Category Archives: Communication

The Skill of Categorization

Skill of Categorization
Skill of Categorization

Imagine going to the grocery store where food is just randomly put on shelves based on available space. You might find one brand of breakfast cereal in isle two, and another brand in isle seven.

Instead, the grocery store categorizes their products. The produce is all together in one area. The cereals are all in one isle and so on. It makes your shopping experience faster, easier, and more organized.

If you stop and think about it, most of what we do is based on how we categorize things. And the more logical the grouping is, the easier it is to be organized. A library categorizes books on their shelves by genre. Within genre, they generally sort the books by author to help you find a book easily in a large building full of books.

Categorization based on correlation

The important thing is to categorize based on some logical correlation. If the library sorted books by color, it would provide little to no value. I’ve never gone into the library looking for something green to read.

Poor outcomes occur when we base our categorizing on flawed correlations. There is currently intense debate regarding how to limit the inflow of terrorists. Should immigrants being categorized by the country they are from, their religion, or some other way? Racism roots from associating flawed correlations to broad categories of people.

When you listen to two opposing politicians debate, they are arguing two different correlations. Can we stimulate the economy by giving tax breaks to the rich or the poor? In fact, most of politics is a process of developing correlations based on categories. We categorize many of our political beliefs based on our income, age group, national region, religion, ethnicity, gender, and many other things. Many of these categorization have little to no correlation to the actual belief.

When I was a young boy in school, I remember my teacher dismissing us based on the color we were wearing. “Anybody wearing red is excused.” There was no correlation to that categorization. It was simply a random approach to grouping dismissal to avoid a bottleneck at the classroom door.

Categorizing is a skill when managing a project

Think about how often you categorize in your day-to-day work. You may categorize people based on their skill or work location. You may categorize tasks based on priority or urgency.

When you schedule a meeting, you have to decide who to invite. Most of us do that based on the category of people that need to be in the meeting. Do they contribute to the meeting? Do they need to be informed? The finance people get invited to a finance meeting. There should be some correlation between who you invite and why they should attend. Unless you just want to invite those wearing red.

I’ve often said that everything we do or say should have a purpose. Purpose is driven by correlation. Although there are plenty of random events, most events have a cause. Developing your skill at identifying causes and their effects means having a deep understanding of correlation.

We make decisions based on what we think will happen as a result. People disagree with us because they have a different set of beliefs for what will result.

For example, consider the situation that your project is running behind. You may decide that the team is spending too much time fixing issues. Someone else on the project may believe that the team is not spending enough overtime on the project.

It’s possible that either solution – or both combined – could resolve the issue. The most important point is to verify whether either of them will create a cause and effect situation. If so, determine the best solution.

Categorization should enable decision making. When categorizing anything, be certain that the categorizations are logical. Categories should be based on cause and effect rather than randomness or false beliefs. Otherwise, there is no reason for the categorization.

How do you categorize based on correlations?

If you would like to learn more about a career in Project Management, get Lew’s book Project Management 101: 101 Tips for Success in Project Management on Amazon.

Please feel free to provide feedback in the comments section below.

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“I am the CEO!” Leading without Authority

Leading without Authority
Leading without Authority

I once worked for a man who believed that his title gave him authority. He was the CEO of the company and never hesitated to let people know. He always introduced himself emphasizing his title and listed the C-level positions he had held in the past.

If anyone disagreed with him, he would scold them, telling them “I am the CEO of this company!” as if that gave him omnipotent authority and knowledge.
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5 Rules for Running Meetings

Running meetings
5 Rules for Running meetings

“I wish I had more meetings to attend,” said no one ever. It has become a universal law that meetings are bad. They waste time. They rarely accomplish anything. Nobody likes them, but everybody continues to schedule them.

They are a necessary evil. They are a primary form or communication between people in the business world. By following these rules for running meetings, you can be on your way to running more efficient meetings that your coworkers may even look forward to.

Be on time

If you have been invited to someone else’s meeting, promptness is a sign of respect. If you are the meeting organizer, promptness is an even bigger deal.
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Defining the Project Escalation Process

Project Escalation Process
Project Escalation Process

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.

What to escalate

Certainly the project manager shouldn’t escalate every single issue that occurs on a project. It is the PM’s job to track, manage, and resolve issues.
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The Communication Skills of a Project Manager

Communication Skills
Communication Skills of the Project Manager

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.

Conclusion

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?

If you would like to learn more about a career in Project Management, get Lew’s book Project Management 101: 101 Tips for Success in Project Management on Amazon.

Please feel free to provide feedback in the comments section below.

Image courtesy of pakorn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Thinking a Step Ahead of the Project Owner

one step ahead
One step ahead of the program manager

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.
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What Are We Trying to Accomplish?

What Are We Trying to Accomplish
What Are We Trying to Accomplish

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.
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6 Steps for Effective Project Communication

Effective Project Communication
Effective Project Communication

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.
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How to Create a Project Communication Plan

project communication plan
Creating a Project Communication Plan

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.
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How to Facilitate Project Communication

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

project communication
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

Project communication
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.

Status Reporting

project communication
Project communication in the status report

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

project communication
Project communication through ledership

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.

Conclusion

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.

How effectively do communicate with your team?

If you would like to learn more about a career in Project Management, get Lew’s book Project Management 101: 101 Tips for Success in Project Management on Amazon.

Please feel free to provide feedback in the comments section below.

Images courtesy of David Castillo Dominici, Ambro, imagerymajestic, and Pakorn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net