5 W’s (plus an H) to Improve Team Communication

My son lost his first tooth a few weeks ago. I got tired of seeing it hanging there for days and sent him to school with some apple slices, which did, almost exactly, what they were intended to do. I say “almost exactly” because he actually swallowed his tooth, resulting in great sobs about the Tooth Fairy not coming. I assured him this happens all the time, and that the Tooth Fairy would indeed come. Flash forward to the next morning, when he climbed into my bed and loudly whined “And the Tooth Fairy didn’t even come!” “Really?” I calmly answered. “Did you look under your pillow?” He raced downstairs and with great delight sprang back with a dollar in his hand and a smile on his face.

I assumed he knew to look under his pillow—after all, he’s been watching his big sister lose teeth for the past few years. But with no tooth to place beneath his head, there was no clue to look for a gift in the same spot. Assumptions—they’ll get us every time. Fortunately, there are a few easy things we can do to avoid this costly mistake.

First, take the time to think about whom you are talking with. Is she new to the company? Is she new to the position within the past year? If so, her knowledge base about exactly how your organization works is much smaller than yours. It’s easy to forget if an employee is new to position, or has not participated in a project team before, they really are “new” and need more information than others.

The second way to avoid making assumptions is to ensure communication is clear and thorough. The journalistic formula for writing provides a great framework. Answering Who, What, Where, When, Why and How goes a long way in providing clear communication. This model is particularly helpful in meetings that take place inter-departmentally, like new product committee meetings (as illustrated below), but is just as valuable for conducting project reviews with a
single employee.

1. WHO: Who is responsible for the next step? Not what department, but WHO. “Who” has an email address and, more importantly, a phone number. Does everyone know who the final decision maker is? Who is expected to be at every meeting?

2. WHAT: What is the team trying to achieve? What are the claims that need to be reached? What is the target flavor? Target cost? Organic or kosher status? For foods—is there a target prep or cook time? What problem are you solving for the consumer?

3. WHERE: If you are sourcing ingredients, are there certain countries to be avoided? Are there certain suppliers that must be used? Which distribution channel are you targeting (Mass/Health/MLM/Naturopathic)? What are their internal needs? What countries are you selling to? Globally, ingredient regulations vary widely.

4. WHEN: What is the target timing for “launch”? What is “launch”? Companies vary widely in their definition of “launch.” Sometimes it is presentation at a major trade show, sometimes it is handing over presentations and pricing to sales. Make sure everyone knows dates and what they mean.

5. HOW: How are you going to determine if this project actually makes it to launch? Are there milestones and decision points build into your process? How will the launch be conducted? These strategy questions have deep executional implications.

6. WHY: Why should the buyer purchase your product? For ingredient sales, that buyer is the marketing and R&D professional, typically followed by the purchasing agent, after acceptance. For branded products, why should the retailer should take on your product, and discontinue the one that he has? Why will the consumer choose your product over the one sitting next to it? Why has the company chosen this initiative?

And finally, as a third step to ensuring communication has been clear, leave time for questions and feedback. “What questions do you have?” “What concerns you about this?” It doesn’t guarantee anyone will ask, but it goes a long way toward collaboration.

If I had followed the 5-W model when I was talking with my son after he had lost his tooth, it would have been so simple: “In the morning (when), Joshua (who), look under your pillow (what/where) and you will find a gift from the Tooth Fairy (why). Do you have any questions?” No assumptions. It’s my new motto.