October 16, 2018
Communicate, communicate, communicate. Just about every seminar, webinar, class, or book I’ve read on project management has driven home that point. What I’m seeing in my daily experience though falls far short of making communication a priority. In fact, it seems like real communication has fallen off a cliff.
Hiding Behind the Curtains
Project Managers, Scrum Masters, and Team Leads, are supposed to alleviate team stressors. We’re that lynchpin who is supposed to understand, adapt, and communicate when things change. We help the development team adapt to new needs and set expectations with sponsors. We initiate conversations that allow solutions to be found and timelines to be rescoped. More oft than we’d like to admit though, we don’t hold these conversations and instead we hide behind a digital curtain of email, instant messages, or formal project schedule updates.
On a fundamental level, the idea of communicating changes of scope, need, budget, capacity, or personnel seems daunting and much like we’ve made a mistake. Hiding behind the curtains of project process notifications may dampen that sinking feeling, but I would argue it only amplifies and reinforces the perception of failing the project.
Projects are completed by people. Projects carry the inherent risk of change. Change affects deadlines, deliverables, and information dissemination. The disturbing results that I’m seeing more frequently are a lack of clarification and understanding of the need of these changes. At every aspect of a project, someone will be affected by that change and that can cause unneeded stress. Unnecessary stress can cause project progress to slow down, team turnover or turmoil, a failure to deliver what is being sought, or worse, a poor-quality product.
I often see stakeholders using positional power, jargon, documentation, or complex process to avoid a straight conversation that would allow a project to move forward. Both Agile and Waterfall methodologies have mechanisms that can be used to shut down real communication. Waterfall has its formal gating and approval processes that slows down the ability to make adaptations or to get feedback quickly. Depending upon the type of Agile methodology being utilized, it isn’t hard for a Project Leader to stifle communication between development team and product owner(s) through the phrase “Let’s finish the sprint first and revisit this later.” I’ve also seen Agile leaders demand to have new stories written when a change is nothing more than a clarification of acceptance or an updated ‘Definition of Done.’
Just Get Up And Talk To Somebody Dammit!
People need to have conversations. They are the oldest, quickest, and easiest tools we have to prevent friction from forming, to gain trust on our deliverables, and to make certain that expectations are understood. In my experience, most people enjoy having a quick conversation instead of composing a carefully worded email or banging out an often-misunderstood instant message. When I talk face to face with someone, I get immediate feedback and clarification. If I get a puzzled look or an awkward silence I can back up and find out what I’m not making clear. The fear of positional power evaporates when I can sit down with my stakeholders to work out an understanding of expectations or what potential deliverables may look like. When I talk to someone instead of trading documentation, then together we can work to understand processes, examine them, question them, and modify them over a cup of coffee and a paper napkin. Emotion, inflection, and sometimes a level of absurdity that shows up in a conversation will many times mock the final documentation, but these human characteristics can accelerate progress because an audience and creator are working jointly to understand what is needed.
A Case Study in Conversation
As a consulting project manager, I’ve had the opportunity to come in and help during stalled, or even failing projects. In one example from a highly regulated industry, the project was failing because all levels of communication were not trusted from most of the stakeholders involved. This was a great example of how much easier it is to communicate when we can talk face to face. Once we got all our stakeholders into the same room, I found it much easier to understand their side of how that organization’s processes worked.
In a 3-hour work session, we managed to find overlap in many processes, documentation, deliverables, and scheduling. Within a week of that meeting we’d drafted most of the regulatory paperwork, plotted out a rollout and delivery solution, and received the blessings of the sponsors to proceed. That broke a 4-month logjam between two major factions in the business and put a 16-month project on schedule to be completed in 9 months.
All of this started with a simple, direct, introduction to two key project people -- “Hi, my name’s Chris and I’m the new project manager for this project. Could we schedule some time to talk?”
This is just one example, and every organization will be different. Like it or not, organizations are made up of people, and people want to be understood. Most people want their work to be meaningful, impactful, and respected as well, and it’s our job as PMs, POs, Scrum Masters, or Corporate Llamas to take that first step of conversation to open those gateways.
What conversations are you starting?