Teams Need Common Language

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

— Nelson Mandela

In business today, there is more opportunity than ever for teams and individuals to be out of alignment. We’re all in a hurry, even though we know slowing down is healthier. We all try to multitask, even though it's been proven not to work.

And we communicate in ever more cryptic texts and emails that, while they probably contain all the right facts, they (so so often) convey the wrong tone. Since emojis are still (thankfully) rare in business communications, what can we do to make sure our words—and our sentiment—are both understood?

One way is by getting to a shared vernacular that promotes understanding and teamwork. Here are three examples from my own experience.

The Situation

As an account lead at an agency several years ago, I routinely scheduled meetings for my clients and their creative teams. First, the client would serve up their windows of availability between their back-to-back meetings. “We’re open between 2:30 and 3:15 on Tuesday and any time after 4:30 on Friday!” So, I’d venture into Outlook to invite the creative team to a meeting, and I’d see big chunks of time blocked off as unavailable, with the label, “no meetings.”

I totally support creatives having uninterrupted blocks of work time. But as an account lead, I had to keep client work moving forward. I felt squeezed, and, according to their calendars, the creative team did too. Do I schedule right over their valued work time? That feels inconsiderate. But how was I supposed to get my work done?

The Solution

We talked.

That’s right, we had an old fashioned face-to-face (or phone-to-phone) conversation. And in that talk, I discovered that the creative team felt unconsidered and overworked—in part because of all the meetings they had to attend. And they discovered how tight it felt between my rock and hard place.

We knew we couldn’t change the pressured nature of agency work. So we decided that just by talking to each other differently, we could feel more like a team. First, the creatives offered to soften their Outlook wording to, “Creative time: No meetings if possible.” They also agreed to assume that, if I scheduled over their time, it was truly necessary.

For my part, I told them I’d make sure it was truly necessary by asking myself four key questions before scheduling that meeting:

  • Is this meeting really necessary for the creatives?
  • Does the entire creative team need to be at this meeting?
  • Does this meeting really need to be this length?
  • Is having this meeting at this time a higher priority than what the creatives will be working on at this time?

If I answered a pretty confident yes to each of these questions, I knew a meeting was necessary. But before I booked it, I offered to take an extra step to say, “Hey, I’m sorry but I have to book over your creative time.” If they had a better suggestion, I listened. If not, I booked the meeting with their blessing.

This seems like a small thing, but let me tell you. We all heard each other better, and we were all less annoyed.

Develop a shared shorthand

Even if only your team knows exactly what it means.

Preparing for a creative presentation recently, our project team had gathered in a meeting room and someone suggested we bring a few hip pocket ideas to the client presentation in addition to the document we planned to share.

Some on the team, people who’d worked hard on the presentation for more than a week, twisted their eyebrows in astonishment and said, “Are you serious? We just finished this big presentation and you want us to throw in another one? We all agreed on the set of ideas we’re presenting.” I thought they might walk out.

Fortunately, the original asker clarified. No, not a back-up presentation. Not another crush of work. Just a few theme-related ideas to show we were thinking about the client’s needs beyond simply selling her creative concepts. And not to mention keeping us from feeling flat-footed if the client asked us to elaborate on ways we might roll out the concepts we were presenting.

In situations like this, where it seems everyone wants to say no, I like to lightly ask, “What if we had to?” What if we had to put ourselves in the client’s shoes for a few minutes and riff on some ways to help? What if we approached the task with generosity of spirit and tasked our creative brains with finding a few ideas to make the client’s life easier? Ideas she might or might not even tap us to develop.

With that perspective on the table, the team’s lead creative said, “Well, it can’t hurt to take 5 minutes.” And we came up with a half-dozen great thoughts right there on the spot. It quickly became clear to the team that hip pocket ideas don’t have to be brilliant, or based on a detailed strategy, or even particularly fleshed out. They’re just—ideas. They spark conversation. They help clients feel supported. Sometimes they even lead to work.

Best of all, we started using the term hip-pocket ideas across the team as a shorthand way to ask for some generous—and safely limited—brain space.

Share early and often

You can't land in a ditch when you check often that your wheels are on the road. 

We pride ourselves on being a really collaborative bunch. And we never want to miss the mark with our clients. So we believe in lifting our pencils and letting our teams—and our clients—take a look at our progress, especially on large and complex projects.

We even call it a “pencils-up” look at our work. Everyone can tell from the tenor of the phrase that we’re talking about something informal and directional, not formal and detail-oriented.

We do it early in the process, when there’s still plenty of time to correct course if needed. Universally, we’ve found that clients appreciate this approach. I grant you, it can be scary to show your client a work in progress. But you only need one big reveal gone bad to learn that it’s in everyone’s interest to be transparent throughout the creative process.

Personally speaking, I choose this highly collaborative route every day of the week. Because I know that when we, our clients, and our teams, all share the same expectations, everything turns out better.



Kari Olivier worked in various corporate marketing roles before migrating to the agency side. Kari is a writer, workshop facilitator, marketing strategist, and advisor to leaders at Fortune 500 companies and SMBs. She is co-founder of Jute Creative, a branding, marketing and communications agency in Portland, Oregon.

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Career development, Creative agency, Creativity, Jute Creative, Management, Mentoring, Personal development, Productivity

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