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Real World Project Management: Communications

~ By Joseph Phillips

Business communication collage

Have you ever been on the side of the conversation where all you heard was a voice like Charlie Brown's teacher? Wa-wa-waa-wwaa. (That'd be funny if you watched more Charlie Brown). Or how about listening to your date? Yada, yada, blah, blah, Cubs game, blah, blah, beer, blah, blah, pizza.

Or what about when your favourite project team member enters your office. He says, Hi. Got a real problem I could use some help with. I'm having a tough time understanding the project requirements on this deliverable. And you hear, Blah, blah, blah, problem, blah, blah, tough, blah.

It's not that you don't mean to understand your date or your project team member, it's just that you're not listening. You've got a bazillion things racing through your head, you're focused on seven different projects, and the baseball steroid hearings were so frightening that you can't decide how your fantasy baseball league will shape up. (That's shape up, not shoot up).

Communication, as you can tell from the above, is more than just talking. Communication is also listening. When it comes to project management, communication takes up 90% of a project manager's time. That's right, 90% of your time.

I communicated something to you and you did what I asked. If only projects were that easy! Sometimes you, the project manager, have to do a lot of begging and pleading, like I did above, just to get your project team members to do what they need to do. You know what needs to be done and you need to transfer that knowledge to your project team members. And then they go do it.

Or at least that's how it's supposed to work. Real communication is about transferring knowledge. You know something and you tell someone else, and then they know it. But it doesn't always work that way, does it? Communication is tough. There are two big categories of communications: written and oral.

The Written Word

Written stuff, like this article, can seem to be direct. I write. My editor edits. You read. But what if I'm not clear in my writing? What if you don't get my jokes? Or my grammar and punctuation is so poor that you miss the point? Communication fails.

This is true in your life, too. Imagine that you sent an email to Susan, a team member. Here's one draft of your email:

Susan,

I need a project team member who knows what Oracle is all about. You are smart, talented, on time, and savvy. Team members who are not like you admit to knowing nothing about Oracle. Our project is horrible when you're away. This project is going great.

Best,

Your favourite Project Manager.

Wow! Susan sounds fantastic. But is that what you really wanted to say to Susan? What if your punctuation was so bad that Susan got the wrong message? Here's what you meant to say:

Susan,

I need a project team member who knows what Oracle is. All about you are smart, talented, on time, and savvy team members who are not like you. Admit to knowing nothing about Oracle! Our project is horrible. When you're away, this project is going great.

Best,

Your favourite Project Manager.

Yikes!

Alright, so this is an extreme example, but I'd bet dollars to donuts you've added some sarcasm, a joke, or a comment that came off the wrong way in an email message and mushroomed into a huge problem. The point is that written communication has its challenges within a project. Email is great. I love it and use it every day, but when the message is muddy in any written message, it can have large ramifications.

Say It Like You Mean It

So if written communication has its challenges, verbal communications must be great, right? We know better. Think back to your teenage days, when your folks would say that it's not what you say, but how you say it. Well, that's what my dad would tell me. And, as usual, he was right. Dad was telling me, teaching me, about paralingual communications. Paralingual describes the pitch, tone, and inflections in the speaker's voice that affect the message. Can you think of all the different ways a project team member can say, Sure. I'll get right on it. I bet you've heard them all.

And then there's the nonverbal communication, all that body language. (For Olivia Newton-John fans: Let me hear your body talk). Posture, facial expression, shoulders, tugging on the ears, crossed arms, hand signals accentuate or reply to the message you're hearing. Ready for another statistic? Good. About 55% of all communication is nonverbal. If this is true, and I believe it to be true, you can see why phone calls, broadcast videos, and teleconferences aren't as effective as face-to-face meetings.

You've been in meetings and witnessed team members' expressions when you've shared good or bad news. And then you've reacted to the expressions on their faces, right? You've modified your message for clarity, you've asked them if they've got a freakin' problem, you've continued with your spiel because they're nodding their heads in agreement with you.

Just to be clear, and I want to be clear, a verbal message is affected by three major things:

  • The message itself.
  • Paralingual attributes of the message.
  • Nonverbal communication.

To be a great communicator takes experience. To be an effective communicator, you must ask questions. Do you understand me? Questions help the project team, the audience, your date, ask for clarification, deeper understanding, and an exact transfer of knowledge.

One approach, sometimes called "parroting," requires the speaker to ask the project team to repeat the message in their own words. For example:

  • YOU: We've got to get this application developed by the end of the week or you're all fired. Now, Jim, tell me what this means.
  • JIM: You're an idiot?
  • YOU: No, you're fired. Sally?
  • SALLY: We've got to get this software developed by Friday or we'll be joining Jim at Wal-Mart.
  • YOU: That's it. Get out. Get it done.

Parroting can be demeaning, especially for Jim, but it's effective. You can be a bit more subtle than what I've presented here, by asking the audience if they're clear on the message, and then asking questions based on what you've presented.

But What About Planning?

Thanks for asking. Of course you have to plan to communicate. Communication planning comes down to this key question: Who needs what information, when do they need it, and in what modality?

Who needs what? This tackles two major issues in any project. "Who" describes the stakeholders with whom you and your project team need to communicate. "What" describes the information that they'll need.

Not all of your stakeholders will need the same information. Sure, that sounds obvious, but have you ever met one of those moron project managers (yes, the guy a few cubes from you) who sends out all project information to everyone who's even heard of his project? This guy thinks he's covering all of his bases because everyone has all of the information. The problem with this approach is the same problem with giving your cat the whole bag of cat food at once: Only give what's needed or things will get messy.

One tool that can help the project manager and the project team to determine who needs to participate in communications is a simple communication matrix. A communication matrix is a table of all the project stakeholders in both the row and column headings. A check in the intersection of the two stakeholders represent that these two stakeholders will need to communicate.

The hard part, the planning part, is determining what information is needed between the two stakeholders. Usually the major communications needs will be obvious; functional managers need to know information related to their employees on your project, such as schedules and time accountability. The project sponsor and key stakeholders need information on the project status, finances, and any variances in cost and time. You'll need to work with your project team and the stakeholders to determine the more involved communication demands.

You'll also have to tackle the "when" problem. Depending on the stakeholders, information needs vary between daily, weekly, monthly, and "based on conditions in the project." For example, your project sponsor may ask for weekly status reports, but the project champion may ask for status reports just once a month.

The secret is to schedule and, if possible, automate the communication demands as much as possible. Yes, automate. If your project management information system is worth much, you can create macros, templates, even auto-generate reports on a regular schedule. Think of the time you'll save (and can invest in your fantasy baseball league) by automating communications. Many project managers I meet don't automate, don't schedule, and don't use a communication matrix. And then these project managers forget who needs what and when they need it. And then everyone whines. Please.

Now for the modality. Some communications can be accomplished in a quick email. Others require an extensive spreadsheet, report, and executive summaries. Some communication is expected in quick, ad-hoc meetings, while other needs may mean business suits and, gosh, PowerPoint slideshows. The point is simple: Give stakeholders the information they need in the modality they'll be expecting.

Communication Is Also Listening

Time to shut up. You've planned for communications and now you're following your plan. But you have to listen to what's being said. I don't know about you, but I have two ears and one mouth. I've heard that this means I should listen twice as much as I talk. I have to listen to understand and receive the messages being sent to me.

As a project manager, you have scores of communication channels. And within your project there are potentially hundreds of communication channels. The larger the project, the greater opportunity for communications to break down. Here's a nifty formula to show you just how many opportunities there are for communication to fail: (N*(N-1))/2. That's N times N-1 divided by 2. N represents all the key stakeholders.

Wanna try it? Let's say we have a project with 10 stakeholders, including you, the project manager. That'd be 10 times 9, a big 90. Divide that by 2 and you've got 45 communication channels. Now ask yourself, "What's for lunch?" Sorry. Ask yourself, "How many stakeholders are on my project?" A bunch, I bet. Go ahead and try this formula on one of your projects. I'll wait.

See how the possibilities for communication failure just came into focus? Scary.

So, to be effective, we've got to listen to what's coming at us, what's being discussed among our project team, and what they're telling our stakeholders. You, the project manager, must be at the centre of communications; you have to be the communications hub.

Now do you believe that communication takes up 90% of a project manager's time?


Joseph Phillips is the author of five books on project management and is a PMI Project Management Professional, a CompTIA certified Project Professional, and a Certified Technical Trainer. For more information about project management training, please visit Instructing.com


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