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Monday, June 8, 2015

Project Communication: Not Quick, Not Easy

     “The communication is terrible around here.”
     Of course it is. Communication is terrible everywhere.
     Communication is the lifeblood of collaborative human behavior, especially in the pressurized environment of a good-sized project. True projects are innovative, meaning they’re intended to create something that hasn’t existed before, at least with those particular people in that place.
     So there is uncertainty, and there are gaps in information and there is risk. Often, you are dependent upon people you don’t know well and usually have no real control over. Time and resources are tight, and persons of importance can have demanding expectations.
     Yet, despite all that, nothing will happen unless those involved get active and make it happen. Not so easy.

     Such circumstances create the danger that they all will spend a lot of their time making and fixing mistakes, arguing over what to do and contesting for decision power . . . or maybe they say to hell with it, withdrawing and/or substituting other priorities for use of their time.
     Or they could devote the necessary attention to informing and persuading each other, coordinating, collaborating and committing to common definitions and real teamwork.

     Look around. When you see a successful situation in place, it may not be easy to discover why. It’s worth the effort it takes to find out.

     Communication makes it happen.
     Conversation about communication is sappy happy talk unless it addresses real working structures and processes that make sense, provide practical support for project activities and accomplish important project objectives.  
     Designing such functions into the planning, execution and control of projects is the responsibility of the project manager. Effective communication infuses every identifiable skill set ascribed to top practitioners of our profession.
    Making project communication work requires sustained effort, because the project manager position is so buried under technical demands, competing priorities, diverse stakeholder expectations and team member issues. You can’t do communication as one more hurried item to be checked off the list.
     The fact that it’s not easy doesn’t mean you can make it a low priority. If you are a good project manager, you have made it your business to develop competency in multiple difficult skill sets, including the one before us here. It takes work, and a lot of practice.
    When we parse the visible workings of communication, we see speaking and listening, and maybe go further into formal presentation, persuasion and conflict management. No question, they all belong, as do the multiple specific steps/aspects of each.
     We need to go further.  

     Meaningful communication is carefully planned and faithfully pursued.
     The planning is based on research. Organizational and personal cultures, assumptions and preferences are scouted and accounted for.
     The primary communication tool is the brain, not the mouth. If we find out for the first time what we think when we hear ourselves saying it, we are on very thin ice. That can be fatal for project managers, considering the delicate politics of the job.
     So the first act in “pre-communication” is research, which may include conversational exploration with key stakeholders in the early stages. 
     Thoughtful and respectful questions, along with patient and active listening, produce an important grasp of how to conduct the relationships with your main partners in the developing project.
     Those all-important connections also require attentive management throughout the life of the project. With all the other demands on his/her attention, the project manager cannot afford to neglect relationships – and they can’t be handled on the fly along with all the other busyness of the day.
     The process starts with the executives/managers who determined that a project should be mounted, the ones who appointed the project manager. Why did they do that? What are they looking for, and how do they describe – specifically – the outcome they seek? What level of priority have they placed on the project, and how much authority will they grant?
     While the project manager must never let that communication bond weaken, he/she also will be looking to establish and maintain appropriate mutual understandings with other stakeholders.
     And, certainly, the team members gathered around the project manager have to receive serious and sustained portions of time and attention.
     None of this is possible if the project manager cannot also be a top delegator, problem-solver, negotiator, persuader and leader.
     Not coincidentally, all of those personal strengths also are indistinguishable from high-level communication.
     So, when “the communication is terrible around here,” don’t blame the communication, or the organization. The cause is more specific than that.

SEE ALSO: A Punch in the Nose & Other Good Communication


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