01. Sep. 2017

Successful Project Management Results From – You Guessed It – Communication

by Mark Ellis

Many companies place a lot of emphasis on project management training, and rightly so. However, the bulk of this training is often tools and process based – earned value, schedule analysis, change management, inputs and outputs, and plans and charters are all commonly taught. Whilst these tools and processes are important to success, some would have you believe that if you follow steps A to Z then you’re guaranteed success. This isn’t the case, and the majority of experienced project managers will probably tell you that managing a project is 10% tools and processes, and 90% communication.

If you work in an organization with a matrix structure, potential project team members are selected by line managers, supervisors, and directors – people other than the project manager. The project manager is assigned these individuals, which are formed into a group that the project manager is expected to turn into a team. If you doubt the importance of teams then think of this – an individual’s output is one, a group’s output is less than the sum of its parts (or more precisely, the sum of its potential) for various reasons, including conflict, egos, uncertainty, agendas, and commitment. A team however, can be greater than the sum of its parts (and thus equal to its potential). A group becomes a team with time, training, commitment to a common goal, and the application of talent.

One thing that often derails new project managers is dealing with teams, individuals, customers, competing demands, and internal or enterprise pressures that are specific to a company. How do you handle these variables, and make sure that all deliverables are, well, delivered? After all, projects are delivered by people, not tools and processes.

The answer is communication. Seeking to understand, then to be understood. Viewing communication in its true sense – a feedback loop that sends and receives all relevant information. Ensuring a message is correctly sent, received, understood and the desired action our outcome is agreed upon. This means setting expectations, getting agreement, and reaching a common understanding noting that you don’t have to agree with everyone, and everyone doesn’t have to agree with you (that’s why we talk about “consensus”, and not agreement). Sometimes controlled and respectful confrontation is a good thing – it helps keep everyone “honest” and you should never surround yourself with people who only agree with you, because by the time you figure out you’re wrong, it’s too late.

A quick note regarding key stakeholders, and those that may not be part of your team but have significant influence – elite project managers practice stakeholder analysis to engage with the right people, at the right time and in the right way. Become comfortable with this skill, and learn how to manage stakeholder expectations.

So how does a new project manager deal with the things that the classroom doesn’t teach? In the first instance, the support framework needs to be there. You need mentors, PMO’s and teams, the ability and means to share knowledge, having access to experience, learning from reputable sources and from each other, and the environment to feel like you can ask questions. There is also research and study; as project managers, we must always be improving and moving forward. Not just CPD points to maintain a PMP, but learning in your own time and in your own way. Understand the areas where you could improve, and if you don’t know – ask and perform regular self-assessments. Also find someone that has those skills and learn from them. Look upon yourself as a process and practice personal Kaizen; eliminate waste and see how you can continuously improve.

There are four things that every project manager can do (and should do). These things don’t require training, cost any money, take little time, and just require practice:

  1. Be (and stay) positive. Team members often take their inspiration from the team leader, plus positivity can be infectious;
  2. Don’t micromanage. Get competent people, set expectations and then give them room to do the things you need them to do. Micromanaging is also annoying, so don’t do it. If you have a team member who needs micromanaging, then have the honest conversation to see if they are the right person for your team;
  3. Give sparing and constructive feedback, but don’t go on about it. People don’t like hearing they’re wrong, but are often open to advice and another perspective;
  4. If you have a ten-person team, you may have ten very good ideas (and they may all be better than yours!) Value your team’s ideas and inputs, even if you don’t use them (and if you don’t use them, let them know why. Most of the time they’ll understand).

Finally, as the project leader we are often reluctant to say that we don’t know something, as everyone is looking to you for answers. However the difference between giving the wrong answer, versus taking the time to research, gather data, and formulate the best answer based on the information and knowledge available to you could be the difference between failure and success. This is especially important for engineering and technical projects, where no one person is going to be an expert in all aspects. You have a team – use them!

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