What the Girl Scouts Could Teach Us About Project Communication

by Cinda Voegtli, President, ProjectConnections.com

I received a series of emails recently that made me sit back and re-examine my approach to project communication, and specifically, communication aimed at getting commitments from team members.

My teenage daughter belongs to a Girl Scout troop in California. If you have teenage girls, you may be aware that Girl Scouts is NOT necessarily considered a cool place to be at this age, but this troop is truly cool. They are a 'high adventure' troop. They have gone spelunking (rappelling and crawling around in dark wet caves in the Sierra Nevada mountains), backpacking, and sailing on an early 1900s tall ship; they have helped build floats for the Rose Bowl parade; they have taken trips to spas and even out of the country to places like the Galapagos Islands. This is all in addition to tons of leadership and skill development and service projects in the community. All this activity requires "adults in charge"—parents willing to take on some organizational responsibility for each event, including coaching the scout-in-charge for the event. Like we didn't already have enough to do at work and home!

I have ignored plenty of pleading emails for assistance in my time, including ones from this troop; have to work this weekend, have to finish that yard project, sorry, can't sign up for anything this month...

Then I got a very unique series of emails: the most entertaining, laugh-inducing, and ultimately stunning pieces of motivational commitment-requesting communication I've gotten in recent memory, or perhaps ever. The author is an ICU nurse by day, an uber parent volunteer by night, and she really cares about the leadership opportunities Girl Scouts provides for young women. Here is an excerpt from the email that started it. (Dates and a few identifying details have been removed or adjusted just for privacy, and not all of the events are included—it was an extremely long list!)

I opened the email immediately. Then I kept reading, even though I knew from the beginning that she was trying to get me to commit to something. Then I found myself re-reading it and examining each item thinking about whether it would be fun, whether I'd be in town that weekend, whether I could handle the organizational responsibilities in the midst of my busy schedule!

Why Did I Do This? The woman wanted my scarce time!

More on that shortly. First the two short emails she sent in rapid succession.

And then a few hours later

Why did I immediately go into seriously considering the commitments this leader was asking us to make? What was it about how she communicated the requests that not only made me laugh, but pre-disposed me to making a commitment of my time? This is what I distilled:

UNIQUE AND ATTENTION GETTING: First, she caught my attention with something different, unexpected, and in this case, humorous.

From the very beginning, this email was different from the stuff that normally clogs my box (including items from the Girl Scouts) which are usually dry, factual, and logistical in nature—reminders that this event coming up, that money is due, etc. She got my attention with something unexpected. Brad Pitt? What is THAT about? I just had to open it. Her first win.

RECOGNITION: She immediately recognized specific people who were already helping out, and quickly recognized by name those who wrote in after her first email.

After quickly letting the reader know that yes, this IS a request for adult volunteers, she immediately thanked specific people up front for contributions already made—individual personalized kudos to those already taking on part of the load. The subsequent emails kept it going. Thanks, thanks, and more thanks; strong and unique and personalized statements of thanks. This was not cursory acknowledgement; it was heartfelt. (Bonus: again with humor that made me laugh.)

Although technically we are supposed to be helping with the troop without needing significant extra motivation, the fact is that appreciation and recognition for our contributions matter to everyone. It matters on our projects as well as in volunteer work. "Supposed to" doesn't make anyone commit, much less commit enthusiastically. Appreciation and recognition matter.

INVITATION INSTEAD OF JUST OBLIGATION: She made the clear point that a small group of parents was currently carrying most of the load, and invited us to help.

Technically, you could describe her approach as shaming us into action; others are volunteering, where are you? That's been tried on me before, and my reaction is very often pure defensiveness and instant rationalization against what I'm being asked to do. "Who are you to try to shame ME?"

But this time no one lectured or berated, there was no metaphorical finger wagging in our deadbeat faces. Instead, she expected the best of us, implying with her language that she already knew we would step up to do our part. Oh, the finesse with which she accomplished it! She gently but directly pointed out that a very small group of people was handling the activities that everyone's kids were enjoying. I got her point, and I was more disposed to consider her pleas. She then kept up the subtle pressure with her follow-up emails, again in a positive and engaging way, quickly recognizing even more people who had signed up that day. It was a well-crafted guilt trip—but without the guilt!

ENGAGING AND EVEN HUMOROUS: She kept my interest and put a positive spin on a potentially dreary topic by using some humor.

Let's face it, even if she's done a lot right up until now, she's still asking me to give my time—before an event, during, and after. Though she was requesting serious commitments, those requests were presented in a humorous way. She kept me reading and considering by delivering an immediate benefit.

Before you blow off the fun aspect as not corporate or professional enough, let's be realistic: we need more humor at work. How much fun is it to be overly serious all the time? And how much of our project work feels deadly dull serious, even downright burdensome, every day? When was the last time you felt you had pure laughing fun at work? Maybe you received an email that amused you and brightened your day. Maybe you perceived enough fun benefits to a somewhat onerous task that you decided to take it on with gusto anyway. I'd maintain that even in a more conservative corporate culture there are ways to engage with team members that take the edge off of typical project seriousness. These emails reminded me that with a little extra attention maybe even my project communication could be injected with some fun.

SENSITIVITY TO ISSUES AND BENEFITS: She showed sensitivity to our schedule issues and sold the benefits of making a commitment.

Very importantly, the author also showed sensitivity to our schedule issues. She didn't try to ignore or gloss over our very real time issues. She pointed out where various events were easy to organize, so that even the most time-strapped could find something they could handle. She paid attention to how I could make it work for me.

She also highlighted benefits: She pointed out how the chaperone could herself have fun at an event, or get a manicure, get some much needed extra sleep, or actually get work done. And as a bonus, even those benefits were sketched out in an amusing fashion.

Which all brings me to a final important point that this series of emails reinforced: the author obviously took time to issue these thanks and requests. She took the time to make them personal. She took the time to make the email rewarding to read. She worked a bit at making each event sound fun. And she issued multiple emails close together; thanking people quickly as new commitments came in, to keep up a feeling of momentum and inclusion.

She made an effort. Seemed more and more like I should, too.

Results: The Impact this Communication Had on Me

So what personal commitment did the leader's communication style get of out me (an incredibly part-time GS mom, by the way)? Based on her first email, I took on the Careers Panel because that's an area I care deeply about—girls getting exposure to what careers they can have one day. Then I added the Zoo trip. I decided I need to get out of the house more and am totally intrigued by what exactly one would do on an overnight zoo trip (stare down nocturnal animals in the dark?). And my daughter thinks she may want to be a vet, so what the heck, we'll do it together.

I may even co-lead the spa weekend too. I never get around to doing anything for myself, and this would make me do it. It might give me some fodder for a later company reward outing, and I'm curious to get a leg up on the minds of high-school age girls before my daughter gets there next year. <shiver> (See, her focus on benefits led me to come up with some of my own.)

Please note that I did NOT open that email expecting to gladly volunteer for anything, much less for so much! But I ended up glad I did.

Applying These Techniques to My Project Team Communication

Since I'm claiming that we can apply this non-work approach to our team communications when we're trying to achieve some kind of commitment, I decided I'd better test myself on that. I picked a typical team problem, one I've had to deal with before: getting team members to commit to and follow-through on regular attendance at weekly team meetings, even when their schedules are dense and perhaps their meeting tolerance is on the low side. (Know some of those people?!)

First, the usual email: this is a serious problem, it really does have to be corrected, and as a PM of course I'm frustrated that I even have to ask for a commitment for people to regularly attend our team meeting!

Take 1 – The Typical Factual (and angry-about-this-under-the-surface) Email

How does that email make you react, especially if you're one of the people coming regularly? What a downer! And if you aren't one of the regular attendees, are you any more likely to come after being so chastised? Here's another take.

Take 2 – More polite but still mostly factual

Better? Yes, there's no "berating a child" feel to this one. But is it as effective as it could be? Would this move you to consider fighting a jungle of perceived conflicts to get there? Let's try the Girl Scout communication techniques:

Take 3 – Working at our new techniques

OK, so I had some fun with this. I got a bit hyped about attending my fictional meetings myself, just writing the email! I really do think that if I got an email like this, it would at least change my attitude a bit about attending. I wouldn't feel berated, I'd chuckle a bit, I'd get the sense of importance, I'd see that other colleagues are pulling the load, and I'd see the PM was trying to acknowledge my issues AND make it worth my while.

Does this seem too far-fetched? Not your company's culture? Not your personal style? Even if my version seems over the top for your environment, I maintain that there should be a way to communicate with our teams that brings out the best in everyone, including the wholehearted commitments you need. The fact is, the Girl Scout email worked on me, and I guarantee you it wouldn't have if it were a dry, serious, shaming call for help. There's no reason we have to be so serious about what we're doing that we lose the element of positive thinking and downright fun. Encouragement, recognition, and highlighting benefits work better than whining, lectures, browbeating, or even just boring "you're supposed to" approaches to achieving behavior change and commitments.

So I'm personally going to keep working on how I can apply the uberleader's communication approaches with our team. During project kickoffs, how can I make the project goals come alive? When we have a tight deadline, how can I thank people who are really pushing and get others to step up?

To close, here's my recap of the techniques the Girl Scout parent used, and what I'll try to use myself going forward:

Recap: Ideas for spicing up team communication and commitment requests

  1. Get people's attention in unexpected ways to get them reading, listening, and considering what you need and why.
  2. Give public, personal, specific recognition up front for those who are contributing as desired, and keep doing it as more people commit.
  3. Expect the best out of people. Pose an invitation as well as pointing out obligations, but not in a way that causes defensiveness.
  4. Keep it upbeat, using positive encouragement and even humor to engage people, get them to read what you have to say and consider it in a positive light.
  5. Be sensitive to people's very real time issues or other concerns, and sell the benefits of the commitment you need from them.

Something for all of us to think of the next time we're communicating project needs that require commitment and responsibility from our own team members!

©Copyright 2000-2018 Emprend, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
About us   Site Map   View current sponsorship opportunities (PDF)
Contact us for more information or e-mail info@projectconnections.com
Terms of Service and Privacy Policy