Project Management: Communication
We can’t be an effective project manager if we’re not able to articulate what we need our project team to do. And we’re not only going to be communicating with our team, we’ll need to communicate with everyone associated with our project, internal or external, technical or functional, junior or senior.
In a recent PMI Pulse of the Profession report, it was revealed that the most crucial success factor in project management is effective communication with all stakeholders. The research finds that effective communication leads to more successful projects. Also, it’s been estimated by the Project Management Institute that a project manager’s job is some 90 percent communication, hence this comprehensive blog.
Importantly, as project managers we need the confidence and the communication skills to speak up when it’s necessary. The sponsor wants a ridiculous variation? It’s our job to explain why we think it’s ridiculous, and that they can have it if they want but the implications would be X, Y, and Z. Say the CEO now wants everything delivered by Friday. When our team just spent a month working overtime to hit the current milestone, we know we’ll risk a mutiny if we push them harder. We’ll have to explain why that isn’t possible with our current resources. We may need to have some tough discussions with our team too. It’s easy to talk about hitting milestones, delivering outcomes, and creating awesome stuff. The hard part comes when we make mistakes and have to own up to them, when we need to say “no” to people, and when we have to challenge decisions and report failures.
To be effective communicators we need to express our ideas and expectations clearly, and listen attentively to our team members, stakeholders and our sponsors. The ability to listen is a particularly powerful skill in project management, and one that is both undervalued and difficult to come by. Taking the time to listen to our team members can help build trust and accountability. It can also help us identify in a timely way risks and solutions to problems. More specifically, we as project managers must:
- Acknowledge and accept the need for effective communication.
- Instil stakeholder commitment by promoting open and proactive dialogue.
- Present complex issues clearly, credibly and effectively.
- Agree on who communicates what, to whom, when and how.
- Handle media and public enquiries appropriately.
- Answer questions with awareness and sensitivity.
- Use appropriate communication methods.
- Spend time listening to what others have to say.
- Be patient and not interrupt others before they have finished.
- Think about what is being said before responding.
- Avoid making assumptions or jumping to conclusions.
- Ask the right questions to enrich the discussion.
- Be aware of what is not being communicated and why.
- Run successful meetings and prepare useful reports.
As a most important soft skill, communication is required to express our thoughts, explain complex ideas, and work successfully with others. It is the means by which information and instructions are exchanged. Successful communication occurs when the received meaning is the same as the transmitted meaning. Poor communication can lead to misunderstood requirements, unclear goals, alienated stakeholders, ineffective plans, and many other factors that will cause our project to fail.
The communication process is complex and error prone. There is noise and interference every step of the way. Our thoughts and ideas are often more sophisticated than the words we can use to describe them. In fact, words limit us. Words are ambiguous and can have secret or multiple meanings. We think we are using the same language but often we’re not. We’re sloppy in our choice of words and imprecise in expressing ourselves. We know what we mean and so we make a lot of assumptions about what the other person knows. We ignore ambiguity and imprecision. We make errors of fact and remember incorrectly. Even if we are precise in expressing ourselves, others are imprecise in their understanding. People may hear only what they want to hear, or what they need to hear, rather than what we intend. We’re muddled in our thinking and disinclined to listen and more inclined to talk. Frankly, it’s a miracle any effective communication takes place at all.
Communication transmission takes many forms. It can be written, verbal, non-verbal, active, passive, formal, informal, conscious or subconscious, and must be tailored to convey our meaning as accurately as possible to our target audience. This is why we project managers should have a communication plan. For example, a project status report is typically designed to update recipients on project progress in terms of scope, schedule and budget, milestones achieved, current issues and risks, and change requests. Our methodology’s default status report may need to be customised. This report might for example be submitted by email each week or forthnight from us project managers to our project sponsor and other key stakeholders.
There are many factors that affect communication. Cultural background and transient features, such as mood, current environment and team dynamics, create a moving target for the communicator. The effective communicator is sensitive to the prevailing atmosphere and words the message and method of delivery accordingly. Ideally our language should be neutral, clear, objective and avoid unnecessary emotive terms. However, there are also some occasions when emotion and body language can help generate a desired effect.
There are many barriers to effective communication. These can be physical, as in the team location or the working environment. They can be cultural, arising perhaps from lack of a common language or understanding across disciplines. Such barriers can lead to negative perceptions and related emotions such as envy, fear, mistrust and suspicion. More and more communication is electronic that can cause several problems. Also, there’s a lot of miscommunication because people are too busy to listen properly or they jump to conclusions, and often we don’t get enough time with the people who we must communicate with.
The development of effective communication skills relies, in part, on being confident, and believing there is value in what we have to communicate. So developing confidence is a key part of enhancing this soft skill. Here are some other important communication requirements:
- Know that people communicate differently. And if we learn those differences we can massage our message until it’s understood as we intend it to be. That means learning the common communication and thinking styles, but also recognising what style we use naturally. Once we have identified other people’s styles, then we can bridge the gap and speak their language.
- Build a safe environment. Communications need to be heard, and people are less likely to hear if there’s a lot of “noise”, whether that’s due to an emotionally cold climate or one that is heated and stressful. So, build trust, respect and stay open to those who think differently. Encourage them to share their opinions.
- Acknowledge other viewpoints. It’s not enough to let others speak their minds; we have to actively listen to them and acknowledge their viewpoints, whether we agree with them or not. They should be part of our process, because we never know from who the next bright idea will originate. Also, if we’re dismissive of certain people on our team, they’re less likely to listen to us.
- Talk about the common vision or goal. If people are not in agreement or are offering perspectives that don’t align with the overall purpose of our project, it’s important to impress upon the team that we’re all working together. There might be differing opinions on how to get there, but the endpoint is shared by all.
- Build the project goal. In order for our team to understand the commonality of the project goal, we have to make it evident. Be clear and precise, so there is no uncertainty surrounding actions to realise the goal. Consider developing a “SMART” goal that is also measurable, clear, and written down.
- Have a purpose for every communication. Communication is best when it stays on message, so don’t get side-tracked. Therefore, establish what we want everyone to know before they leave our meeting or start whatever task they’re assigned. State what we need from others, and know what we can do to contribute and help.
- Be positive. If we can foster an environment that is positive, then team members are more likely to listen and will work better and harder to achieve what we set out for them. We can work hard and still have fun while getting things done.
While verbal and written communication skills are important for us project managers, research has shown that body language makes up a large part of our daily interpersonal communication. We are communicating, even when we are not speaking. It has been suggested that body language accounts for at least half of our communication.
Put simply, body language is the unspoken element of communication that often reveals our true attitudes, feelings and emotions. When we are able to “read” these signs, we can use body language to our advantage. For example, it can help us to understand the complete message of what someone is trying to say to us, and to enhance our awareness of people’s reactions to what we say and do. We can also use it to adjust our own body language so that we appear more positive, engaging and approachable. Some common examples are:
A person’s overall demeanor is far more telling than a single gesture viewed in isolation. While it may be tempting to pick apart signals one by one, it’s important to look at these nonverbal signals in relation to verbal communication and other nonverbal signals.
It can be frustrating, but every discipline has its peculiar terminology. However, there’s no total agreement about project management terminology, evidenced by the different definitions given in the PMBOK, and with Prince2 and Agile methodologies. For example, phase gates represent milestone decision points, but might also be referred to as phase or stage boundaries, investment gates, review points, phase exits, off-ramps, exit points, or kill points.
We project managers need to be careful when communicating particularly with our clients and external stakeholders (people or groups outside our organisation who have a stake or interest in our project), some of whom could find our use of specialised project management terminology patronising or even alienating. It’s seen as linguistic tribalism. Such language can be annoying and even intimidating if we’re not in the tribe. The use of this language might also cement unfortunate stereotypes. Project managers are sometimes cited as serial offenders. While our project management colleagues may appreciate and even be impressed with our command of the jargon, gobbledygook and acronyms of our profession, many of our clients are not.
Let’s face it – at some stage in our project management careers we’re going to have to give a verbal presentation. Whether it’s explaining the use of new software to our team or announcing project results to the company board, when the time comes we want to be confident and prepared. It can help us progress our career and give us a reputation for being a reliable, engaging presenter. Whether we’re called on to present often or just on an ad hoc basis, it pays to improve and develop our presentation skills. Here are some tips about common types of presentation:
- Informational. These presentations exist, as the name suggests, to present information and ensure that team members and stakeholders are aware of certain policies, procedures, products and the regulations or laws that govern them. They don’t necessarily require any action to be taken by the audience, but an informational presentation needs to relay material in a manageable, compelling way.
- Instructional. A presentation that is instructional needs to be carefully created and delivered, as it requires action from those we’re presenting to. Being specific with detail and breaking the presentation down into memorable, actionable steps is usually helpful. They’re often accompanied by supporting documents and resources that can be drawn on after the presentation concludes.
- Persuasive. We might be called on to deliver a persuasive presentation where we need to pitch our product or project to secure investment or a variation. These presentations usually require comparative data, visual representations and compelling delivery.
- Inspiring. Presentations that need to inspire can be the one of the most challenging to do well. Their messages must be poignant and lasting, and they need to be accompanied by an engaging delivery to make a true impact on the audience. They also need to inspire people to action. Our presentation skills typically improve every time we present, and our confidence will grow too. To fast track this development, we might employ these ideas:
- Research. Research means knowing the content or information we’re delivering, but also knowing our audience, anticipating their concerns and questions, and understanding the environment or space we’re presenting in. Being able to tailor our presentation to these elements will strengthen it and reduce unknowns – a common source of presentation nerves.
- Practise, practise, practise. If we’ve got a presentation coming up, whether it’s to our project team, a selection of managers or the whole organisation, we’ll always feel better if we’re well-practised. Ask friends, family or colleagues to listen to our presentation in the days before, inviting their questions and feedback. Focus on delivering our words at a manageable pace, breathing normally, while maintaining regular eye contact with our audience.
- Arrive early. Get to the location of our presentation before everyone else does, and allow time to set up any data show and other equipment we will use, and read through our notes. Our physical and mental readiness is as important as the content.
- Weave in stories. Including stories and anecdotes in our presentation will ensure it’s unique, engaging and relevant. Whether we draw on our own experiences, use a colleague’s story or draw on something published and well-known, stories can help personalise the content and make it more memorable.
- Don’t leave it all to PowerPoint. If we’re bringing slides, less is usually more. Keep the graphs and charts simple, using them to summarise points rather than explain them in detail. Pictures can be a powerful way to reinforce our key messages, but make sure they are readable and don’t distract from our messages.
- Be gracious. Being brash or arrogant probably won’t gel well with our audience, nor will it help us get our information across. Be polite, considerate and patient, no matter what the audience attitude, size or seniority, invite questions, and thank them for their time and attention at the conclusion.
- Feedback One of the worst things we can do when providing feedback is let our emotions come into play. Effective feedback shouldn’t be about the person, but about the action. And when we’re making suggestions, make suggestions about actions, not about the person. For example, rather than say “The presentation was too long and boring”, better feedback might be “Instead of ten examples on each slide, which distract from the main message, you might limit it to one or two examples per slide.” This way, the presentation is more succinct and impactful and we’ll be able to reduce our presentation time from say 20 to 10 minutes. Remember to always keep our feedback meaningful. Praising effort is another trap. We may think we’re making things better by putting a positive spin on the situation, but complimenting effort after a failure not only makes people feel stupid, but also leaves them feeling incapable of reaching their goal. Keep our feedback action-oriented and informational. And most of all, keep it about the process and about whatever the people involved have capacity to change. With all the focus on critical feedback and changing negative behaviours, it’s easy to forget that effective feedback is just as much about reinforcing and promoting good behaviours that our team members show. It can be all too easy to assume someone knows when they’ve done a good job, but the simple act of recognising a job-well-done can have huge returns. However, we need to remember to be timely and specific about what we are praising someone for. Without being explicit we’re leaving them to interpret what they think they’re being praised for. To get someone to really change their behaviours, they need to respect what we’re saying and trust that we have their best interests at heart. This all starts with a willingness to hear them out. After we’ve given our feedback, ask them questions that show we’re open to understanding what happened and want to nurture a supportive environment, including: “How do you see the situation? How might you do things differently next time? What do you think worked, and what could have gone better?” Crafting and delivering effective feedback is an important skill for continuous improvement.
The key is that our feedback be focused on the future. We’re not blaming for what went wrong or harping on about the mistake, but rather explaining the facts of what happened. Facts can’t be argued, meaning emotions won’t get in the way. And when we’re making suggestions, make suggestions about actions, not about the person. Associated with feedback is the need for our team to capture the good and bad in a Lessons Learned Log in which recording is an on-going effort throughout the life of our project. Importantly, we all learn from failures as well as successes, but better these incidents be recorded at the time rather than attempt to recall them at project closure. By not learning from project failures we are doomed to repeat similar mistakes. However, if we want team members to record and benefit from the positive and negative lessons they have learned, this record must not be used to punish or criticise. Rather contributions should be welcomed. Yet lessons learned remains one of the most difficult processes to embed. We are somewhat great at documenting lessons but sharing them or, more importantly, learning from them? Not so much, I’m afraid.
An important component of communication is asking questions. It may seem like us project managers are supposed to be the ones with all the answers. But thinking like that may prevent us from asking the questions we should. “Question everything” Albert Einstein famously said. Yet unlike journalists and doctors, who are taught how to ask questions, few project managers think of questioning as a skill that can be honed or consider how their own answers to questions could make conversations more productive.
Done properly, questioning can spurs learning and the exchange of ideas, fuel innovation and performance improvement, build rapport and trust among team members, and mitigate project risk by uncovering otherwise unforeseen pitfalls and hazards. But most of us don’t ask enough questions, nor do we always pose our questions in an optimal way.
The first step for us to become a better questioner is simply to ask more questions. Of course, the sheer number of questions is not the only factor that influences the quality of a conversation. Type, tone, sequence, and framing also matter, as do the following guidelines:
- Follow-up questions. There are four types of questions – introductory questions (“How are you?”), mirror questions (“I’m fine. How are you?”), switch questions (ones that change the topic entirely), and follow-up questions (ones that solicit more information). Follow-up questions signal to our conversation partner that we are listening, care, and want to know more.
- Open-ended questions. No one likes to feel interrogated, and closed questions can force answerers into a yes-or-no corner. Open-ended questions can counteract that effect and thus can be particularly useful in uncovering information or learning something new.
- Question sequence and tone. Generally people are more willing to reveal sensitive information when questions are asked in order of their intrusiveness. Also, people are often more forthcoming when we ask questions in a casual way, rather than use an official tone. Of course, there will be times when an off-the-cuff approach is inappropriate. But in general, an overly formal tone is likely to inhibit people’s willingness to share information.
- Group dynamics. Conversational dynamics can change profoundly depending on whether we’re chatting one-on-one with someone or talking in a group. Not only is the willingness to answer questions affected simply by the presence of others, but also members of a group tend to follow one another’s lead. For this reason, stakeholders who are not in favour of our project are often better talked with one- on-one rather than in front of others.
- Deciding what to share. There is no rule of thumb for how much, or what type of information we should disclose. Indeed, transparency is such a powerful bonding agent that sometimes it doesn’t matter what is revealed – even information that reflects poorly on us can draw our conversational partners closer. One strategy to avoid answering is deflecting, or answering a probing question with another question or a joke. Answerers might use this approach to lead the conversation in a different direction.
If our project team is unwilling to risk a question for fear of upsetting the apple cart, we’ve set conditions for project failure. A sure way to prevent this is to ask lots of questions and encourage others to ask questions too. The next time we get with our project team, maybe our thinking shouldn’t focus exclusively on having the right answers, but on asking the right questions. In summary, here are some suggestions about questions:
- – Know our purpose and what information we need.
- – Plan our questions and their sequence.
- – Start with open-ended questions to get the conversation underway.
- – Follow general questions with more specific ones.
- – Speak the language of our listeners, using words that they are familiar with.
- – Avoid leading questions – those that suggest the answer.
- – Avoid multiple questions. Ask one question at a time.
- – Don’t interrupt answers to our questions.
- – One of the best ways to mentor others is to ask good questions.
People often associate good communicators with excellent public speaking. But the best communicators do something that many others fail at. They listen. Yes, good communication, from the project manager’s perspective, is mostly about effective listening. The chances are that most of us have few problems conveying our messages, either verbally or in writing. The obstacle can be an inability to “hear”, especially those comments that challenge our own thinking. Evidence, which doesn’t support our own point of view, can often be dismissed. Yet projects are often pioneering endeavours that stand to benefit from new ideas. We project managers want new ideas to flourish. Thus, some expressions that we might avoid are:
- “We’ve never done it that way before. I’m sure it won’t work.”
- “We tried that once before and it failed.”
- “Good idea, but this project is different.”
- “Hey, someone else would have already suggested that if it was any good.”
- “That’s fine in theory, but I’m sure it won’t work in practice.”
- “Sorry, can’t do that. It’s against company policy.”
- “We’ve done it this way for 20 years. This is not the time to risk a change.”
- “What idiot thought that up?”
- “It’s not in the budget.”
Some useful listening behaviours are described briefly here:
- Practise listening. Make our conversations with our friends, our colleagues, our family, and the people who serve us in the places where we buy, a chance for improving our listening skills—for sharpening our inner ear.
- Switch off our own problems. This isn’t always easy but personal fears and worries, not connected with the conversation, form a barrier that can block the speaker’s message. Relax!
- Focus our mind on what is being said. Practise shutting out distractions. Avoid disruptions. Stop reading. Stop writing. Leave our cellphone alone. It’s hard to concentrate, but essential.
- Listen for ideas – not just words. We need to get the whole picture, not just isolated bits and pieces. English is not everyone’s first language.
- Take notes. Selective note taking will help us remember key points. But trying to note down everything that is said can result in things being missed.
- Ask questions. If we don’t understand something, or feel we may have missed a point, clear it up immediately or it may embarrass us later.
- Limit our own talking. We can’t talk and listen properly at the same time. “Listen” contains the same letters as “silent”.
- Don’t interrupt. A pause, even a long pause, doesn’t always mean someone has finished saying everything they wish to say.
- Limit interjections. An occasional “yes” or “I see” shows the speaker we are still listening, but don’t overdo it or interrupt unnecessarily.
- Practise empathy. Their needs are important and we will understand a conversation and retain it better if we keep the speaker’s situation in mind. Empathy is the ability to see things from their point of view.
- Prepare in advance. Remarks and questions prepared in advance, when possible, free our mind for listening.
- Listen for overtones. We can learn a great deal about the speaker from the way things are said and to the way they react to the things we say.
- React to ideas – not the person. Don’t allow irritation at emotive or silly words or mannerisms to distract us.
- Predict or speculate about what is being said. Get involved. But be flexible and open-minded. Try to guess what is going to be said next. But remember not to let our own assumptions supersede what is really said.
- Think about the purposes of what is being said. Why is it being said? What are the real concerns and issues?
- Look at the speaker. Good listeners give the speaker their undivided attention. This doesn’t mean staring at them, just making periodic eye contact. This makes the speaker more comfortable (people tend to mistrust people who don’t look at them) and also contributes to the transmission of the total message. Much of a message tends to be conveyed nonverbally, through voice tone, facial expression, and body posture. All of these are clues to the underlying message. Being responsive and attentive to the speaker is flattering, helps create rapport, improves communication, and improves their self-esteem.
- Use thought speed. Because we think much faster than we speak, poor listeners use the intervening time to daydream, especially with slow speakers. Good listeners also listen between the lines for further clues to what the speaker means to convey.
- Reflect back. Paraphrase and restate the message as feedback to which the sender can respond. Let them know that their feelings are also recognised. Test our understanding.
- Don’t annoy the speaker. We may cause the other person to conceal ideas, emotions and attitudes by arguing. Be aware of the effect we have on the speaker. Adapt to the speaker.
- Don’t discriminate. Give them a fair hearing. Don’t discriminate on grounds of gender, marital status, religious beliefs, race, colour, nationality, age, political opinion, employment status, education etc. Try to neutralise our biases.
- Right place/time. Sometimes we can select the place and/or time to ensure that disruptions and distractions to our effective listening are avoided or minimised. On occasions it may be appropriate to postpone a discussion to a mutually convenient time and place.
- Avoid distracting behaviours. Don’t frequently look at our watch, cellphone or out the window. Also avoid shuffling paper, playing with our pen, and any other actions that suggest we are bored or uninterested.
- Control distractions. Don’t tolerate distractions. These can be external distractions, such as telephones, background noise, smells, seating, heating, lighting—or internal distractions, such as headaches, hunger, thirst, fatigue, or thinking about other matters.
Of the above, the most frequently identified good listening behaviours are to concentrate, not interrupt (needlessly), ask questions (to confirm and clarify), support the speaker (using positive body language, the occasional “yes”, “I see”, “sure” can be encouraging, be responsive, look at the speaker, adapt to them), and hear the message (don’t be distracted by emotive or silly words, paraphrase), don’t discriminate on irrelevant grounds, don’t let our assumptions supersede what is actually said, and don’t forget that even people we don’t like can have good ideas.
However, listening properly is hard work. It’s all too easy to switch off or listen only with half an ear when we have other things on our mind. Typical reasons for our ineffective listening are:
- – We’re not really interested in what the other person is saying.
- – We ‘turn off’ because we don’t like the speaker or the message.
- – We assume that what someone has to say is uninteresting or unimportant.
- – We know what they are going to say. It’s all predictable.
- – We ignore what they say because it is in conflict with what we already ‘know’.
- – We filter what we’re hearing to select only the bits we want to hear.
- – Distractions stop us from giving our full attention to the speaker.
- – Our concentration wanders and we lose the thread of the message.
- – We are merely waiting for a break in their talk so that we can speak.
- – We are mentally rehearsing our response when the other speaker draws breath.
- – We are waiting for flaws in the other’s argument that we can pounce on.
- – We are mentally criticising the speaker’s delivery and miss the real message.
- – We become angered or upset when we disagree with something they say.
- – We overreact to certain words or phrases.
- – We focus only on trying to get our own point of view across.
- – We’d rather be speaking than listening to be ‘in control’ of the communication.
- – We listen only for facts and not the feelings behind the facts.
- – We pretend to be attentive while thinking about something else. Recognising that status reports may be subject to some editorialising and delay, it is important that we project managers also foster good communication through personal visits – management by walking around (MBWA) although hopefully with a purpose in mind rather than aimlessly. Approachability is an important requirement that goes beyond “my door is open” invitations.
One-on-one communications are particularly important when we wish to pre-empt project problems or at least nip them in the bud. Depending on our reaction, people are unlikely to volunteer bad news. Rather than assign blame, bad news should be welcomed, analysed and the problem resolved with the people concerned, and thus help develop a learning culture, rather than one where problems are buried and mistakes are punished.
Our challenge might be to mobilise the quieter team members, recognising that they too have something important to contribute. This might be achieved by keeping meeting numbers to a minimum, round robin techniques, and the Crawford Slip technique whereby comments are written down on pieces of paper and gathered up.
We need good project meetings so our team feel connected, involved, and informed. We need positive meetings to make good decisions for the project. Unfortunately, many project meetings aren’t well run. They are viewed as unproductive and tedious wastes of precious time. Think of the cost of a poor meeting. Five people in a meeting for one hour is pretty close to one working day by the time we add up preparation time and follow- up. That is a lot of wasted time and energy. Poor meetings often lead to poor decisions, which carry the cost much further than the immediate meeting time. Bad meetings can be very expensive. But we can change that.
Meetings can be productive, engaging and extremely useful. They can also be boring, demotivating and steal valuable time. We hold meetings to plan, solve problems and make decisions. If we are inviting everyone just so they know what is going on and distribute information, find other, more efficient and cost-effective ways to communicate, such as using the noticeboard, email and texting, to share information when face-to-face interaction is not needed, although do resist consistently sending cc messages to keep everyone “in the loop.” Anyway, here are some commonsense reminders to help us run useful meetings:
- Set ground rules. Our team should establish a code of conduct and confirm this at the start of each meeting. Starting and finishing on time would be one rule, although we should finish earlier where practicable.
- Prepare an agenda and distribute it beforehand. A well-prepared agenda is a reminder to the participants what the meeting is intended to cover and what is expected of them. It gives everyone time to gather the information they need. Our agenda items might best be arranged in priority order with more time allocated to the more important, complicated or contentious items.
- Repeat the purpose. The agenda should also be a reminder of the purpose of the meeting and we should state this again at the beginning of the meeting and during the meeting if discussion is veering off topic. Perhaps write the purpose of the meeting on a flipchart page and pin it to the wall for all to see throughout.
- Stay focused. Don’t deal with any unrelated issues – defer them instead to another meeting. Stick to the agenda. Use a “parking lot.” Appoint a timekeeper. Invite different participants to chair the meeting or lead a topic. It can be very helpful to assign timings to an agenda to track as the meeting progresses. If the meeting is running over time on one item, maybe we can defer a lower priority item to the next meeting so the current meeting does not end late.
- Allow everyone a chance to speak. Nobody wants to sit in a meeting listening to one person dominate the conversation, so limit the time any one person is allowed to speak. We might have a ball that gets passed from speaker to speaker. This makes people conscious that they are asking for something valuable – the attention of the group. Discourage fence sitting and manage conflict but avoid premature agreement. We might practise “exception reporting” whereby only those matters that are abnormal are raised. And don’t necessarily stop meetings to bring latecomers up to date or this may encourage more lateness.
- Avoid boredom. Little will be achieved if people are not fully engaged in the meeting. Where possible schedule the meeting for the morning when individual alertness is likely to be highest and avoid the afternoon slump. An interesting practice, intended to encourage succinct meetings, is to run them standing up or hold “walk and talk” meetings (but perhaps shorter people or slower walkers could feel disadvantaged!)
- Assign actions. Assign follow-up actions with realistic finish dates to specific individuals. Appoint a scribe to create an action plan (perhaps using an electronic whiteboard or have someone photograph the whiteboard and mail it to participants) that is distributed promptly and preferably at the conclusion of the meeting.
- Finishing. Summarise what has been discussed, what actions have been assigned, distribute the action plan, and perhaps confirm a date for the next meeting. Finally take a few minutes for the group to evaluate what has occurred. This is not a time to rehash discussion, but to share ideas about how efficient and effective the meeting was and how future meetings could be improved.
- Follow Up. Thank people for their proper and timely completion of action items and call people out for the opposite – unless there are good reasons.
In summary, we prepare in advance, have an agenda, book a venue, ruthlessly stay on time and stick to the topic, maximise participation, produce an action plan (who is to do what by when), evaluate the meeting, and follow-up on assigned actions.
Overworked project managers with little time might think that improving our writing is a tedious or even frivolous exercise, but writing skills are a very important part of communication and increasingly so as we assume more senior appointments. Yet, regardless of what level we are at we can greatly benefit from honing our writing skills, which can have a very positive impact on our project management career prospects.
Writing skills are important in many types of project communication, including memos, emails, reports, proposals, business cases, charters, plans, presentations, and visual aids. But poor written communication is something that can sabotage our success. If our writing is riddled with errors and mistakes, rest assured that all notions of our professionalism quickly fade from our reader’s mind.
Our written materials are often the first encounter people have with us. Our word choice, sentence structure, viewpoints and expressions all reveal more than we think about our ability, attitude and perspective. However, flawless writing sends signals of diligence and quality. Poor writing, on the other hand, can destroy reputations quickly. Yes, big judgment calls are made based on our writing.
Business Writing Trends. Business writing is not poetry or literature, and contemporary business writing is likely to possess the following characteristics:
- We write more like we talk (a conversation style) and conscientiously consider our readers. This helps us decide what and how we write. Previously our writing was inclined to be for the sterile record. We now favour straightforward and plain language, and shorter sentences and paragraphs.
- We decide the purpose and desired outcome of our writing, then research and write to achieve this, and evaluate success against it. Previously, for example, if a recommendation was not implemented we seldom followed up. Now we actively seek specific feedback to help ensure our continuous improvement.
- We favour a candid, courteous and active style, and recognise the benefits of being clear, concise and precise. We minimise the use of adjectives and adverbs, and avoid false generalisations, obscure words, gobbledygook, ambiguous expressions, clichés, redundancies and little known abbreviations, acronyms and jargon. We also recognise the importance of proper punctuation, syntax and spelling, and consistency in their use to achieve clarity.
- We show greater consideration for different cultures and values (national, corporate and personal), and exercise heightened writing empathy. We review our writing from our reader’s perspective. And we avoid emotional, discriminatory and judgemental language. We maintain our objectivity.
- We now make full use of graphics to illustrate, compare and contrast, and employ white space, colour and formatting to improve the appearance of our writing and thus enhance its likelihood of being read and understood.
The Challenge. When we write there are at least four possible messages:
- What we intend to write.
- What we actually
- What our reader reads.
- What our reader thinks he or she has read.
The aim of business writing is to have it understood clearly as we intended in one read. One read clarity. Thus, good writing needs to be:
- Clear. Clarity is paramount in any kind of business writing. Not only should we be clear about the message we want to convey but also ensure that it is completely understood by our reader. A good place to begin would be by asking ourselves these three questions: What is the purpose of writing this document? Who will be the reader? What action, if any, do I want the reader to take after reading this document?
- Concise. Wordy business correspondence is not only annoying and distracting, but it is time-consuming for both the writer and reader. Remember, the reader is often a professional like us, who has a busy day ahead, so do not waste their time. Keep our content short and simple, although not at the expense of clarity.
- Correct. Written communication says a lot about us as writers. If a business letter has spelling mistakes, typos, grammatical errors, and punctuation problems, the impression is that the writer is careless, incompetent and unprofessional. So make sure we review and revise our writing before hitting “send”.
- Courteous. A business letter is a professional document. We should ensure the tone is courteous and polite. We should not come across as being rude or angry. Similarly, racist, sexist and derogatory remarks must be avoided. And in particular ensure that the spelling of the name and title of the receiver is correct.
- Conversational. Our business communication should sound personal and professional. Modern writing reads more like we speak.
- Convincing. Business writing must have accurate information supported with relevant content to convince the reader to take action. Often our aim is to convince the reader to do something.
- Concrete. Concrete means being specific and definite, rather than general and vague (to help ensure clarity).
- Complete. Always review and revise our writing before sending it off. Go back and review those three questions we asked initially. If we are satisfied that we have properly covered them, only then go ahead and send our e-mail or letter.
A successful project manager must be a good communicator, which is a skill that is never perfected and can always be improved. Being present, visible and engaged with everyone is important – during the good times and the challenging times. In summary, some key communication considerations are:
- Listen. Active listening is arguably the biggest factor for effective communication. Our body language can demonstrate clearly whether we are actively listening. Eye to eye contact is imperative. It shows we are genuinely interested and engaged when someone is talking to us.
- Know that people communicate and think differently. If we learn those differences we can massage our message until it’s understood. That means learning the common communication and thinking styles, but also recognising what style we use naturally. Once we have identified other people’s styles, then we can bridge the gap and speak their language.
- Build a safe environment. Communications need to be heard, and people are less likely to hear if there’s a lot of noise, whether that’s due to an emotionally cold climate or one that is heated and stressful. So, we build trust, respect and stay open to those who think differently. And allow them to share their opinions.
- Acknowledge other viewpoints. It’s not enough to let others speak their minds; we have to actively listen to them and acknowledge their view points, whether we agree with them or not. They should be part of our process, because we never know where the next bright idea will originate. Also, if we’re dismissive of people on our team, they’re less likely to listen to us.
- Talk about the common vision or goal. If people are not in agreement or are offering perspectives that don’t align with the overall objectives of our project, it’s important to impress upon the team that we’re all working together. There might be differing opinions on how to get there, but the endpoint is shared.
- Have a purpose for every communication. Communication is best when we stay on message, so don’t get side-tracked. Therefore, establish what we want everyone to know before they leave the meeting or start whatever task they are given. State what we need from others, and know what we can do to contribute and help them.
- Be positive and fun. This might be the most important idea, for if we can foster an environment that is positive and fun, then people are more likely to listen and will work better and harder to achieve what we set out for them. We can work hard and still have fun while getting things done.