It has probably happened to you at one time or another. You’re sitting in a meeting with your boss present when an issue comes up.
You’ve been trying to resolve that issue for a week. It’s the first time your boss is hearing about it. He asks why he wasn’t made aware of the issue. If you had defined a project escalation process, he might have already heard about it.
Having a project escalation process can help guide a project manager through the decision-making process to communicate effectively to leadership to ensure that they are informed in an accurate and timely manner. It is a matter of knowing the what, when, how and why of issue escalation.
I’ve often mentioned that a project manager is the CEO of his or her project. Knowing that a CEO needs to be able to communicate in many ways, the project manager has to have a wide variety of communication skills in order to be effective.
Verbal Communication Skills
The most obvious and critical communication skill is the ability to speak. The project manager spends most of his day speaking to people. I’ve known a lot of people who can talk. But sometimes they say very little. The project manager must be able to speak concisely. Why say seven words when four will do.
When reporting to an executive on the status of a project, she doesn’t want to hear every detail. Talking in circles and never getting to the point can be even more annoying. When describing an issue or situation to an executive, the PM has to determine how much detail to provide. It is important to know how to build it into an understandable story that gets the point across as economically as possible.
I’ve found it better to provide just enough details to get the basic point across. If the executive asks for more detail, provide a few more details until they are satisfied. It always depends on the executive. Some want as much detail as possible. Others want the bare minimum.
When talking with team members, it is important to speak to them as equals. Assuming a superior attitude may intimidate them. This could result in receiving less information than you need. It also creates poor relationships on your project.
Written Communication Skills
Just like verbal communication, a project manager’s written communication must be concise. Co-workers receive emails, reports, and many other forms of written communication. When someone opens a 10-page email, their eyes are likely to roll back. Their likelihood of reading what you wrote is just as unlikely.
A project manager should also write clearly. Proper grammar is of the utmost importance. It is distracting and unproductive for someone to read and reread a sentence trying to figure out what the author is trying to say. A strong vocabulary is also essential. Do not mistake having a strong vocabulary with having knowledge of long and confusing words. A good vocabulary means knowing the right word for the right situation.
Graphical Communication Skills
Whether you like the tool or not, MS-PowerPoint is a staple of the business tool kit. It has a reputation of being overused and, to many, boring. One of the main reasons that people dislike PowerPoint is that people don’t use it well to communicate.
We’ve all seen PowerPoint slides with more text than a page from a Shakespeare play. And most of us have seen diagrams with the complexity of a nuclear submarine design.
It is important for a project manager to be able to create clear and concise PowerPoint slides that have the proper mix of text and graphics that make it pleasing visually, while communicating a point.
If you must show a complex diagram, it should be broken down into manageable pieces on subsequent slides so that the audience can break it down mentally and put it together easily when you are done.
PowerPoint is the tool of choice in most business settings. The Project manager’s job is to learn how to use it as an effective communication tool.
Technical Communication Skills
Many project managers work in technical arenas. Industries such as information technology and health care rely on technical language and complex details.
A project manager often plays the role of liaison between technical workers and business people. It is important for a PM to learn how to translate business requirements so that they are understandable to technical people.
It is even more vital for a PM to understand technical issues that have been explained by the technicians. Once understood, these issue need to be translated into understandable terms to the project sponsors. This description should also address how the technical issues affect the business.
Know your audience
As I addressed above, who you are talking to determines much of your communication. You obviously communicate to executives in a much different mode than to technical team members.
Each level within the organization needs to be considered. Copying a director on an email to one of her direct reports may be acceptable on a regular basis. Copying the vice president at the next level may not be. If there is an acceptable time to do that, extra scrutiny should be taken. You may want to have it reviewed to ensure it is clear and uses appropriate language.
Knowing your audience includes having a flexibility of tone. If you are communicating with a business associate with which you have a close personal relationship, it may be appropriate to joke around and discuss personal issues. This would be inappropriate with someone you don’t know well. The formality of the language you use is determined by the rank and familiarity of your audience. It is also is governed heavily by the culture of the organization.
One of the most important skills a project manager develops is the ability to communicate. It requires many modes depending on how, why, and to whom you are communicating. It also requires being a liaison that can explain issues between people with different skills and education levels.
What communication issues have you experienced on your projects?
In my early days of managing projects, the tasks ran the show. I was the man with the to-do list. I filled it out every night before leaving work. Every morning I religiously reviewed it, verified the priorities, and executed each item for a successful day.
The disappointment I felt if I wasn’t able to complete the list was measureable. It wasn’t just my own tasks that I managed that way. Every member of the team had their tasks, if not for the day, at least for the week. I felt it was my job to make sure everyone got their tasks done for the good of the project.
The tactical mind
By following that task-mastery approach, I know that I got a lot done. The team got a lot done. I felt like I was managing the project effectively by following this tactical approach. And to some degree I was. I was identifying what needed to get done and driving it to completion. Continue reading Thinking a Step Ahead of the Project Owner→
Have you ever read an email and gotten upset, thinking the person was being offensive and rude? Then, when you bring it up to a coworker, expecting them to agree, they took the email in a whole different meaning.
Communication is hard. We don’t always say what we mean. We don’t always mean what we say. Putting things in the written word is even more difficult. Whether it is an email or a project charter, stating something in words that is clear and succinct is always challenging.
What are we trying to accomplish?
When a project manager develops a statement of work or a project charter, there is usually some summary information for the team. These documents generally state the purpose of the project, the expected deliverables, and at least a high-level timeline for the work to be completed. Continue reading What Are We Trying to Accomplish?→
How could he not understand what we’re doing? I couldn’t have made it more clearly to him.
That feeling has probably gone through every project manager’s mind at one time or another. You have developed what seems like an easy concept in your mind. You quickly relay that information to someone else. Maybe they didn’t understand it as well as they thought they did. Perhaps they weren’t listening. Maybe they just didn’t care.
I experienced it once on a project that I managed. I felt I had a good rapport with the key business stakeholder. The project started out very open ended. The client had many initiatives that they wanted to accomplish. Part of our job was to help them prioritize things. We worked closely with them and narrowed it down to a category of tasks. We then discussed those tasks and brought it down to three primary initiatives that we wanted to accomplish in our three-month project. Continue reading 6 Steps for Effective Project Communication→
Communication is one of the most difficult things a project manager has to manage within an organization. Meaningful information must be gathered and distributed among the many stakeholders on a project. Because of this, it is important to create a project communication plan at the beginning of a project. It should be updated as stakeholders and other variables change throughout the project.
Components of a project communication plan
The project manager should determine the various levels or rank of people who hold information and those who need information. Most project information flows up, starting with the project team member to the project manager. The project manager reports to a divisional manager. The PM and divisional manager then usually report to an executive team. Continue reading How to Create a Project Communication Plan→
An orchestra conductor does not play any of the instruments in a symphony. His job is to coordinate each of the musicians that do play. This is a special form of communication between the conductor and the other musicians. Additionally, the musicians need to be able to communicate with each other. And the better they communicate with each other, the more effective they are likely to be.
It’s part of almost every job description: “Strong communication skills.” But it is such a nebulous term that few really agree on what that means. The need for communication skills can differ depending on the role. And there are specific communication needs for project managers.
Project Communication Plan
One of the most important documents that a project manager creates at the beginning of the project is the communication plan. This document defines who will communicate when, with whom, and how.
I usually put this together as a spreadsheet. I will list all regularly scheduled meetings including weekly status meetings, daily stand-up meetings and monthly steering committee meetings. I’ll identify who attends each meeting on a regular basis, when and where the meeting his held, and any other details about each meeting.
I will also define ad hoc communications such as how issues and risks should be communicated when they are identified. If there are standard reports or documentation that are generated by the project team, the communication plan should define how those items should be escalated.
The communication plan should also spell out where documentation is stored. Usually a central repository such as a shared drive, SharePoint, or another cloud-based tool is used. Members of the team should be made aware through the communication plan, what gets stored and where.
The communication plan can also be used to inform the team of appropriate modes of communication between team members. There are times when email is preferred. In other situations, instant messaging, texting, or some other forms are preferred.
Project Communication in Meetings
Being the organizer of a meeting is an important responsibility. As the organizer, you are in charge of a large block of time. A one hour meeting with ten participants uses ten collective hours. Because of this cumulative volume, managing the time of the meeting efficiently is key.
Virtually every meeting should have an agenda. The purpose of the agenda is to define the scope of the meeting. It defines what will be discussed and the order in which it will be discussed. Each person attending the meeting should go in knowing the meeting’s purpose and any information they need to be prepared to discuss.
When it is time for the meeting to begin, the meeting organizer should arrive early enough for any set-up items. This includes dialing in to a conference bridge number, setting up a screen share application, and making sure the projector works. This enables the meeting to start on time and avoid a group of people sitting, wasting time waiting for things to be set up.
Once the meeting starts, the organizer should review the agenda with the team to reinforce the scope and purpose of the meeting with all attendees. It is the meeting organizer’s responsibility to keep the meeting on track. If someone veers off topic, the organizer should pull it back in line.
Every once in a while, someone will bring up a topic that is not on the agenda, but is nevertheless an important topic. An effective tool to use is the parking lot. The parking lot is a list on an easel pad or a white board of important topics that come up that should be addressed, but are not within the scope of the meeting. If the meeting ends early, you may have time to discuss some of the parking lot items. Otherwise, a separate meeting should be scheduled to discuss them.
Finally, when all topics of the agenda have been completed and there are no parking lot items to discuss, the meeting organizer should adjourn the meeting. If it was scheduled for one hour and the agenda topics have been completed in forty minutes, the meeting should be completed rather than filling in the remaining time.
As a participant of a meeting, you are responsible for helping the meeting organizer stay on topic. This involves restricting your own conversations to the agenda. It also means helping the facilitator facilitate. If you notice someone else taking the meeting down an off-topic rabbit hole, you can help the meeting organizer by attempting to bring them back on track. Something as simple as, “That is something we should take off-line outside of this meeting,” will usually work.
Another critical responsibility the project manager has from a communication perspective is reporting status to management. Here, the project manager must switch gears from tactical to strategic.
Project managers often attempt to report what has been accomplished based on tasks on the project plan. For each task checked off as complete, the project manager is tempted to list each one in the accomplishments section of the status report.
People at the management level often don’t understand how those accomplishments translate into business value. They also may not understand how the accomplishments indicate the health and progress of the project.
This is where the project manager needs to think like the business. Refer to the project purpose in the project charter and determine what management is hoping to accomplish strategically from the project. Then, understanding the purpose at the strategic level, report the project’s progress in a way that indicates to them (a) what has been accomplished and whether the project is on track; and (b) what the accomplishments mean to them and their ability to conduct business.
Communicating status by understanding your audience and translating it to their business needs will ensure that your message is understood.
It is also essential to anticipate questions that the status audience may ask. You can’t – and shouldn’t – report every detail of the project’s progress from the past week in your status report. There are areas where the business stakeholders may want more detail. It is important to anticipate as many areas that they may be interested to have in case they ask.
Instead of presenting everything, provide a summary. When they ask you for detail, you can provide only the detail for the areas in which they are interested.
Project Communication Through Leadership
Communication is one of the key aspects of leadership. A good leader knows how to communicate to each individual based on their personality. Additionally, a good leader can translate technical information to business people in an understandable way and translate business requirements to technical team members.
Communicating with other people is only half of it. A good leader should be able to facilitate communication among the members of the team. The project manager should enable and encourage each team member to communicate with the others. When a team member is working on a task that has a dependency, that team member should communicate his status to the dependent task owner to keep him in the loop.
A good way to facilitate communication within the team is the daily stand-up meeting. Holding a daily, fifteen-minute meeting in which everyone stands and gives a daily update on their status helps everyone on the team know everyone else’s status.
Clear, concise communication is one of the most critical skills that a project manager must possess. Project managers need to have different communication approaches based the recipient of the information. Additionally, project managers should facilitate communication among each team member to ensure that everyone communicates with each other.
An integral part of managing a project of any size is reporting status. Many project managers don’t give it the attention it deserves. Instead of treating it as the necessary evil that takes up your time to check it off your list, consider the importance of a status report.
Career opportunity. This is an opportunity to show your manager or others with influence how you communicate to executives. Do you want to appear as a novice that doesn’t communicate well, or as a competent communicator who is comfortable reporting to the higher-ups? Continue reading The Importance of the Status Report→
1) Be on time. I know, this was a tip for the facilitator, but it applies to everyone. If you are a lower level worker who habitually shows up late, you can limit your upward mobility. People may think you are too inconsiderate of other people’s time to be prompt, or they may think you are too disorganized to be assigned to an important project. Either way, people may no longer want to work with you.
If you are higher up on the food chain, being habitually late for meetings will set an example for everyone that reports to you. If it’s okay for the goose, the ganders will start showing up late too. This will not only affect your team’s reputation, but their performance as well. Continue reading 7 Tips for Meeting Participants→
Meetings: the ultimate necessary evil. I’ve met few people who haven’t complained about another meeting; or dreading the idea of another Monday morning status meeting, stealing an hour of their life every week.
There are certainly too many meetings in this world. Even if we could reduce the number of meetings to the necessary few, I think people would still hate meetings.
I’ve come to the conclusion that it is largely a facilitation issue. So I’ve come up with 8 tips to help you facilitate meetings that people will be less likely to dread attending. Continue reading 8 Tips for Meeting Facilitators→