How do you get feedback from a working group?
When materials need to be reviewed by working groups, committees, and senior level staff, project managers must master the art of getting consolidated feedback and, in some cases, herding cats. In this episode of the Smart Communications Podcast, Maya Ovrutsky, one of Big Duck’s expert Relationship Managers, shares her strategies for keeping projects moving smoothly.
Sarah: All right everybody, welcome back to the podcast. I am here today with one of Big Duck’s relationship managers, Maya Ovrutsky. Hi, Maya.
Sarah: So Maya joined our team a while ago and before she came to Big Duck she was working in the nonprofit sector at a great organization called Her Justice for, what, about five years?
Maya: Yep. Five years.
Sarah: And on our team she manages relationships with clients, so she is a day-to-day contact. She works with a lot of different organizations and I think in a seat like yours, Maya, you probably see a lot of great, excellent communicators and probably some communicators who are struggling. Is that true?
Maya: I think that’s safe to say.
Sarah: Yeah. And so Maya wrote this really fabulous blog called “The project manager’s guide to consolidating feedback like a pro.” And we’ll link to the blog in the show notes. But I wanted to tease out today in our conversation the sum of what it means to be good at consolidating feedback. So just by way of background, what we’re really talking about here is when you are the person who is managing a project at your nonprofit and it’s a project that might need to have a lot of eyeballs on it or a lot of people approving it, how do you get that feedback? Is that the kernel of what we’re talking about here?
Maya: Yeah. Exactly.
Sarah: So we end up with people who are maybe in junior roles or mid-level roles who are having to get feedback and buy-in from the executive director, from maybe the development director, or all kinds of people. In your blog, Maya, you map out, I think, six different steps to consolidate feedback like a pro. But tell me a little bit more about why you wrote this article. What are some of the things you’ve observed anecdotally?
Maya: Sure. Well, so often this is new territory for people we are working with, and they know their internal politics really well, but they’ve never brought in outsiders, or they never had to get so many people’s input on things. And it can be really challenging and really stressful to try and put that all in one place and pull out the decisions. So a key thing that I realized recently is that some people hear consolidated feedback and think, “Oh, okay, you need everyone’s feedback. I’ll give you everyone’s feedback.” But most people really want are decisions and that consolidated feedback process really happens internally and the result is just the decision that you relay.
Sarah: So if, for instance, there’s a paragraph written that’s going to go in a brochure, let’s say, and there are eight people on your internal team who have to read it, all eight people might comment about what they like or what they don’t like, but what you’re saying is the key thing the communications person has to do is not only get that feedback but then actually make a decision or force a decision to be made, right?
Maya: Exactly. And if they are not the decision maker, going to that person and just figuring out how to get a decision made, because otherwise the discussion just continues to go on and people will always disagree but ultimately someone needs to have the final stamp of approval, or just approval.
Sarah: So with the organizations that you work with who do this really well, what are some of the things that they do really well?
Maya: I think the people who really get this first know that they have to assign roles. I don’t think you can start trying to get feedback from anyone without knowing whose voice is important at what stage of the process, and sort of mapping out the review stage and who is the decision maker and who is reviewing a first draft versus who should just review the last draft, that kind of stuff is really challenging to think through and if you’re a relationship manager at Big Duck, you probably really enjoy thinking through it.
But I think the people who are really good at this understand that it has to be very thoughtful and slow process. A lot of people are just eager to get things done and get things out the door and move a project along as quickly as possible but slowing down and sort of mapping it out very thoughtfully usually leads to great success.
Sarah: This is where I think you really brush up against the crux of the challenge, which is politics, right? If I’m a mid-level or a junior person who’s triaging this piece and I’ve got to get decisions made, it can be challenging for me to make decisions. So what you’re saying is we need that person to actually proactively go to whomever the decision maker is and say, “Hey, can I make this decision? Or will you make this decision?”
Maya: Exactly. That can definitely be a little challenging, too. Sometimes you’re working with people much more senior than you, and it really taps into all of the skills that fall under managing up as well: trying to get really senior people to review things, trying to get on their radar, and learning to work around what those folks need is a great skill in any project but certainly the kind I’m talking about on the blog as well.
Sarah: Yeah. You talk in this blog about the importance of getting everybody in the same room for instance. So if you’ve got eight different opinions, maybe the best way to actually resolve and get a decision is to get them in the room and have them talk it out and just spark that conversation.
Maya: Exactly. So many times, it’s just impossible to get everyone in the same room, but then feedback comes in really piecemeal and it’s hard to understand exactly where things stand and what really the final decision is; whereas if everyone is in the same room you can just follow the flow of conversation and towards the end be like, “So, where are we going with this? What’s the decision?”
So it just makes everyone’s job a lot easier, but obviously people are really busy so sometimes that has to happen digitally or by phone and that can be challenging too. Still, there are ways to streamline it.
Sarah: Yeah, and you recommend a few different digital tools. One of my favorites, which you reference in the article, is Google documents. I serve on a board where board members and staff members regularly collaborate through Google Docs, and what’s great about Google Docs is you can have a number of people in the document at the same time editing, suggesting, making comments. Whomever is the owner of that document can control the sharing settings, which is just world’s easier than people funneling back and forth a Microsoft Word document for instance.
Sarah: Do you have any other tech tools that you like to use for consolidating or getting feedback?
Maya: Yeah. At Big Duck we use Basecamp, which I think is a great tool for managing any kind of product where there are two groups involved. Doesn’t even necessarily need to be a consultant or agency and a client. It just keeps everything in one place. There’s a comment function, where you can immediately tie back the whole thread, see what’s there. You can use to-dos, tasks, you can assign. It’s just a great way of keeping everything in one place and also sort of delegating and keeping track of who’s reviewing what and when.
Sarah: Yeah, one of the things I love about Basecamp also is that … let’s say you’re a decision maker on a project and you haven’t been involved in the weeds of it, there are these threads in Basecamp of conversations. You can log in, jump in, and really see the whole history without having to be CC’d or be CC’d on every single email, which is a really good thing.
So before we wrap up, if we’ve got listeners who are about to embark on a big ambitious project that a lot of people in their team need to be involved in, what are the tips you’d encourage them to take with them as they plan out that process?
Maya: I would say really find who knows communication skills, the internal ones that can be really challenging when you are working with a new group of colleagues that maybe you don’t work with every day. Just trying to read people and understand what they need and proactively communicating to them the importance of the work that you’re doing. That will just make all of this better. I think people tend to just ignore emails that they don’t think that they need to respond to. So making sure that you’re practically communicating the importance of that message and the importance of their input to making the process successful. I would say it all begins with good communication.
Sarah: Yeah, I love that. I think it’s often the case that if we’re not communicating well internally, we can’t communicate well externally. It’s one of the reasons that I actually prefer the term communications as opposed to marketing for the nonprofit sector role that we’re talking about because it really is … this is definitely a place where it’s all about internal communications. All right. Well, thanks for joining me.
Maya: Yeah. Thanks for having me.