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?

How is project management different in a nonprofit organization?

I do not want to mislead you with the title of this post. In my experience, effective IT project management is what it is, whether the project exists in a for-profit company or nonprofit organization. However, the culture surrounding the project and some of the challenges differ.

To restate previous content, projects have a specified beginning and end with a product or deliverable, as opposed to operations (business or nonprofit), which are ongoing. In nonprofit organizations, a project may involve setting up an IT network, building a user-friendly warehouse of information or creating a website to collect donations.

Because our friends at the Project Management Institute believe that the discipline and standards associated with project management apply equally to projects in nonprofit organizations, they created the PMI Educational Foundation in 1990 to advance “project management knowledge and the application of project management concepts and theory by society.” Through their Foundation, they offer training and scholarships in project management.

Here are my thoughts on similarities and differences from working IT projects at both types of organizations.

Project Management similarities between for-profit and nonprofit organizations

  • Projects need a plan that identifies goals, defines scope, assigns tasks and has measurable outcome criteria.
  • The project must further the strategic goals of the organization (Should tie to some organizational objective).
  • Projects need a schedule with task detail, dependencies, assignments and periodic reviews.
  • Resources must be acquired, held accountable and managed. See the post on Managing Virtual Teams.
  • How much the project costs really matters – and may be the deciding criteria for whether it is undertaken.
  • Tools for planning, cost and schedule tracking and collaboration facilitation help project managers do a better job (here are some additional comments on tools: “Six Views of Project-Management Software” from TechSoup – for nonprofit organizations and “Collaboration Tools for Virtual Project Teams” and “A Fool with a Tool is Still a Fool” from previous “Fear no Project” posts.
  • Effective communication with key stakeholders is essential.
  • Risks must be identified and managed. You don’t have to go overboard- just identify the most likely and highest impact risks.
  • Project managers should expect changes in the plan during execution.  Be flexible! Expect to have to change the plan to accommodate changes in the environment or organization.

Project Management differences between for-profit and nonprofit organizations (in no particular order J)

  • While folks managing for-profit companies usually have some academic and experiential exposure to project tools and project management requirements, individuals in nonprofit organizations may not.  Actually they quite often do not have a background in project management – so they might try to get the assistance of someone who does.
  • Nonprofit staff and management may understand less about technology and technical terms than people in similar positions in for-profit companies – although maybe not. I have met some really tech-savvy people in nonprofits and some technology-challenged individuals in large companies.
  • Service-oriented nonprofit organizations may find creating measureable or numerical performance criteria challenging, as they are more accustomed to working in a subjective environment.
  • Predictable charitable or grant funding for nonprofit multi-year projects may be even more at risk than funding is in for-profit organization projects. (Agile project development methods provide a process that allows completion of useful tasks without reaching all project goals, this is a way to make progress in case funding is cut or a grant proposal not funded in second or out years.)
  • Stakeholders may be more diverse as nonprofit organizations frequently interface with government and private agencies as well as having ties within their communities. So using stakeholder techniques is even more critical in nonprofit projects.
  • Nonprofits are eligible for free or low cost PM software like that available from TechSoup.

If you have worked on IT projects for a nonprofit organization, please share your insights via comments.

Other resources for managing non-profit or volunteer programs:

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