This week, we look at facet 5 – “communication”

As is now the norm, we will structure the piece around 3 core questions

  • What does Project Leaders mean by “communication”?
  • What is the impact on projects of poor communication?
  • How can project managers develop their communication skills?

Most project managers score highly on our psychometric test on the “communicator” facet. So how come whenever we go into any organisation and start poking around, by far the most common response to the question “so, what’s wrong round here?” is “communication”. In itself more than a little oxymoronic as a response to such a complex issue.

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I can start to feel myself gaining momentum already, rant mark 5 and rising, so let’s pause to consider the Project Leaders’ definition of the term. We say that communication;

refers to the extent to which the individual is able to communicate his/her ideas to a wide audience. Great communicators have high verbal ability and are able to express themselves clearly and effectively

On first impression this definition leans heavily upon verbal acuity so let me unpack the first part a little. When we say “able to communicate his/her ideas to a wide audience” we also ascribe high levels of importance to the ability to both listen and empathise, without which a wide audience will remain unreachable, no matter what the message.

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In last weeks’ musings on the “stability” facet I mentioned that, as we work through these facets, it becomes apparent that they combine and interact. In psychometrics language they are normative, not ipsative. This means that being good in one facet does not result in losing “points” in another. In other words, all facets can be developed and a strong project leader can score highly in all. This is rare however.

This week I interviewed Professor Victor Newman, head of knowledge and innovation management at the University of Greenwich. (http://the-knowledgeworks.blogspot.com/) which will appear on the Project Leaders blog soon.

Professor Newman made a compelling case for the combination of creativity (article 2 in this series) and communication as the key challenge for project managers. He posits the PMs need sales training to lead projects in today’s organisations. Trainers, does this sound like project management training to you?

No, me neither!

Why make PMs into sales people? Well, weak communication in any project can lead to:

  • Poorly understood requirements leading to an infinite number of problems
  • Money, time, effort, quality all wasted / compromised
  • Professional reputation dented / destroyed
  • Confusion, frustration, stress
  • Morale and team working deflated

Actually, trace pretty much any project problem to its source and something about communication will at least be a contributor.

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So, back to our fantasy project management (sales) course that requires me to think laterally and somehow also link that with communication.

We know that all too often project managers have the responsibility without the authority. They are plucked from their cosy function and thrust into the labyrinth of project management, armed only with a paper thin (literally) process to fend off the mighty minotaur of mismanagement. So our point here is that maybe sales training would be of greater benefit to the average project manager than regurging a set of processes they could just as easily assimilate from a well written manual. This is, of course, if they aspire to be project “leaders”.

What would they learn in a good sales course that would develop the communication facet to be able to deal better with a project?

Listening- I know it’s pretty hackneyed now but the old saying “ 2 ears, 1 mouth” so use them in that ratio still holds true, and I believe originates from sales training (pretty sure someone will tell me if that’s wrong)

Asking questions and probing – there are institutional, inter and intrapersonal reasons why we clam up, but a great, consultative salesperson will find out as much as they can about the other party’s needs and context before getting close to a “solution”. Good business analysts know this (check CATWOE and many other similar devices) for example. Experience will have shown them that, at best clients change their minds, sometimes they don’t know their minds and at worst they apparently lose their minds altogether. Always, always, always ask questions.

Spotting hooks – asking questions allows the PM to control the conversation and means the other party provides the information. Consultant sales people may use this to identify opportunities for a juicier deal, project leaders use it to identify other factors that may influence the project that are not specified in the charter / PID etc. Simple throw away stuff like “of course, Janet’s moving to accounts” or “the lease is up pretty soon” can have pretty serious implications in real life

Identifying pain – selling pain killers to the afflicted is easy, sales people know this. Project leaders also should think about how does aligning this project to areas of discomfort guarantee it gets the attention and support it needs. Creating training programmes is a classic example. If the pain lies in getting people in a room, create training that doesn’t require that. And so on.

Spotting timewasters and walking away – this is a real challenge for the project manager who, in theory, often has no choice as to whether or not they run the project. Walking away it seems is just not an option, even if the project is evidently a dog with fleas from 100 paces. (just remind me why we’re funding that tram project in Edinburgh?). However, at times, by linking this with the pain-spotting talent we can make an assertive case for shooting the project at a humane moment. Is it possible to highlight the issues for your seniors should the project end in failure? Can you simultaneously provide a great idea for what else could be done with the same resources? (I tell you what, let’s can the tram and eradicate World poverty instead with the same budget?)

Relationships – when you buy from a great salesperson you never regret it, well nearly never. They have built a relationship with you, and the foundation of that is trust. It happened to me today. I spent £80 in a triathalon shop because the person selling the stuff I bought also spent nearly 2 hours with me, understanding my issues (injury), trying things out and, ultimately recommending a course of action that was effective and much cheaper than the other options. I was hooked! If they’re being honest, most project managers do not spend enough time in purely relationship-building activity. When I mention “politics” they wince. We must get used to it, projects are human ant farms, understand how they work or run headlong into others for ever.

Closing – at the right moment, a good sales person will need to ensure you have made a deal. Again, inexperienced project managers will often assume this has been done too soon and with too little evidence the buyer has bought. My experience of working with off-shore teams proves this. This simple vignette illustrates:

[picture the scene, you are at the end of a lengthy conference call having thrashed through a number of technical issues with your counterpart in Mumbai…]

PM (UK) so, that’s the end of the snagging list, does that all make sense? [closed question]
Mumbai yes, that’s fine [“fine” being a word that should be banned due to its vagueness]
PM Great, deadline OK? [closed and assumptive]
Mumbai Erm, yep, fine [unsure and vague]
PM Great, any questions? [having not picked up on Mumbai’s uncertainty then firing in another closed questions at the end of an exhausting conference call]
Mumbai No, everything’s fine [meaning “thanks for not asking me to illustrate that I actually only really understood about 30% of what you’ve been saying but at least now I can get out of here and hopefully you’ll forget large chunks of what we just agreed to, after all it is 9pm here now”]
PM Great, see you next week [too tired, lazy, intimidated, stressed, rushed to pick up on what he really, in his gut, knows is a shonky deal that’s just gone down]
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Project managers, whether it be with contractors or just with peers and especially superiors, need to get much better at being sure that deal everyone thinks they’re signing up for is the thing they are going to go away and build. This requires patience, political nouse and personality in order to get very different animals to see the world in the same way.

Win-win – again, possibly getting worn out as a phrase but project managers need to plan their stakeholder map carefully in any complex project and think tactically about “what’s in it” for everyone on that map, especially those who lie in the “high influence / anti-project” quadrant. Communication style, format and message must be tailored to fit the customer.

Jargon - a bad sales person will blast you with features in the hope it will either impress or intimidate the money from your wallet, in reality most times it makes you psychologically or physically walk away. Inexperienced PMs sometimes do the same, wrapping themselves in the Emperor’s wardrobe of Gantt this and Critical that. We must be bold enough to use real words that everyone understands – maybe someone could develop a PM translator app?

Authentic chameleon – good sales people suit the pitch to the person whilst the product doesn’t change. PMs need to get better at thinking about “what style will suit this situation”. All too often there is a “one size fits all” approach and in the worse examples PMs seem to scorn those in the project landscape who do not technically speak the same language as them.

Empathy – who spends the most money researching the wants, drives, preferences and peculiarities of their stakeholders? Supermarkets and the brands therein that they sell. The most successful ones do this the most – simple. PMs need to reflect on that, how much do we invest in really understanding our customers? The investment is directly proportional to the likelihood of selling our message.

Getting to the point – I’m wary that for every point I write here, 3 more spring to mind and whoever’s reading this may be wondering if it’ll ever end. So let’s end with the next statement.

Communication is complex, multifaceted, fascinating and ever in need of improvement. It represents the core of all our training. There are legion tools in the PM handbag to help streamline communication from matrices to maps, charts to charters. But does it really boil down to the tenacity of the project manager in committing themselves to 2 things:

  1. I will see every communication on this project as an opportunity
  2. I will never issue communication without checking it has genuinely been understood