Close the loop, and watch project teams begin to flourish

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Karen Natzel
Bridgetower Media Newswires

When I conduct organizational health assessments, inevitably “communications” is identified as an area that could use improvement. Communication breakdowns come in all different shapes, sizes and severities.

A lament I hear repeatedly from employees is a feeling of being out of the loop and not connected. With people working remotely, that experience can be compounded. Without the organic watercooler chats, overhead hallways conversations or spontaneous brainstorming sessions, many people are feeling more isolated – and less in the know – than ever. With so many people being barraged with information, video conferencing, and out-of-whack work/life dynamics, there is certainly value in raising the intentionality of our communications.

All of us have suffered the impact of something not getting done, not being understood or seemingly disappearing into the void of ambivalence or busyness. Have you ever experienced an initiative that got rolled out with enthusiasm only to witness it wither away on the vine?

If you analyze these stalled initiatives, you will see a not-so-surprising trend. They failed to integrate. They lost relevancy or a sense of urgency. They fell off the communications cliff. If there is a lack of attention to the initiative, it dies.

Many of these ailments could be avoided by “closing the loop.” Closed-loop communications imply a more stable and reliable system – one that is clear and concise and able to move things forward.

Impacts of closing the loop

Failure to close the loop can seem like an insignificant annoyance in individual encounters, but it can erode an organization’s capacity to deliver if it becomes embedded in its cultural norms. As people bypass this protocol, accountability diminishes, morale dips, inefficiencies and waste creep in, confidence drops, and relationships suffer.

Alternatively, as one builds the practice of closing the loop, people feel connected to the organization’s purpose and priorities. They feel like an integral and respected team member. They see how their contribution matters in things being accomplished. It helps connect the dots from idea to action, fostering transparency and clarity of roles and responsibilities.

It helps people see how what they do, as a team, and generates momentum and credibility. Leaders will likely find it incredibly rewarding and confidence-raising to see more customers satisfied, the team functioning collaboratively, and the work environment becoming one of productive energy.

Common pitfalls

To understand how we can improve in this realm, it is helpful to know the origins of the communication breakdown. Usual suspects are unanswered emails and voicemails, incomplete tasks, lack of follow-up, failure to check for understanding, lax handoffs, poorly defined initiative implementation plans, and dropping the ball on sharing information, status or decisions that impact others.

Getting back on track

If you can identify the patterns within your organization where the loop all too often remains open, you are already on the path to remedy it.

Clarify objectives, roles, and responsibilities

Providing clarity of the task, its purpose and desired impact can help people understand its importance and how they relate to it. It is not enough to state what needs to get done, but offer why, by whom and by when. Understanding the players also help you keep in mind who needs to be informed and how frequently.

Check for understanding

Make sure your message is getting across as intended. Just because it is clear in your head does not mean it will be for others. This can be done with a quick, open-ended question such as: “What’s your understanding of what needs to be done?”

Define “done”

As a client of mine explains it, we need to be clear on what constitutes “done.” If we paint a vivid, shared picture of success, then an actionable road map and the resources needed to get there become more apparent.

Follow through and follow up

Establish a habit of following through on what you said you would do not only closes the loop, but also builds trust. Remember to report out your actions. If you are managing others, find ways to follow up on their commitments. By building follow-up into your one-on-one check-ins, team meetings, and/or daily, weekly or monthly reports, you support your colleagues in keeping projects on task.

Define communication protocols

When a milestone is reached, how will you share the news? How will you report out – and celebrate – progress? Who will be informed and how clear is the next step? Build this communication hack into your regular meeting structure. You can add an agenda item to an existing meeting such as “Close the Loop” – What’s outstanding that needs to be addressed?; or “Takeaways” – What’s your takeaway from today’s meeting?; or “What do you need?”; or “Communicate Out” – who needs to know about this? By integrating it into existing meetings, it becomes not one more thing to be done, but rather how you work together.

Document it

After a discussion with a colleague, send a follow-up email, text or Slack message to anchor the agreement. It helps people remember commitments and supports clarity of the agreed-upon task or next step.

Model it

If you want people to close the loop, demonstrate what it looks like! When practicing this new way of engaging, you are building a new habit – and you are shaping your communication and leadership styles. This takes practice and discipline.

Acknowledge it when it is working

Thank someone for following up, for tracking and communicating progress, and for keeping people informed. When you show appreciation for positive communication, you are more likely to get a repeat performance.

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Karen Natzel is a business therapist who helps leaders create healthy, vibrant and high-performing organizations. Contact her at karen@natzel.net.