August 14, 2020 Article

SMART Communications: Moving Forward when Stuck at Home

Cut through analysis paralysis by applying SMART goal setting to communications.

By Robine Grant

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The COVID-19 pandemic has created an environment to highlight areas for improvement, as well as to hone our best practices.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an environment to highlight areas for improvement, as well as to hone our best practices.

Credit: Pexels, Marcus Aurelius

Though previously unimaginable, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way in which people work. Emails, texts, and meetings continue to be, and in many cases have become even more, consuming, blurring the already hazy lines between home and work. On the one hand, it has been more important than ever to reach out and connect with colleagues, friends, and family—it helps to feel a bit more tethered when days and weeks have started to run together and environments have become little more than the walls of our homes. On the other hand, the oversaturation of information and content can quickly become overwhelming and create an endless loop of conversations without meaningful momentum forward—a paralysis by analysis. To balance these competing demands, succinct and effective communications have become ever more critical.

When the stay-home orders first began, I attributed the churn and inability to move forward as a product of my environment (my home) and personal situation (recently married and recently became partner in my firm). Yet, it wasn’t so simple (or self-involved). As Ira Glass and Damon Linker eloquently described in an episode called “Stuck!” from the radio program and podcast This American Life,

[w]ith schools and jobs shut down, we have become unmoored from the future. We are stuck in the present. And it is unclear when we are going to move forward to . . . whatever . . . we are building for ourselves in our lives. . . . “A life without forward momentum is to a considerable extent a life without purpose. . . . Without the momentum and purpose, we flounder.”

In my conversations with colleagues, clients, and friends, it quickly became clear that feelings of “floundering” were not unique. I found myself having the same conversations repeatedly and resending emails with regularity. I frequently heard that emails had gone unread, that clients and colleagues had too many meetings, and no one had enough time. These were not new complaints; they merely arose in a somewhat unfamiliar and uncharted environment in which everyone felt a little less connected. With no physical separation between work and home, boundary setting and balancing between work and home became increasingly difficult—parents were now full-time caregivers, teachers, and disciplinarians; cooking and cleaning seeped into the workday; meetings started earlier and went later; people rolled out of bed and onto laptops. And, with many deadlines pushed and depositions, trials, and conferences canceled, the daily grind felt formless and futile; my teams struggled to focus. As Bill Copeland famously observed, “[t]he trouble with not having a goal is that you can spend your life running up and down the field and never score.”

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So I endeavored to control what I could and create reachable goals for myself and my teams. I streamlined communications and specified measurable and actionable targets and, briefly, their relevance. And I more firmly gave advice and counsel, instead of providing a risk profile of various alternatives for discussion. The communications did not reinvent the wheel—each of my cases already had orders of proof and developed strategy plans. I did for my teams what I force myself to do whenever a task or situation feels insurmountable: I created manageable subtasks or subgoals to accomplish one step at a time.

At first, it was unintentional, but in essence I applied the concept of SMART goal setting to team communications. SMART goals are

  • strategic and specific;
  • measurable;
  • actionable and attainable;
  • realistic, relevant, and results-oriented; and
  • time-bound.

Similarly, in each communication, I endeavored to

  • focus on one piece of the case strategy (strategic and specific);
  • identify specific bite-sized targets to further the strategy—for example, a specific type or piece of discovery or a specific research topic (measurable);
  • recommend one path forward, instead of presenting several options and weighing the pros and cons of each (actionable and attainable);
  • briefly explain why the recommended path is preferred (realistic and relevant); and
  • set a deadline by which the target would be reached, sometimes imposing deadlines given relaxed court and discovery deadlines (time-bound).

This ensured not only that each communication had an identifiable, goal-oriented purpose but also that team members knew what tasks were being accomplished, by whom, and by when. Taking inspiration from Norm Reitter’s March 2017 article, “What Is Your Professional Fitness Level” (50 Phalanx no. 1), this simple step provided a focus on the steps each team member needed to take to ensure that we didn’t just discuss issues but rather moved them forward in a meaningful way.

It worked. The approach immediately and palpably relieved the stress of the team (at least on the work front). By using SMART communications, my teams drowned out some of the overwhelming “noise” so we could focus on the immediate goal and nothing more.

In retrospect, the pandemic exacerbated already problematic communications. “A crisis is like a magnifying glass: it magnifies and shows off strengths, but it also magnifies weakness,” according to Dr. Victoria Medvec, a negotiations and strategic decisions expert and the Adeline Barry Davee Professor of Management & Organizations and executive director of the Center for Executive Women at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. As Dr. Medvec also cautioned in a recent seminar I attended, “never waste a crisis.” The COVID-19 pandemic has created an environment to highlight areas for improvement, as well as to hone our best practices. Intentional SMART communications have become a useful tool that I will take from this crisis moving forward.

Robine Grant is a complex commercial litigation partner in Winston & Strawn LLP’s Houston, Texas, office. 


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