Go Ahead and Eavesdrop

A few years ago I managed a team of learning content developers for an international consulting firm. One of my many trips brought me to Paris, France to check on the progress of a course being developed there. One of my friends and colleages, Thierry, honored my visit by organizing a dinner for some of the employees and their spouses.

We went to a hotel at Versailles and were seated at a large round table on the back patio - I think there were 12 of us. It was a beautiful summer night, and everything was perfect. The food was great, and everyone was chatting up a storm, so all seemed to be having a good time. In the midst of the chatter, Thierry shouted, "Hey everyone, you're all speaking in French. Ken doesn't speak French, so please speak in English." I was a bit embarrassed, and I can imagine that some of the wives may have been thinking, "The lazy American comes to our country and he can't even speak our language."

One of the wives said out loud, "But why? We're not even talking to him?" Although everyone laughed, she made an interesting point which begs the question, "What would have been the point of me hearing all those conversations that I wasn't intended to be a part of?" I believe that in an informal setting like this, people are expected to eavesdrop a bit and jump in and out of conversations at will.

Recalling this story caused me to think about all the collateral and indirect communication that occurs in a team room. At times, the dynamics in the team room involve any number of impromptu conversations. Often times, others could contribute to (or learn from) those conversations, even though they didn't receive an engraved invitation to participate.

The informality of impromptu conversations includes an implicit invitation to tune out, listen, or jump in fully and contribute. I contend that much of the high value communication that moves a project forward occurs this way.

1 comment:

  1. In my meager experience, those conversations have nothing to do with the project 80% of the time. The very informality that you speak highly of lends itself to talking about anything.

    On top of that, say I'm (with my pair) is trying to solve a problem, one that is intrinsically difficult. Someone starts talking to someone else and says something that is blatantly wrong concerning an important part of the project. I now have to make a choice: interrupt the progress of two people, progress that took 15-30 minutes just to get into so that I can correct something or I can choose to ignore it so that we can continue making progress.

    That's a moral decision now. Anyone who would do the latter is obviously a poor teammate but they choose to be a good teammate at the expense of a full hour of productivity (30 minutes getting in, 30 minutes getting back in after an interruption). I think that's a bad situation.

    I don't disagree with you that much of the high value communication for a project happens just as you say it does. I just have serious doubts about how much high value communication ever happens at all. And when it does, even though it may be high value, it comes at an arguably equally high cost.