How to improve team communicators

I cannot count the number of times in Fear No Project that I have mentioned communication and the important role effective communication plays in project success – well actually I could count the number of times using search software, but that isn’t the point. As mentioned in “The Secret to Effective Management Communication – Practice, Practice, Practice,” the PMBOK considers communication so important to project management that they devoted an entire chapter (Chapter 10) to communication.

Most often project communication is discussed as a project manager’s skill. However, the need for good communication does not stop at the top of the project. Everyone working on the project needs to be able to communicate effectively with peers, management and customers. Moreover, almost everyone can learn to communicate better.  I cannot believe the number of projects and teams these days that are terrible communication groups!

I believe the first step in communication improvement is to create a focus on listening, talking, writing, and presentation tasks. Of course, you can have training classes and people can participate in activities that promote speaking skills, such as Toastmasters. However, I am suggesting that organizational leaders, including project managers, make a point of rewarding good communication and giving feedback to poor communicators that may help them improve.

Getting started
It goes without saying – but I will say it anyway – as the project manager, you need to serve as a role model of active listening, maintaining open body language and speaking skillfully, while keeping in mind the knowledge-level and biases of an audience (“When Facts Are Not Enough – 10 Tips for Communicating to a Non-Technical Audience.”)

Second, make it clear that you (and the organization) value good communication skills and don’t tolerate bad communication behaviors. Provide guidance through dress rehearsals for presentations and peer review of written documents. Add “whys” to your suggestions to facilitate generalization and meaningful feedback.

Third, make communication skills part of performance evaluations. Here again, explain what is expected, why good communication effects performance scores and provide guidance to help the team member improve. During meetings, gently correct or act as a translator, when it is apparent that communication is breaking down.  Evaluate speaking, writing and listening as separate areas when you give feedback.

When suggestions are not enough
Not everyone on your team will change their communication behavior based on your modeling and feedback (trust me, I know!). For those individuals, you may want to require training in communications. Sometimes feedback from strangers or professionals can help an individual learn new skills or change behaviors better than an immediate supervisor. (For example, think about how your adolescent son or daughter chose to improve their nutrition because the basketball coach told them to, even though you have been saying the same thing for months to no avail!) Here are a few more suggestions I have used:

  • Enroll your employee in a communication seminar offered by the organization or through an outside workshop. Make this required training and track it on the performance review.
  • Look for signs of improvement, even if not completely successful, and praise the effort.  Keep a little file or index card for each employee to track specific events.
  • Assign the individual to attend presentations by others and report findings as well as evaluating delivery. Use this discussion to point out why the presenter’s communication failed or succeeded. You can also use a YouTube video of a speaker to do the same thing.
  • Have the employee do a peer review on another team member’s deliverable document (Hopefully a good one) and ask for an assessment.
  • If the communication seems to be a greater problem due to presentation anxiety, separate communication and presentation into two skills sets to be learned. When written communication is improved, there may be a carry-over effect into presentations, especially if there was concomitant (connected) practice in presenting information created by others.
  • If the employee fails to improve his communication skills, as project manager you must make sure that their problem does not become a project problem. Plan to spend more time peer reviewing or editing their written communications. If they are slated to give a presentation, require practice sessions. If the presentation is to senior management or customers, send along a translator who can add interpretive comments or sooth down ruffled feathers.

Even where people are taking all the right steps to be good communicators, we have many other barriers that get in the way:

  • Team members are on a virtual team and not located in the same place
  • The team is comprised of individuals from different countries, languages and time zones
  • Email is the main form of communication and collaboration – and not effective
  • The team is a “shamrock” staffed project – comprised of individuals from different companies and organizations, including employees, contractors, part timers, and temps

So given that barriers can exist outside of the people working on the project, if we don’t focus on good communications at the person-to-person level, we can really be in trouble from the start of the project.

What is your experience in improving communication?  Do you have any links to good articles or suggestions?

Guide to Effective Brainstorming (with a remote team)

“Let’s get together and brainstorm that.”
“We need to schedule a brainstorming session.”
“I want you to brainstorm some solutions.”

It is a noun. It is a verb. It is a gerund (my mother would be proud I remembered). For a project manager, brainstorming is more than a part of speech, it is a process intended to release team member’s creativity. Alex Osborn is credited with creating the concept of brainstorming as described in his writings from the early 1940’s. Osborn, an advertising executive, suggested the process as a way to generate new marketing ideas. In his approach, spontaneous ideas from a group of people were solicited actively using these rules:

  • No criticism of ideas
  • Go for large quantities of ideas
  • Build on each other’s ideas
  • Encourage wild and exaggerated ideas

Project managers can use brainstorming to generate a list of project risks, new business concepts and to find potential solutions for vexing problems. And, let’s face it – we constantly face problems in our business world. Sometimes brainstorming works great and other times it fails. I recently read an interesting list of tips to improve brainstorming by Kevin Coyne and Shawn Coyne, adapted from their book, “Brainsteering.”

They advise putting some parameters on the idea generation process to reflect the possible by taking into consideration the financial constraints and timetables of your organization. They also suggest that several short brainstorming meetings may be more productive than one long marathon meeting — hard to argue with anyone who recommends shorter meetings. After a short list of favorite ideas is generated, they recommend fleshing out some details, but not making a decision. Rather, the Coyle’s have found that presenting the final list to the “real” decision makers and then giving meeting attendees feedback quickly on the decision and next step is the best practice.

Brainstorming with a Remote Team
More project managers than ever are working with remote or virtual teams. I have talked about the challenges and suggested techniques I have found useful for managing remotely in previous posts — Virtual Team Collaboration with Web Conferencing, Collaboration Tools for Virtual Project Teams and Project Management Collaboration and Communication Tools.) But, what about brainstorming when your team is virtual?  Most of us are not used to this idea and it may seem impossible.

Do not despair. In his book “Medici Effect: What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation ” Frans Johansson has some interesting figures on studies on brainstorming with a virtual team. Using two teams of 20 people each to brainstorm ideas, he found that the virtual group came up with twice as many ideas working alone as the group of 20 people meeting face-to-face.

Tools and technology can facilitate brainstorming with a remote team. provides a list of tools and techniques for improving the effectiveness of virtual meetings and creative thinking. And, there is more. According to the Anywhere Office, “The list of tools to choose from gets more impressive with each passing month. Skype video conferencing, discussion boards, whiteboard applications, web meetings services like GoToMeeting or Live Meeting, and web-based collaboration tools like Central Desktop or SharePoint Wiki, all can lead to very rich virtual brainstorming and collaboration with your virtual team or colleagues. The key is finding the right tool for the type of collaboration you need to do and then taking some time to learn how to use it.”

Have you used brainstorming successfully with team, either face-to-face or remotely. Did you have problems or failures? Share your experience via your comments.

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