Posted by: projectsinpractice | May 27, 2012

A Cautionary Tale: When Good Communication Goes Off Track

Bonnie here: Good communication is important on the smallest of projects. My co-author Jim Ewing and I are in the middle of a very small project: designing the cover of the comedic thriller that we are about to publish. Things were chugging along when suddenly design elements were in a big messy pile like the catch of the day. As our protagonist, Juice Verrone, would say: “Is this some kind of a joke?” Sadly, no. Our project was derailed (temporarily) by poor communication.

Here’s how it all started. Jim and I decided to use a design competition web site, The project started down a familiar path. When Jim created the competition, he posted information that sounds a lot like a project summary: a book cover design that would work in color and grayscale for both print and eBook (the goal and scope rolled into one), the price level (the budget,) a description of the novel’s plot, ideas we had, a sketch I had drawn (some requirements.)

The source of the problem arose early on. The design competition runs a specific way and we followed that process. During the first round, people submitted designs. Jim and I discussed the entries, provided feedback, and received revised designs. We rinsed and repeated over the several days of round one. It was all very agile. Round two was similar, although our feedback became more specific and detailed.

As a side note, several of the designers were from other countries. This international competition was a crash course in communication issues due to cultural, geographical, publishing, and other differences. Who knew book spines run in different directions in different countries? It was also interesting to see how our novel got renamed by non-native English speakers. The book title, “Fresh Squeezed,” morphed into Freshly Squeezed on a few entries.

We picked a winner, in effect, the solution for our project. And we did explain that the real work was now beginning. We were going to work with her basic design and iterate to the final cover. This is when things got shaky. We made specific requests but the results that came back seemed to be further off-track. Colors that had been correct in previous iterations were suddenly wildly off base.

Jim was the point person so he tried reducing the number of changes for each iteration. He asked the designer to go back to an earlier revision that had the colors we wanted. But the results were still off.

Jim and I were confused and frustrated. Then I thought of a technique that Stephen Covey recommends. Instead of descending deeper into micro-management, I suggested he say “Help me to understand why we are having problems with the colors.” Turns out that the three-dimensional fish on the cover is created in one program. Then the colors and other effects are added in a second program followed by some clean-up steps. And finally that polished image goes into the book cover file. Every time we asked for a change to the fish, she had to jump through all those hoops (with the potential for glitches.) No surprise, those steps took her quite a bit of time–for every individual request we made.

Understanding her process clarified the situation a great deal and showed the way to a more effective approach to making changes. I suggested that we back off and work on the fish without color effects to get its shape and facial expression the way we want. Then, move on to applying the color — once. With the fish complete, we move on to the other elements of the cover. Finally, when all the elements are finalized, she lays them out on the book cover.

All along, we felt like we were communicating. But messages weren’t getting across. When we went from brainstorming into “production,” we were really moving from an early project phase (completed prototype or proof of concept) into project execution. We should have taken some time to plan how we were going to work, ask the designer questions about her process and how we could work with her most effectively.

The moral of this story: communication is crucial and requires careful planning, followed by care and feeding–even in small projects like our book cover. Remote or multicultural (or multi-anything) teams complicate the process. Finally, we can learn a lot about managing big projects from small projects we perform every day, which brings us back around to the importance of lessons learned! The cover of “Fresh Squeezed” isn’t ready for prime-time just yet, but I’ll post the final result in a few weeks.

Read more about communication in Chapter 11, “Communicating Information,” of Successful Project Management (which won a Merit Award at the international technical writing competition of the Society for Technical Communication.)

Talk back: Have you had experience with poor communication turning into bigger project problems? What did you do about it? How would you prevent these problems in the future?



  1. Danah Boyd offered a very useful anecdote on her experiences in conference organisation and communication between different parties involved, in her blog entry here. All the best, B.

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