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Swing, Batter-Batter-Batter! June 29, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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It’s easy to tell when a youth baseball team is struggling: they fall silent.  If the silence persists for any length of time, the coach (or a parent in the stands) will yell out, “Let’s hear a little chatter out there!”  This request hopefully refocuses the team as they start talking again.

Baseball chatter falls into two broad categories: inane repetitive noise and helpful advice between the players.  The inane noise is designed to annoy and distract the opposing team, especially the pitcher and batter as they duel at the plate.  The helpful advice is more important: players call out potential defensive plays, adjust coverage, warn about possible bunts or steals, and so forth.

The parallels for any support team, and especially IT organizations, is obvious.  A happy team is constantly communicating with themselves, in matters both large and small.  As changes occur and problems arise, they go out of their way to make sure people know what is going on.  The communication is fluid and consistent.  Ideally, most of the chatter should fall into the “helpful advice” category, although it could be fun to taunt your DBA during a big upgrade. (“Drop, table-table-table!”)

As a leader, are you listening for chatter in your team?  Are you even in a position to hear it?  Chatter is in the break room, the hallways, and the parking lot.  It’s both verbal and electronic, via Twitter, SMS, and instant messaging. Chatter isn’t in the formal memos, project charters, and design documents.  It may not even be in the general email flow.  In fact, formal communication is the enemy of chatter.

When teams get bogged down in Memos and Documents, they stop chattering.  They begin to formalize their communication, creating paper trails and looking to cover their read ends.  They think before sharing and selectively reveal information to suit their own agendas.  This kind of thinking, putting self before team, is disastrous for any group.  If it persists, the whole group will fail.

Leaders must create a culture that promotes chatter.  This includes both physical and cultural components:

  • Does the work environment provide places for people to gather and chatter?  Are teams co-located so they naturally interact?  Are there places for groups to meet informally?  Is it easy to see when people have gathered, so that others can join the conversation?
  • Are people inclined to chatter?  It’s easy for people to send email back and forth all day.  Do you encourage them to get up and actually engage in conversations?  Do you walk around and engage in conversations?  Do you provide positive feedback to groups when you see them gathering and chattering?  Do you use chatter to communicate to your direct reports?

Stuffy, staid environments inhibit chatter.  Do you work in such an environment?  Have you inadvertently created one?  Here’s an easy test: from your office, can you occasionally hear laughter?  If your people are not enjoying themselves to the point where they laugh every now and then, how can you expect them to chatter?  How often do you laugh with your team?

Our work teams are more complicated than a baseball team, but the core value of chatter is just as important.  We can’t simply call out and make them start chattering.  We have to build environments and foster cultures that make people chatter on their own.  Are your people chattering?

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Comments»

1. James Governor’s Monkchips » Chatter as goodness, the danger of cliques - June 29, 2009

[…] post by the Effective CIO was just too good not to quote at length, concerning as it does the real […]

2. Wally Bock - June 29, 2009

You just nailed one of my stupid consultant tricks: making a quick assessment of the health of a team by observing how they interact. The top teams are chatty (as much as the work allows) and friendly. The others, not so much.

Years ago I was in a new client and watched one team member write, print, and send a memo via office mail to another team member sitting six feet away. There was nothing special in the memo that might call for formal documentation. I knew then that it would be a tough assignment.

3. Lui Sieh - June 30, 2009

Hi Chuck,

You let out one of the “secret” leadership ingredients out of the bag! 🙂 This is axiomatic and hence why I’m a strong believer in open work spaces for IT groups. Especially for the senior IT person to be out of the office and with the troops so to speak. It really does help set the right tone and establish a positive cultural setting for individuals to contribute to the group’s success.

Thanks,

4. Krishna Moorthy - June 30, 2009

Interesting. Reminded me of the “Cluetrain Manifesto” and its emphasis on “conversations” (though you use it in a more literal sense…)

5. Joe Williams - June 30, 2009

My team and I have a conference room, where I spend the majority of my time. Often, it becomes the social gathering location; because of that, I hear a lot of useful chatter. We laugh a lot and share personal experiences from the night before or the weekend. It’s a great environment!

6. Lui Sieh - July 1, 2009

What worked well in the past for me was to brew fresh coffee around my office area. Nothing like having a “coffee club” in the office to gather people around. And it’s cheaper than Starbucks.

7. Chuck Musciano - July 1, 2009

@Joe, @Lui: Thanks for the tips on creating chatter. I’ve gotten a few others, enough for a future post. It isn’t hard to create chatter; but you do need to work at it.

8. Brian Blanchard - July 6, 2009

Another great source for generating chatter is a periodic game day. I have been guilty of hosting Rock Band competitions on a few client sites. This stress free 1/2 day of fun and entertainment will spawn laughter and chatter for weeks to come.

If you can secure the planning area for the competition, you will even see people sidebar after sets to talk about project challenges. These casual, risk-free conversations produce more innovation in 20 minutes than days of memos and project plans.

9. Steve Berg - August 13, 2009

Chuck – great post. I was just in a situation this past week where a rift has been created between two people in different teams within the IT organization that could have been prevented with better ‘chatter’. They were not communicating with each other, even though they literally sit within 20 ft of each other! I’ll be keeping my finger on the chatter pulse much more!


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