the Sun Sentinel.

She explained, "When you need someone on your side but they don’t speak the same language, it can be very difficult. So my biggest tip is finding common ground through analogies,” a method I believe helps lower the barrier of entry to effective discussion concerning things we build for the web.

I’m also a firm believer in white boards. Before everyone’s eyes, a large sketch of components instantly becomes a real thing we all see the vision for—and white boards can also be the foundation of your nomenclature. Write the name of your "thing” next to your sketch, and use than name everywhere discussions about it take place.

Eventually, formal names for content types, modules, components, and other digital elements should make their way into a visual system that can be shared with the newsroom. (A visual system does the job of illustrating elements, usage, and interactions a user can expect. This also establishes a baseline from which to speak while communicating the details and complexities of a project.)

Branch 2: Cultivating Ideas

BUG: We Have Good Ideas, but Little Comes of Them

There’s no telling where and when an idea is born. They come to us in places like newsroom meetings, Slack, and over coffee or beer with co-workers. Great! Someone in your newsroom now knows about a topic that interests you, or the solution to an unaddressed problem that concerns you. Your idea has only been shared but it has not been captured.

Think of it like a firefly. Without a jar to catch it, the idea, like the firefly, will go away.

PATCH: Templatize the Capture and Discussion of Ideas

First, open the floor. By creating a consistent conversation around the idea, you’ll create the opportunity for more minds to play with the concept. Once you know it’s a golden idea, make it an actionable item, or inherit the idea as a task or problem your department will solve.

There are hundreds of methods for uncovering whether a new idea is worth your time.

  • Start a channel in Slack.
  • Call for some time to gather and kick the tires around.
  • Come prepared with research. Design a deck to help frame your idea.
  • Be ready to sell your team on your idea. Also be ready for constructive criticism.
  • Be ready to capture new ideas that could advance your initial concept.

Just remember, if you don’t capture the idea, it won’t become actionable. And if you don’t present your idea effectively, it won’t get buy-in from the crowd.

BUG: Getting Stifled Before You Get Started

It’s important to understand characteristics of legacy newsrooms, because they have a lot to do with why the momentum of new ideas gets held up.

Newsrooms, large and small, structure their staffs with titles. Historically, we associate a defined set of tasks and job duties per job title. Never mind one’s body of work, experience, or ability to pitch ideas that extend beyond their job title. We hire to fill a role and don’t ask for much more outside of the job description.

This method for producing journalism follows a stone-tablet template. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do a good job of supporting new ideas, because refining and implementing new ideas isn’t anyone’s responsibility. Should you be the one with the idea, there’s no roadmap for implementation—not even after your group has bought into it.

Templates for implementing new things (like software) usually come from places like IT or your local support group that know all about implementation of software, processes, and methods of production. Conversely, templates for implementing new ideas don’t typically come from a “top down” process—and their bottom-up approach sits on a weaker foundation, because there’s no structure in place to support them.

Being without a structure or platform for new ideas at the newsroom level hinders ideas from becoming a reality. With no defined place to start, it is easy to arrive—and stop—at the question, "Now what?”

Factors like these reduce adoption rates for new tools, products, and production techniques.

PATCH: Create Space for New Ideas, From the Beginning

In most organizations, the new-hire onboarding process is where thinking inside the box begins. The templates we learn during onboarding don’t usually explain how to scribble outside of the lines when necessary.

Is this a good thing? Yes, we need people to fill roles—but no, we don’t want the role to limit that person’s ability to extend their newsroom contribution.

In cases where a person may bring with them additional skills and perspectives, we should do our best to learn what these abilities are, and then give that person a platform for sharing—and implementing—their ideas. Anything less, and that great idea may never see the light of day.

If you’re already down in the weeds, though, maybe it’s time you reconsidered your method of delivery—and maybe debriefs can be the perfect time to introduce new ideas and concepts.

With your new understanding, every project debrief can become a study of its own—one which could potentially alter the way your newsroom communicates and operates. In this light, a debrief becomes a highly visible launching pad for raising awareness in the whole group, squashing communication bugs, and creating new methods for cultivating ideas.

Restarting with a New Lens

New ideas are what we need to produce exciting work and to think differently about the problems facing journalism. Remember to recognize the potential for new ideas as they arise during debriefs—or in daily work. How will you extract them from regular conversations, make sure they get evaluated, and then support implementation of the best ones?

Answering each of these questions begins with actionable, documented, shared communication.



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