Communication: The Essential Ingredient for Good Project Management

You might expect that, as a Technology guy, I would say that tools are the essential ingredient (And I have certainly written plenty about tools!). Or as a certified PMP, you might have guessed that I would say that processes and procedures are the essentials for managing projects and people. And those of you that know I am all about people and skills would suggest that training in project management is the essential ingredient. All of these are important, of course, but let’s talk basics here. Without good communication:

  • The project can easily lose stakeholder interest, support and credibility
  • The true status of the project is not known – by anyone!
  • Project team members can’t plot the best course of action or make small decisions wisely

But, you say, I communicate regularly with my team and the stakeholder community. That may be so, but in the words of George Bernard Shaw, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” I have written about Communication and how it requires practice in prior posts. But I thought I should look at three of the components of effective project communications in order to make sure we are practicing the right things.

1. Transparency. How openly are you communicating? Are you hiding details or information that should be shared? Victor Lipman did a great post for Forbes on this topic , sharing research that transparency equates to business ethics. The adage “no news is good news” does not apply to project management, however, one caution – transparency does not mean that you have to share every piece of dirty laundry – use judgment on how and what to communicate. So what does transparency mean to your project? It means that you:

  • Are open and honest about project status, budget, hiccups, and barriers. Don’t puff up, cover up or hide these things – it will always come back to haunt you.
  • Communicate openly about risks. I don’t mean just the big ones that you probably identified early and put on the risk register. Communicate risks that come from dealing with the day to day project – these are the likely suspects for your next issues!
  • Communicate the truth using simple language, without distorting facts or manipulating people

I think transparency also relates to another goal of good project communications—timeliness. Sharing the information about your project doesn’t do too much good if it isn’t timely. Executives often complain that they don’t get information about a project’s problems until it is too late for them to intervene or assist with problem solving. And unfortunately this can be true of the team members also – a good project team communicates with transparency and without judgment so that they can help each other when needed.

2. Team member communications and meetings. Sure, everyone has project team meetings, and they usually start well, with each team member engaged and committed to project success. However, it is often the case that as the project goes on, people may think they are too busy to make the regular meeting. Or perhaps the project manager has not structured the team meeting for success. Here are some tips to improve your team member communications and meetings.

  • Make your meetings regular, scheduled, and to the point— if you are a Scrum team you know all about crisp and focused daily scrum meetings and how they should be to the point and not wander all over. During a daily scrum, each team member answers the following three questions:
    1. What did you do yesterday?
    2. What will you do today?
    3. Are there any impediments in your way?
  • Accountability—the importance of conveying through communications with team members that they are responsible and accountable for a particular task or module (RACI chart, etc.). Do you communicate to each team member status in a meeting through something other than verbal? Use all kinds of communication vehicles – charts, lists, etc. things that can communicate who is doing what and their progress.
  • Tools – OH Yes – I had to add this in. We have such wonderful tools today for assisting us in project communications. Use them as part of your team meetings and as regular parts of your communications. A few examples are instant messaging, collaboration tools (Like SharePoint, Google apps), blogs, email, video conferencing, online web meetings and others (I wrote a more extensive post on this subject earlier)

3. Stakeholder/sponsor communication. First, know your audience. What do your stakeholders and your sponsor care about? What do they expect to hear? What is going on in the organization or industry that might affect your project? Chances are, they don’t want to hear all the individual details of the project. But they do need to know enough to help you defend it and give you their ongoing support. Don’t make the mistake of giving them too little (“it’s going great!”) or too much (all the 200 tasks you are completing).

Second, think about the message you need to convey before you open your mouth. Communications experts call this “ideation”—the overall concept and structure of your message. Your overall message might be that the project is on track, or it might be that you need to convey that you have hit a roadblock and what you are doing to move forward. Once you have the concept and basic message structure, then think about how you will convey it. If this is going to be a tough conversation or message, draft an outline. Then define the major headline. What notes or points will you make to support and explain that headline. Can you convey your message with a chart or graphic better – storyboard your message? Make sure you think about your audience and what they are wanting to hear– but don’t hide information from them – give them the facts they need.

Third, prepare to deliver the message you have planned. Does the stakeholder/sponsor expect a report or a PowerPoint slide? If so, make sure the content is presented in bite-sized chunks to improve understanding. If you’re not skilled at delivering upwards communications, rehearse or record yourself to improve the overall communication. When you deliver it, don’t let it be a 1-way conversation. Watch your stakeholder or sponsor’s body language and listen for responses that help you make sure they understand what you are saying. Be prepared to answer the logical questions that will arise. Finally, when the communication is complete, take the time to do a mental critique of how you did, how well the message you delivered was understood and received, and what you must do differently next time. You won’t hit a home run every time you communicate – but if you take the time to learn and practice – you will get better.

Do you have any tips on Communication? Please post a reply.

Becoming a Logical Listener

April 2012 is going down in my project management record book as the busiest and most intense work weeks for as long as I can remember — and that is a good thing. To accommodate my over-flowing task schedule, I have asked a fellow PM and writer, Barbara Brown, to create this week’s post.

Thank you, Bruce. It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to share on a topic I have been thinking about recently – logical fallacies. I know that sounds arcane and academic. However, identifying fallacious arguments can sometimes help you win a contentious point in a business discussion. Or, at least, construct a masterful putdown when you are talking back to a radio or TV commentator.

N. B.: Keep in mind that few people appreciate having the logic of their conclusions questioned. Therefore, in many situations, it is best to keep your insights to yourself and use this knowledge only to improve the validity of your own arguments.

What is a logic fallacy?
Logic is about drawing justifiable conclusions from premises or data.  The prototypical example of deductive logical reasoning is: All men are mortal (premise1), Socrates is a man (premise 2); therefore Socrates is mortal (conclusion). In more normal conversation, however, the conclusions are often not clearly reachable from considering only the premises because — wait for it — the speaker engages in the use of logic fallacies. Here is an example:

(P1) Barack Obama was elected president in 2008;
(P2) The economy began falling apart in 2008; therefore
(C) Barack Obama caused the poor economic conditions.

This example shows a relatively common logical fallacy, especially in an election year, called: post hoc ergo propter hoc or just post hoc for short. This argument is fallacious because it assumes causality based solely on chronology.

Other Frequently Encountered Logic Fallacies
“Straw Man” The person presenting an argument with a “straw man” wants to appear as if he or she has considered the opposition’s arguments and can refute them. They accomplish this feat by selecting an exaggerated example supposedly from the other side, and then proceed to disprove the example. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it. However, the trick to a “straw man” debate is that the person chooses a weak argument for the opposing side or misrepresents their position. Then, they ask you to conclude, in essence, if one of the opponent’s arguments can be so easily shown false, then all of their arguments are wrong, which is why this type of logical fallacy is also called, a fallacy of extension. Example:

Agile programming teams have no manager to lead them
Teams without a sense of direction or purpose are destined to fail
Therefore, developing software using agile methods will fail.

“False Dilemma” This logic fallacy uses an argument that assumes there are only two decision options, when in reality there are many options.

We have to choose between Microsoft Project and Primavera for our project management software.

“Slippery Slope” In this type of logical fallacy, if one accepts a slightly disagreeable action one must also accept that this will lead to increasingly bad events.

If Robert is not punished for failing to turn in his status report, then no one will feel compelled to report project status. Without status information, management will make poor decisions and projects will fail. If projects fail, the company will lose market share. If we lose market share, we will go bankrupted and we will all be without a job. Therefore, Robert must be fired.

“Complex Question” joins two premises (one, usually, unstated) as if they were one. This technique is often called, “asking a loaded question”. The logical fallacy is in the assumption that the two premises are linked. The complex question fallacy is committed when a question rests on an unproven assumption.

How do you expect to be an effective manager when you cannot get to work on time?

I know that dissecting discussions for their logical fallacies is not everyone’s cup of tea.  However, I confess that sometimes on the ride home from work through stop-and-go traffic, I have felt better about losing a contentious point when I can find the fallacy in my antagonist’s argument.

If you want to have some more fun with logic, you might enjoy listening to the LSAT Logic in Everyday Life podcasts.

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