Successful Teams have High Bandwidth Communication


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Going to college during the dot-com boom meant that we had lots of opportunities to play buzzword bingo.  This post talks about one of the buzzwords I remember hearing repeatedly from that time – synergy.  This word was used to talk about business models (B2B to provide synergy between companies) and organization culture (we look for synergies between team members when hiring).  As far as I remember, most of the presentations were full of rhetoric and little substance.  Much like the word’s connotation in its time. To truly create synergy between team members, meaning, to get the team to produce more than they could individually, the team must have high-bandwidth communication.

You already know this type of communication, just maybe without a name before.  It’s the type of communication you have with your best friend, your oldest friend, or your closest confidant.  It doesn’t matter how much time has elapsed since you both last spoke, within minutes of talking you are fully engaged in conversation. Simply put, high- bandwidth communication is when both parties are fully engaged in the discussion, adding valuable contributions, while not struggling to keep up.  It is relatively common in personal lives – I would argue that it is probably how you have chosen your closest friends.  They are the people you can trust that understand you implicitly.  Now transfer this to a work environment or a team project.

First, you don’t need to be best friends with your team members.  But you do need a way to collaborate efficiently.  High bandwidth communication means you are sharing ideas and collaborating without expending extraneous energy.  It means you say it once and everyone gets it.  It means you draw it once on the white board and nobody needs to pick up a pen and elaborate/extend your ideas. It means you are finishing each other’s thoughts and ideas together.  How often does that happen for you at work?

I have seen many teams try to “process” their way into high-bandwidth communication.  These are in the form of additional status emails, meetings, TPS reports and the like (we should all agree on a template for sending our status emails to keep them consistent and easy to read).  As much as I have seen this tried, it never gets close to high-bandwidth communication.  This just frustrates some folks on the team and burdens those that aren’t frustrated with additional minutia to manage throughout their day.  What my team recently did which resulted in much higher bandwidth communication is far simpler – we got to know each of our working styles.

A ‘work style’ is simply a way to talk about the personality you have at work.  Not that you aren’t yourself at work, but you aren’t.  Nobody is.  And if you are, then I probably wouldn’t want to work with you.  At work the decorum of professionalism should be adhered to.  This is for everyone’s comfort and to keep people from feeling uncomfortable.  My work style is devoid of the vulgarity that is a big part of my personality.  My work style also limits profanity, which unfortunately, is a pretty big part of how I speak outside of work.

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How did we get to know each other’s working styles? We took personality tests.  The Myer’s Briggs Part II to be exact – with answers geared to how we behave at work.  And then we had a facilitator help visualize and present our results.  We did a great exercise to demonstrate how much time we would each spend based on our personalities in the four stages of approaching a new problem.  Team building exercises have never made much sense to me, until this one.  By getting to know each of our work styles we learned how to communicate more effectively with everyone.  Extroverted people dominate meetings and spoken communication – and by realizing that more than half the team is introverted by nature – we realized we needed to create a meeting atmosphere more conducive to introverts (we do this better now by doing lots of sticky note exercises when getting team feedback).

Does this mean my team has really high-bandwidth communication overnight?  No.  But we are much better off than we were before the exercise.  We keep a printout of our results in a common place for the entire team to see on a daily basis – a little reminder of how hard it is on some folks to talk in groups and to others to quiet down to let others in.  We aren’t the greatest team yet, but we are committed to improving as a group and are actively working towards it.  Moving towards high-bandwidth communication at work will improve your team’s ability to deliver on its goals in a more timely manner with less overhead – sounds like synergy to me.

Do you have high-bandwidth communication at work?  What techniques has your team used to bring about better communication?  Leave a comment or shoot me an email to let me know.

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