Over / Under Communication for Project Managers

June 30, 2009
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It is often said that you can’t over-communicate, but I’m willing to bet most folks – and especially your project sponsors – underestimate the cost and effort of this critical component of project management. Consider this fair warning – and a good checklist for folks wanting to get into IT, project, or functional management.

Media

To achieve any decent amount of success, you have to be a good communicator with both face-to-face and written/published media.

And by “good” I mean both “comfortable” and “effective.” You should feel good in your own skin, confident that you can carry a conversation at all levels of an organization. And you also have to be an effective communicator – able to get your point across with the right amount of detail, not too much or too little. Another effectiveness challenge is the ability to balance between personalized, one-on-one written and oral communication, and insightful, understandable mass communication.

Translations

You may not realize how many different “languages” you speak – and effective managers must be reasonably fluent …

  • Languages – Finance, Operations, Sales & Marketing; business groups have just as many confusing specialty words as

It is often said that you can’t over-communicate, but I’m willing to bet most folks – and especially your project sponsors – underestimate the cost and effort of this critical component of project management. Consider this fair warning – and a good checklist for folks wanting to get into IT, project, or functional management.

Media

To achieve any decent amount of success, you have to be a good communicator with both face-to-face and written/published media.

And by “good” I mean both “comfortable” and “effective.” You should feel good in your own skin, confident that you can carry a conversation at all levels of an organization. And you also have to be an effective communicator – able to get your point across with the right amount of detail, not too much or too little. Another effectiveness challenge is the ability to balance between personalized, one-on-one written and oral communication, and insightful, understandable mass communication.

Translations

You may not realize how many different “languages” you speak – and effective managers must be reasonably fluent …

  • Languages – Finance, Operations, Sales & Marketing; business groups have just as many confusing specialty words as the techies in IT
  • Dialects – Do you speak Oracle or SAPanese? Experienced in small companies or large corporations? Public vs. private? Entrepreneurial or slow growth? High-volume, low-profit FERTs, or low-volume, high-margin custom products? The concepts are all the same, but sometimes the specific words are different.
  • Slang – Slightly different than dialects – all companies, organizations have local shorthand term so that over the years in their particular organization to mean very specific, nuanced things.
  • Sound Bites – A form of speech where a complicated topic is reduced to a single word or phrase, for example, ATP. Are we talking about master data, settings on time fences, the process of checking for availability, or the policies around A, B, C and D companies? Sound bites can sneak into conversations and you could be discoursing for 15 minutes before you realize you’re talking about two vastly different things.
  • Strata – Management v. line, Middle v. executive management. Depending on what level of the organization you’re talking to, you will need to change the level of detail that you go into. Typically, higher up in the company means a lower level of detail that they want to wade through.

Change Management

Volumes have been written on this topic, but most people have trouble coming up with a concise definition of what this means. To oversimplify – but drive right to point: change management is typically about delivering “bad news.”

However, “bad” can mean different things. It can be “disappointment”: the date will slip, we’re over budget, or we can’t fit this feature request into the schedule. However, adjusting expectations as early as possible is one of the basic skills of a good project manager. You need to be willing to deliver bad news like this as early as possible.

The other significant area of “bad” – walking into an organization, a group of people, or a individual’s cube, and letting them know that the way they have been doing things for years is about to change. Sure, it’s easy to say that “change is hard” and “change is inevitable,” but you yourself probably don’t like change in your established rituals. Empathy is the key here.

Lessons Learned

As with many other things, the more project communication you do, the better you get. Some of the more common lessons learned:

  • Defensive project teams will often negotiate for delay by asking for / waiting for More Communication, and complaining about Not Enough Communication
  • In any project plan, you will underestimate the time required for communication, the number of times you’ll have to repeat the message, and the ability of the team to consume your communication in various forms of delivery media
  • You will definitely underestimate the time required for follow-up and follow-through to make sure it’s done.
  • You will overestimate the amount and quality of existing documentation, and the ability of the project team to bridge the gap to the required level of documentation

Here’s the killer –

  • If you try explaining to management about the problems/challenges of communication, they won’t listen and/or won’t understand (yes, that is a tight loop)

Machines will never replace us – but this is one case where sometimes, you might wish they could.

Previously …

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