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→
Project managers have a certain notoriety with their teams. They push team members to reduce their estimates for work. Once an agreed upon estimate is reached, the PM pushes the team to beat the estimate.
If the estimate can’t be beaten, it certainly has to be met. And there will usually be hell to pay if the estimate can’t be met. Now the task is behind. Because there are dependencies for other tasks, the entire project may fall behind.
This of course is scandalous. Project plans need to be updated. Change requests need to be completed. Executives need to be notified. Team members can be made to think that a one-day delay on a task could bring the entire organization to its knees. Continue reading Can You Estimate Like Your Team Members?→
Over the years I’ve written about many project management skills, techniques, and approaches. Project managers need to be organized. They need to be able to plan efficiently. Project managers need to be able to communicate and customize their communication for their specific audience.
The project manager needs to have many tools in her toolbox. One tool I haven’t written about is respect. Effective project managers know that treating others with respect is one of the key things that allows them to get things done.
Respect for team members
The project manager needs to have respect for the individual team members in many ways. She should respect their time. Team members generally work hard and it is important for them to be productive. Continue reading Managing Projects with Respect→
I occasionally talk to fellow project managers. I’ve found that one of the most common things that PMs complain about is getting people on our teams to be team players. I’ll admit that it is important. I often wonder whether the project managers that I talk to are good team players themselves.
I believe that if project managers demonstrated some team player skills, it might set a good example for the team they manage.
That’s not my project
Project managers often complain about employees who are simply heads-down. They worry about their own tasks and nothing more. Certainly it’s better to have people on the team that have the backs of their fellow team mates.
Project managers, however, have the same tendency as the team members that they complain about. A PM gets focused on his or her own project and tends to ignore other projects within the organization, even if the two are interrelated.
I’ve actually heard PMs claim, “That’s not my project.” When another project’s issues come up. If the PM won’t help his own peers, it’s hard for him to expect his team members to do the same.
PMs can become task masters. They stay on top of things by being on top of their team members. “Are you done with that task?”, “When will you be done?”, and “Why are you behind?”
By nagging and micromanaging, they take away any ownership the team member may have had. The PM isn’t being a team player, and takes away any desire for the team member to be a team player.
The need to be right
Some managers don’t think they’re actually leading unless they are the ones coming up with the ideas. If someone else on the team comes up with an idea that is different from what the project manager has in mind, the PM can always find a way to shoot it down.
This approach to management takes away any form of collaborative spirit from the team members. The team members eventually give up on trying to contribute and only focus on their immediate tasks.
When a project manager discourages collaborative participation from the team, they stifle the very behavior that they want the team members to practice.
Look at it my way
I was once on a project where the PM sent out daily updates on how far developers were behind on fixing defects. He told the team that part of his evaluation criteria from his management was based on the team’s ability to resolve defects in a timely manner.
Anyone who has taken an elementary marketing class understands that you put things in terms of your customer. When you advertise a product, you don’t try to convince the consumer to buy it by telling them about your revenue targets. You provide benefits that the consumer will receive from buying your product.
As a project manager, you can try to convince team members to accomplish something based on the criteria by which management measures you. Or, you can create team incentives that will motivate them to achieve accomplishments for the benefit of the team.
Some project managers avoid confrontation. When someone does something detrimental to the project, they avoid confronting the individual. Instead of immediately sitting down and addressing the issue upfront, they let it slide for a time. Then, a half-joking sideways remark about it is made. Maybe a new policy is emailed to the team, which is intended to stop the behavior.
Some managers don’t like the confrontation of holding people accountable. But people would rather be held accountable. It is much better to have that one awkward moment of confrontation than many awkward moments through passive aggressive behavior.
Having the confrontation of holding people accountable results in team members working to please their manager with quality work. Passive aggressive behaviors cause team members to seek to avoid displeasing their managers.
One of the project manager’s key responsibilities is to remove obstacles. Many see management and leadership as an oversight task. Instead, a project manager should strive to balance being informed with getting involved when necessary. The role requires more leadership than management. This means not only knowing when to get involved, but how to get involved.
Brian Williams became the NBC Nightly News anchor in December of 2004. In February of 2015, he was suspended for six months for incorrectly claiming that he had been in a helicopter that came under fire in 2003.
The incident created a firestorm of debate regarding news reporters, their ability to tell the truth, and viewers’ ability to believe what they hear. Once a news reporter is known to fabricate stories instead of provide facts, the public will question whatever that reporter says in the future.
This issue is not unique to news reporters. Many professions have to be concerned with their credibility. Project managers are just as susceptible to being believed as any other profession.
The science of project management
Many people see project management as a science. The project manager collects estimates and creates a timeline. She tracks the progress of each task from each team member. She monitors and records risks, and develops mitigation strategies for each. She records each project issue and drives them to resolution.
Project management can also be seen as an art. A project manager must be creative in finding solutions to work within defined constraints. The project manager must be a leader. She must understand what drives each project stakeholder and develop strategies to communicate and incentivize each individual uniquely. She must also develop creative approaches to combine all of the statistical metrics to deliver value to the end user.
If a project manager can skillfully combine the art and science of project management, she increases her odds of success exponentially. However, if the project manager can stir in the secret sauce, she increases her chances of success even more.
The secrete sauce of project management is credibility
Like a news reporter, a project manager must ensure that her stakeholders trust her. The most literal part of credibility is believability – do the business stakeholders believe what the project manager says and have confidence that she can do the job?
Confidence. Does she speak with certainty or does she come off as unsure? How often does the business ask a question that she can answer instead of saying, “I’ll have to check on that for you?”
Details. Does the project manager know the nuts and bolts of the product she is delivering? Has she learned just the “surface facts” or has she delved down to know specific bits of information, how they are related and the consequences decisions will have on them?
Respect. Does she treat the stakeholder with respect? Does she show up on time for meetings? Does she listen to the business’s problems and act on them?
Decisiveness. Dovetailing with confidence, can the project manager make decisions and justify them when the stakeholder disagrees? Or does she shrug off decisions and defer to others on the project?
Credibility is the perception of being capable. There are many who believe that Brian Williams should have been fired rather than suspended. That’s because they no longer see him as capable. He no longer has credibility with a large segment of his stakeholders.
If any stakeholders lack the confidence in your ability as a project manager, you will lose credibility with them. Once credibility is lost, it is hard to regain.
What do you do to earn and maintain credibility with your stakeholders?
I once worked for a manager that had very little positive to say. He criticized just about everything anyone ever did. The term “Good job” just wasn’t in his vernacular.
I wrote it off as just an oddity. I was fortunate enough to move on in my career to work for some great managers who were encouraging, positive and motivating.
As a consultant I’ve worked in many different consulting environments. I’ve been exposed to many managers and observed many as an outside 3rd party. I’ve seen amateur managers who demotivate their employees. They limit the success of their employees. By extension they limit their own success.
A negative ratio of management by criticism
I was once on a project where one manager would complement her team. Then she would follow it with a half a dozen complaints about their performance, quality, or some other aspect of their work.
She felt that since she pointed out one positive with all of the negatives, that she was being positive.
There are times when you may need to correct a wrong or give a team member constructive criticism. I’ve always followed the sandwich method. Provide positive feedback about something they do well. Then, you provide constructive criticism about the area you’d like to see improvement. You end with more praise about what they do right. Sandwiching the corrective measures around praise helps the employee to realize that, while they need to improve on something, there is plenty of value that they provide.
The left-handed compliment
Some managers just can’t seem to give praise without ruining it. They may praise the employee. But then they have to add a snide remark about how they almost screwed it up. Or they may say something like, “You really got us out of a jam. But then again, you were the one who got us into the jam in the first place.”
This is something my mother used to call a left-handed compliment. (Full disclosure: I’m left-handed and do not find this characterization to be offensive.) The left-handed compliment makes the subject feel good for just a split second before finding out that they still aren’t up to snuff for the manager.
When you are going to compliment a team member, make it complimentary and don’t take anything away from it.
Some managers shower the team with empty praises with no content. “You guys are rock stars.” And “Great job everybody.” These types of compliments are like donuts for breakfast. The team gets a good feeling temporarily. But it’s a short-term high with no long-term nourishment.
If a manager wants to complement the team and make it meaningful, it should be directed towards actual accomplishments. “You really did a great job on that presentation.” “Your document was exactly what the client was looking for.”
Everybody wants to be a rock star. But they want to know which songs provided the value and made them rock stars. It helps them to know what type of actions to repeat in the future to remain rock stars.
A good manager knows the right balance of cheerleading, complimenting and correction to make his or her words meaningful. Every team member is different and takes compliments and criticism differently. Successful managers get to know each team member well enough to know how to deal with each one to get the best performance out of each one.
He managed his project like it was a finely tuned machine. One in which he could manipulate any aspect he wished with the turn of a gear or the press of a button.
The problem was that it was not a machine, finely tuned or not. It was an organism. A living thing. It breathed as much as the people who served on it.
He didn’t see it. He wanted to know estimate to complete and percentage complete. He tracked statistics and reported metrics. He believed that numbers provided the answer to any question that came up.
It was strictly a science to him.
The Art & Science of Project Management
The reality is that, while many aspects of a project are managed – and need to be managed – leadership is also required. Statistics can show trends. But people are a big piece of a project.
When people are involved, they work better being led than by being manipulated. Members of a project team are human beings with human feelings. They need a leader to motivate them. A leader should praise their successes and encourage them in failure.
The project’s business stakeholders will ask for additional functionality when the scope of a project has already been agreed upon. A rigid, scientific project manager will hold his ground and block any attempt at modifying scope. A leader works with the business stakeholders. If a change is requested, he determines the impact it would have on the project. He communicates it to the business side and works with them to come to a decision that works best for the sponsorship of the project.
When the steering committee requests information on the status of the project, a scientific project manager delivers statistics on earned value or a cost performance index. The steering committee may or may not fully understand the data, but will assume things are fine as long as the graph line is moving in a particular direction.
A leader will answer the question in terms that people can understand. Statistics and metrics may tell part of the story. But the leader has the ability to tell the back story. He can tell them whether the project is behind, why it is behind, and what is being done to bring it back on track.
Checklists vs. Process
Many project managers prefer to manage by checklist and process. Checklists come in handy to help a project manager remember the many details that need to be addressed in a given day or throughout the project.
But like a power-nailer used to build a house, a checklist is one of many tools used to manage a project. It is common for project managers to allow the checklist to drive management of the project. Checked off tasks indicate progress. The more items checked off, the more progress is made.
In reality, activities and responsibilities come up that are not on the checklist. A leader recognizes the additional events and determines how to reprioritize things to allow for the completion of important tasks.
Project managers often like to institute process. If a set of rules can be established for every situation, the project team will always know what to do without the burden of too much thought.
Like checklists and power-nailers, process is a tool. It should be used on a project when applicable. It should not replace allowing the members of the team to think and make decisions for themselves.
Good people should be hired that are smart enough and capable enough to make decisions on their own. If a team member has to follow process or escalate a decision to a manager whenever a situation occurs, the project is affected negatively. Productivity will be reduced, morale will decline, and the likelihood of project success is diminished.
One of the most noticeable influences that leadership has on a project is its impact on productivity. When a project manager sets manipulative management practices aside and focuses on leadership skills, productivity wins.
We already discussed the impact that allowing project team members to make decisions has on productivity. A leader also creates incentives for team members to complete tasks. Instead of ordering, coercing, and threatening team members to complete their tasks “or else,” a leader collaborates with the team to help them complete their tasks.
Instead of providing snippets of tasks with information on a need to know basis, a leader creates a vision of the project. The leader helps the team to visualize successful completion. He makes each team member a stakeholder with a vested interest in the success of the project.
While a project manager who focuses on management is merely a conduit to information, a leader creates relationships. Leaders provide as much information as managers. But the leader also takes the time to develop relationships with every stakeholder on the project. This creates a bond of trust that the manager may never know.
The leader works as a collaborator with the project team members. When a team member faces an obstacle, the leader gets involved to help remove it. The leader is not necessarily the team member’s friend. But he is a trusted member of the team that each team member knows will support the team when support is needed.
The leader develops relationships with the business stakeholders as well. The business team knows that the leader project manager will provide honest visibility. If the project is behind, the leader is transparent about it. When the leader is trusted, the business knows he is telling them the truth, rather than what they want to hear.
The leader as coach and mentor
The leader has more than just completion of the project in mind. A leader takes an interest in the personal development of each team member. He meets with them regularly in one-on-one sessions to make sure that they are growing and learning on the project.
The leader knows that they may work on projects together again in the future. He knows that if they are dissatisfied and not growing, they can easily move on to a job that will provide greater fulfillment.
The leader will mentor each individual team member in a way that is customized for each person’s ability to learn. Project success is based partially on each team member growing throughout the duration of the project.
The managing project manager makes decisions based on metrics, politics, and how it will affect the project budget and deadline. The leader always has those factors in mind, but also considers how the decision will affect other stakeholders and aspects of the project.
If a decision will affect morale, that will be taken into account. If the decision causes changes that will affect the business, they will be considered as well.
The leader project manager knows when it is appropriate to make a decision on his own and when to include others. He knows when the business needs to be involved so that they have buy-in. He knows to collaborate with the team members so that they feel that they are part of the decision.
The leader is more interested in getting the right decision than being the one to make the decision.
Perhaps one of the most contrasting characteristics between the manager and the leader is creativity. A manager sees decision making as largely black and white. Most decisions are “no brainers” because they are largely based on budget and timeline.
The leader looks at things a little more creatively. Instead of rushing to the earliest and easiest decision, the leader considers many options. The leader looks for win-win scenarios rather than zero-sum.
The leader will collaborate in an attempt to negotiate an agreeable solution rather than force a practical decision focused only on his own project objectives.
Probably the most salient skill that makes a leader more successful than a manager is his ability to communicate. The way a project manager writes an email, delivers a status report, facilitates a meeting, and makes a request, are all components of good communication.
If a leader can convey an idea to someone that didn’t understand it before, that is good communication. If a project manager can call a group together for a meeting and lead them in sync to identify and resolve an issue, that is a good communicator.
A strong leader has the ability to communicate in a clear and succinct manner. When a project manager has a one-on-one conversation with someone, he makes eye contact, puts all devices and other distractions aside, and gives that person his full attention.
Listening is often the forgotten communication skill. People are judged on their communication skills based on what is coming out. But the way they listen and process what other people communicate is a critical aspect of communication.
Project management is a difficult job. There is a myriad of small details to coordinate, budget considerations, and deadlines to meet. It is easy to fall into the rut of focusing on the scientific aspects to meet all of the tangible goals. But the project manager that understands the importance of leadership in project management produces more successful projects and more successful people in the long run.
How well do you focus on the importance of leadership in project management?