Communicating Your Style - Project Management

Have you ever experienced a situation in your personal or work life where you found yourself saying, "If I just knew what was happening with this situation, I'd know what action to take?" Suppose you're up for a big promotion. You've been dying to hear the final outcome of the interview process, but nothing's forthcoming. You don't know whether to book that upcoming business trip because you may be in your new position by the time you need to go on the trip. What you are looking for is information, some kind of communication from the hiring manager to help you determine which course of action to take.

Or imagine that you're a stakeholder on a project. You haven't heard from the project manager in weeks, so you assume everything is progressing well. One rainy afternoon (isn't it always raining in the movies when something bad is about to happen?) the project manager shows up at your door, head in hand. "Uh-oh," you think, "something's up." The project is in big trouble and this is the first anyone beside the project manager has heard of it. Imagine how frustrated you are. All along you've believed the project is on track, and now the project manager's telling you the problems are so insurmountable that the project is in jeopardy. I don't recommend running your next project in this manner, as you may not have many new assignments coming your way after a project blunder like this one.

Clear and honest communication could have prevented this situation from happening. It may be true that the problem is one that is insurmountable and is a potential project killer. But informing the stakeholders of project status should occur throughout the project so that no one is taken by surprise. If the project manager had been communicating with the stakeholders all along in the above scenario, the stakeholders or senior managers could have helped the project manager by working on a solution or workaround to the problem. But if they don't know anything about the project status, it's difficult for them to come to the rescue at the eleventh hour. It doesn't bode well for the project manager's future employment endeavors either. Keep the stakeholders informed and be honest about the project status; don't sugarcoat it.

There is almost no way you can communicate too much as long as the information is clear and focused. You can communicate incorrectly, poorly, or not at all, but almost never too much. Sharing the right information with the right people is never out of place. There are lots of examples of poor communication. One of my pet peeves—I'll bet it's yours too—is broadcast e-mail to everyone in the company on every single topic related to the project. Ugh, don't do that!

Some estimates show that as much as 90 percent of a project manager's time is spent communicating. Based on my own personal experience in project management, I'd say this is true. You'll be conducting team meetings, writing reports, generating documents, holding progress meetings, informing stakeholders about issues and problems, helping to resolve problems, and negotiating for resources, just to name a few.

Exchanging Information

Communication, in a nutshell, is the exchange of information. You have something (the message) to tell me, and I (the receiver) have something I need to hear. As the sender and receiver, we each have a part to play in the exchange. In addition, the form the communication takes, as well as the way information gets from the sender to the receiver, also has an impact on the exchange.

sender

The person or group formulating the content of the message.

receiver

The person or group the message is intended for.

Communication Methods

The message is at the center of the communication exchange, and the content can take various forms. The two primary forms of communication are verbal and written. We might exchange information verbally with the spoken word in meetings, on the telephone, or in face-to-face situations, or we can use written forms such as e-mail, memos, or reports. Depending on the circumstances, both verbal and written communication might be formal or informal exchanges.

Verbal Communication

Project managers should generally take an informal approach when speaking with stakeholders individually. The same is true when communicating one-on-one with project team members. Keeping these types of communication informal makes you appear approachable and friendly. This openness can come in handy later in the project when there are problems that team members might be afraid to report. If they've had a history of face-to-face communications with you that are open and easy-going, they're much more likely to share problems later on. If they feel that every communication with you is so rigid and formal that they're wondering when the ax is going to fall, you're not likely to find out critical project information until it's too late.

When it comes to project team meetings and project status meetings, you should use a more formal approach. This helps to keep order during the meeting, and the formal structure of the communication conveys a sense of importance and seriousness.

Note:Project managers should conduct project team meetings and do status reporting using a formal, consistent communication style.

Written Communication

Written communication is usually more formal than verbal communication, with the exception of some e-mail. E-mail can take on the tone and form of casual conversation. I recommend that you limit this type of e-mail as it can quickly pass over into the noise category. Keep e-mail brief and informative, not chatty. And never, ever write something in an e-mail message that you wouldn't want everyone in the entire company to know!

Written communication is a useful tool when you need to convey complex, detailed information. If extensive instructions are necessary or detailed explanations are needed for certain project activities, use the written form of communication. A contract is a form of written communication, as are letters, memos, invoices, and books. The advantage of using written communication is that complex information can be conveyed in a detailed manner so that it's easier for the receiver to understand. Written messages force attention to the thought behind the message, whereas verbal communication does not. The reader can also go back over the material as many times as needed for clarification. All of your project documentation, project plans, and status reports should be written, so brush up on those business-writing skills if need be.

Using language is one way to get a message from the sender to the receiver. Language is an example of how messages are encoded, or put into a format the receiver will understand. Receivers then decode the message in order to comprehend what the sender is saying. However, language is only one method of transmitting information. Pictures, graphs, charts, and videos are examples of how senders might transmit information to receivers in visual form, or senders might use a combination of visual tools and language. Part of good communication is knowing which tool, or transmitting method, to use in a given the situation. As a general rule, informal communication can take the form of verbal messages, while complex information such as project plans should take the written form. When in doubt, put it in writing.

Senders

The sender's responsibility is to make certain the information is clear and precise. They should also make sure the information is presented in such a way that the receiver will understand it. Equally important is making certain you're sending the right information to the right people.

Suppose you're working with a vendor on your current project. Some minor issue has come up regarding a shipment of telecommunications equipment. The late shipment will have no impact on the final project schedule because this activity is not critical for completion of the project. Now the question is, should this information be broadcast to the entire project team and all the stakeholders? The answer is, of course, no. However, the project team members who have a part in this activity need to know about the delayed shipment. And if you need the assistance of the telecomm manager (a functional manager) for this activity, then you should inform him that the shipment is going to be delayed and what your expectations are regarding the new arrangements. But does the VP of Marketing need to know about this just because she's a stakeholder of this project? Probably not. This is what I mean by sending the right information to the right people. Anything else is just noise.

Back in the pre-cable TV days, stations used to go off the air for several hours during the night. When the station signed off for the evening, your TV screen turned into a snowstorm of magnificent proportions. Along with the snow, a steady scratchy noise blasted out of the TV speaker. If you were unlucky enough to fall asleep with the TV on and then the station signed off for the night, the blast of static would come on so loud it would wake you from the dead. Static is noise. And information that's sent to someone who doesn't need it is nothing more than noise in their already busy day. If no usable information is being transmitted to a particular receiver, it's just noise, but it's so distracting that it grabs their attention. If you continue sending very much noise, the receiver eventually learns to ignore it and might end up missing something important or ignoring it altogether, like the boy who cried "wolf!"

Note:Be a noise reducer. Aim the information you're distributing to the right audience.

Examine the information and the impact it has on the situation you're relaying to the various parties involved, and make smart decisions about who should get what information. If you're in doubt or find yourself wondering whether stakeholder X really needs to know, err on the side of sending them the information. If you get a nastygram back about cluttering their inbox with unnecessary information, you'll know next time that they aren't interested in receiving this kind of information. Or better yet, if you are able, just ask them if they'd like to see the information before sending it to them.

Receiving uninformative communication is not the only form of noise. Other examples of noise include things such as

  • Distractions during verbal communication
  • Interruptions
  • Disruptions in meetings
  • Personal issues that interfere with a person's ability to absorb the message
  • Stress
  • Organizational issues

I'm sure you could add more to this list. Remember that when you're sending written messages, you should reduce the noise by sending the information to the right people. When your message is verbal, be sure to eliminate or control the distractions so everyone can remain focused on the actual message. The rule for all communication is to keep the message clear and concise. If the receivers have to dig for the gems that you've buried in a lot of extraneous information, they may pass and miss the main point of the communication.

Receivers

Senders use language or some other form of transmission to frame the message and send it to the receivers, who then decode it. It's the job of the receivers to make sure they understand what's been communicated. While the sender should make sure the message is clear and well written, the receivers are responsible for understanding the content of the message and making sure they have all the information they need to act on the communication. If there is a misunderstanding or something doesn't seem clear, receivers should ask the sender to clarify what is meant or enhance the communication to make it easier to understand.

Receivers filter the information they receive in many ways. In other words, their own personal perceptions, the emotional state they're in when they hear the message, or cultural differences between sender and receiver have an effect on the way they interpret the message. Senders should keep this in mind when preparing their communications so that they can make the information as clear as possible. Here are a few of the ways receivers filter information:

  • Knowledge of the subject
  • Personal perceptions
  • Cultural influences
  • Personal values
  • Language ability
  • Emotions and attitudes
  • Stress
  • Geographic location

Receivers should attempt to interpret the information sent to them at face value whenever possible. This is especially true when working with team members or stakeholders who might be from other cultures or countries. What is a natural, customary manner of speech or writing style for them may seem brash, abrupt, or even rude to you. Keep these differences in mind before reading between the lines.

If the message is cluttered with noise and extraneous information, ask the sender to clarify it. Chances are, if you don't understand, others do not either. And remember, as the project manager your communication is a model to others and should be free of noise, clear, and to the point.

A Little of Both

The project manager is both a sender and receiver of information. The below table highlights the things you should remember when sending and receiving communication.

Table Sending and receiving communication

Senders and receivers are equally important in the communication exchange. Senders are responsible for sending clear, precise communication. If you find that your message was misunderstood, go back and examine the message content. Was it written clearly? Did it convey what you meant? Were there too many technical terms for the audience for which you intended this message? If the message was delivered verbally, maybe the delivery of the message—your body language or facial expression—said something that the words didn't, and others drew conclusions you didn't intend. Be on the lookout for these symptoms, and stop them before they have a chance to adversely affect your message.

The receivers have the responsibility of making sure they understand what was communicated and for making certain they have all the information they need. Project managers spend the majority of their time communicating, so keep in mind both of these roles when preparing or receiving your next message.

A lot of information is exchanged between the project manager and the project team. I recommend giving everyone on the project team a copy of this chart. Take it along to the first team meeting to explain what's expected of them when they're in these roles.

Active Listening

Active listening means more than just hearing what was said or reading what was written. Active listening involves your powers of observation as well. Let's say you run into one of your team members, Henry Lu, in the lunchroom. You exchange the normal greetings, and then you remember that Henry is waiting on a business analyst to answer some questions before he can proceed with his scheduled activity. You ask Henry about it and he replies, "Oh, they're working on it." He casts his eyes aside when he says this and his body language tells you something different. You probe a little further with some clarifying questions: When did you speak with them last? Did they give you a date? Henry spills the beans. The analyst came unglued when Henry asked her for the information. Henry is gun-shy about prodding the analyst any further since the attack was pretty uncomfortable.

If you hadn't practiced active listening in this situation, you might not know the real story. When Henry's deadline came and went, you'd be concerned with Henry's performance and not necessarily thinking there was another cause. Since you found out early, you're able to intervene—using your superb powers of communication—and resolve the problem. Queue up those powers of observation and be on the lookout for nonverbal clues lurking under the surface.

Tip:Active listening will tell you more than what the words alone convey.

Listening involves interpreting the information you're hearing. We often think we're listening when we really are not. We're planning our next sentence, thinking about dinner later that night, forming the speech we're going to give to the boss justifying our reasons for a much-deserved raise, or thinking a host of other thoughts at that moment. Noise, such as phones ringing, interruptions, or the boss walking by, can prevent us from listening as well. And don't forget our own personal perceptions or biases. Even our opinions of the person talking or sending the information can prevent us from listening or understanding the message the way it was intended.

Listening Techniques

Listening is a critical skill for all project managers. You'll receive input from everyone involved on the project, from team members to stakeholders to the final customer. You could have potential project disasters on your hands if there is a discrepancy between the message being sent and what you thought you heard. Listening well is as important as clearly conveying your own messages to others. Below is a list of things you can do to improve your listening skills and help you avoid potential pitfalls on your next project.

Show genuine interest: Let the speaker know you're interested by nodding in agreement, asking questions when appropriate, and letting them know ahead of time that you're looking forward to hearing what they have to say.

Let others have a turn:One person dominating the meeting or conversation is usually not effective unless you're in a large lecture hall. This scenario will not go over well at stakeholder meetings or team meetings. Limit the amount of time you spend speaking, and give others a chance to participate.

Eliminate the noise: Keep distractions to a minimum. Close the door when you're having a team meeting. Refrain from rushing to answer the phone when someone is in your office. Give them your undivided attention. Make sure the information you're sharing is appropriate for the audience.

Refrain from interrupting others:Interrupting others sends the message that what they have to say is not important and isn't worth the time to listen to. You can't expect others to listen to you when your actions tell them they're not important enough to hear out.

Ask clarifying questions:This is a great technique to make certain you've interpreted the information correctly. Ask questions that get the sender to elaborate their main points and to verify that what you're thinking matches up to their intent.

Paraphrase what you heard:This one goes hand-in-hand with asking clarifying questions. Periodically rephrase what you heard and tell the sender in your own words what you think they're saying.

Maintain eye contact:Look at the speaker when they're speaking. This helps put them at ease and lets them know you're interested in what they have to say.

How Many Connections Are There?

There's a party game where all the participants stand in a big circle and the starter leans over and whispers something to the person next to them. That person then whispers what they heard to the next person and so on all around the circle. When the message gets to the last person, they state the message out loud for the group to hear. Laughter erupts from the group because the message the last person heard is usually very different from the message the starter of the game whispered to the first person.

This party game illustrates the importance of communicating clearly and using active listening techniques. In all fairness, you can't ask clarifying questions during the game, but I think you see the point. The party game also illustrates the impact that the number of people in the communication chain has on the message and its interpretation. The more people passing the message back and forth, the more places for misunderstanding and misinterpretation to occur.


The circles, or nodes, are the participants, and the lines between the nodes illustrate the lines of communication between the participants. This project has five participants. That means that there are 10 lines of communication between the five team members. It also means that there are potentially 10 places to introduce errors in the message. The bigger your group, the more lines of communication, and hence the more room for error.

lines of communication

The number of channels between the people involved in the communication exchange.

You could draw a figure similar to mine to figure out how many lines of communication there are in your group, but that could get messy if you have more than six or seven people on your project. There is a simpler way. Here's formula to determine the number of lines of communication:

(n×(n - 1)) ÷ 2

If you plug in the number of participants in our project for the variable n, you'll see that there are 10 lines of communication:

(5×(5 - 1))÷2 =10

As I mentioned previously, the more folks you have on the team, the higher the number of lines of communication between them. Six participants give you 15 lines of communication, eight participants give you 28 lines, and 10 participants give you a whopping 45 lines of communication. The more people you're communicating with, and who are communicating with one another, the clearer the communication should be. I'd also recommend using formal written methods of communication when you have messages or information to send to this many people. If you deliver the message verbally and they all get to talking among themselves about what you really meant, you'll likely end up having your team on a completely different ball field than what you planned.

Ten Tips for Communicating Effectively

This section wraps up our formal discussion on the topic of communication. Keep in mind that good communication is the underlying theme of good project management techniques. If you've mastered excellent communication skills, then you can succeed in almost any project in any industry.
I've known project managers who have worked in industries where they've had little technical or hands-on experience and have brought multimillion dollar projects to a successful close. Their ability to communicate effectively, interact with team members, and manage the project is what counted.
You don't have to be a programming expert, for example, to successfully lead an information technology project to completion. As a project manager, you're not expected to be the head technician; you're expected to manage and lead the project to a successful conclusion. You'll have expert technical folks on your team who can assist with estimating and defining specific technical tasks. Make sure you interact regularly with all your team members and especially the technical experts. Require your team members to provide you with updates, and always ask to see their accomplishments. If you're a good communicator and interact well with your team members, you'll likely lead the project to a successful conclusion.

Since your biggest job as the project manager is communicating, and it takes up 90 percent of your time, your single-most-important skill is excellent communication. Let's take a look at 10 ways to communicate effectively:

  1. Deliver the right information to the right people at the right time. Unnecessary information is distracting, and if it's not needed by the receiver, it's simply junk mail, or noise, that's cluttering up their day. Target your communication to the right audience.
  2. Use proper e-mail etiquette. Keep your messages brief and to the point and send the e-mail only to the folks who really need to know its content. See tip number one.
  3. Paraphrase what you think you heard the speaker say for clarification. This tells the speaker that you're really listening and that you're interested in understanding the information correctly.
  4. Ask pointed questions. This tells the speaker that you heard what was said but need more information to fully understand the meaning. It's also useful for clarifying what was said.
  5. Use proper voicemail etiquette. Leave short, descriptive messages. Speak clearly and leave your phone number twice so the listener doesn't have to back up the message to get it all.
  6. Eliminate noise. Noise is distracting and can interfere with the communication at hand. Focus on the person you're meeting with and give them your undivided attention.
  7. Practice active listening. Active listening includes such things as making eye contact, nodding to show you're paying attention and interested, asking questions, and being observant of nonverbal messages.
  8. Make your messages clear and to the point. Eliminate technical jargon and industry-speak in your messages whenever possible. Use the following public speaking technique to help keep the message clear and drive home your main points: Start by telling your audience what you're going to tell them, then tell them, and then tell them what you just told them.
  9. Combine communication methods. Use visual aids when you're speaking, and include graphs and charts in your written materials. Bringing together two or three communication methods is very effective in getting people to remember what you communicated.
  10. Be patient when communicating complex ideas or technical information. Sometimes you have to get into the technical aspects of a situation. When this occurs, be patient with your listeners and go the extra mile to explain what you mean. You know exactly what you mean, but your listener may have little or no experience with the technical issues, and that'll require extra patience on your part.

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