Project Management Dialogues with ATTITUDE!

by Kimberly M. Wiefling, M.S.

This Month's Featured Noggin' Floggin': Being Heard Above the Communication Blizzard

Is there any project manager among us who doesn't have a big old stack of email in his in-basket, a giant pile of unread documents on his desk, and an incessantly flashing "message waiting" light on his voice mail? Paper information is typically "filed" geologically, heaped layer by layer upon the pile until critical project documents are found somewhere in the Mesozoic Era. Email tends to become a reminder of the bottomless pit of action items that awaits us if we ever do get caught up. And I'm personally a big user of voice mail features that speed up a sluggish caller, skip over lengthy digressions, or allow me to mercifully delete a message entirely after listening to only the first few seconds.

Welcome to the communication blizzard! We now encounter more information in a single Sunday newspaper than a person living in the 17th century encountered in a lifetime. On a project of any complexity, the information overload can be downright oppressive. Faced with an onslaught of undifferentiated information and the impossible task of keeping up with it all, we are forced to make choices, prioritize, and flat out ignore much of it. It's a matter of self-preservation!

If you've led even one major project you are undoubtedly aware of the critical link between communication and project success. In spite of the fact that project managers spend more than half of their time in meetings and 70 – 90% of their time communicating, communication is cited as the #2 cause of project failure. Even if you have crystal clear goals and metrics of success, chances are that very few people on your extended team share your clarity. Unfortunately your lovingly prepared project documents and urgent email are likely skimmed through or skipped over by your deadline-driven team and other key stakeholders.

Actually, our ability to ignore communication isn't at all surprising. The human brain is forced to screen out 99,999,993 out of every 10 million bits of information received every second. Only 7 bits a second are raised to conscious awareness. The rest bounces around blissfully in the subconscious where it is quickly forgotten at best, or at worst creates an amorphous angst. We tend to focus on things that matter to us, things that have meaning. If 50% of your phone calls were solicitors would you even bother to pick up the phone? Probably not. It is exceedingly tempting to seek shelter from the communication storm in the proven strategies of avoidance and procrastination. We focus on what's right in front of us and hope that disaster won't strike as a result. The resulting snow-blindness can spell difficulty, or even disaster, for a project. Here are just a few examples of the typical avalanche victims:

  • Key project decisions slighted. You send your project's goals and metrics of success—a critical document—as an attachment to an email message asking for their feedback within 3 days. The predictable response from a hideously busy team? None. Nada. Zero. What happened? Chances are most of them never clicked on the attachment. A few of those who did may send you valuable input, but most of the feedback will fall under the category of "It looks good to me," which actually translates to, "I looked at it and didn't really have time to think much about it." I wish I were making this up. These are the project goals, the committed schedule, the risks, for pity's sake! It's not like you are asking them to review the boilerplate of a procurement contract!
  • Unmanaged risk management. The #1 mistake teams make in risk management is to identify risks but do nothing about them. I call this "documenting our demise." Although people enthusiastically contribute to the long list of how the project team might meet with disaster, it is rare that they devote as much attention to tracking, avoiding, and mitigating these risks. Instead, project risks are identified and tracked in a tidy document that never again sees the light of day. It's completely predictable behavior. After all, the team barely has time to do the minimum required of them without addressing possible problems that might occur, but haven't yet! Chances are the risk list won't be read again once it is created, let alone used to drive decisions and behavior.
  • Buried information. Critical project documents are stashed on a shared network location, and those seeking the information are referred there with a glib admonition, "It's on the shared drive." This is akin to saying that a car is parked in somewhere in the city of San Francisco. This phrase is extremely entertaining to those who have actually visited the shared drive. Those in the know roll their eyes in amusement at the suggestion that they could actually find the information they seek without burning up a disproportionate amount of precious time that could otherwise be spent knocking off some more pressing task.

You can compensate somewhat for these behaviors by calling even more meetings where you sit and review these documents with your team, but that's not a viable option for geographically dispersed teams. And, to be honest, co-located teams are just as likely to succumb to over-reliance on electronic forms of communication, instant messaging a teammate who sits only steps away rather than taking the time to walk over and have a conversation about an urgent matter.

How can you get YOUR messages to be "the chosen ones" that pierce the consciousness of your team? Here are a few creative approaches that have proven effective in real world projects.

Communicating Goals

Condense all of the requirements documents and success criteria into a one-page, "Project Success Scorecard." This is easily created by asking the team "What would have to be true a year from now to consider this project wildly successful?" Success means far more than features delivered on time and under-budget. Make sure that you include customer satisfaction, team retention, usability, supportability, profitability and the like. What gets measured gets done.

Exhibit 1: Product Success Criteria Scorecard Example

Projecting the Plan

Use a simple flow-charting program to create a one-page PERT chart that represents the high-level flow of the project from start to finish. Although this is extra work for those of you who are using MS Project and other such scheduling software, a simplified, easy-to-follow map of how the team will get from the start to a glorious finish helps people keep the big picture in mind without getting lost in the details of a 1000-line Gantt chart. For added impact, highlight areas of greatest risk with clip art like skulls and crossbones, ambulances and time bombs. This always makes a big impression with executives who tend to notice these sorts of things.

Exhibit 2: Product Lifecycle Project Timeline Example

Grabbing Attention

If you are co-located with your team you have a fabulous opportunity to capture their attention visually. Here are some tactics that, while unconventional and in some cases somewhat uncouth, really work:

  • Purchase a life-size cardboard figure of the celebrity of your choice (Movie Stars, Political Figures) and have them hold the project goals or next big milestone in their hands just outside of the team meeting room.
  • Create a screensaver that conveys the purpose, goals and priorities of the project. Make the background picture irresistible so that people can't help but load it onto their computers. (The CEO playing "Whack-A-Mole" is always popular). Better yet, have IT plant this screensaver on everyone's PC while they're away for the weekend!
  • Post the one-page project flowchart, or any other time-critical project communications, inside the restrooms in "strategic" places, places where you know people will be looking at least a few minutes a day. (Common decency requires that I not provide any more detail than this. You know what I mean!)
  • Give them a little something extra in every email communications. Setting the expectation that your email will entertain as well as inform—via a joke, anecdote, riddle or inspirational saying—will increase the likelihood of your message being read.
  • Use poetry to communicate some critical project details. One project manager used this technique to increase the on-time attendance at a daily status meeting during a critical project juncture. People showed up on time to hear the kick-off poem that captured key issues for the day's meeting.

Communication is pretty much the only way we have to lead effectively as project managers. While listening is a big part of that, when we do speak, we need to find ways to be heard above the surrounding din. If you want your messages to get through the commotion surrounding most projects, keep it short, keep it relevant, keep it fun. Poor communication is an avoidable cause of project failure. Let's wipe it out in our lifetime!

Related Links
Communication That Counts
Communications Plan
Meeting Minutes Formats
Team Meetings Description Sample

To-the-Point Status
Collaborative Milestone-Driven Planning Process
Project and Pipeline Status Report - 3 page format
Tracking with Visible Deliverables

©Copyright 2000-2018 Emprend, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
About us   Site Map   View current sponsorship opportunities (PDF)
Contact us for more information or e-mail
Terms of Service and Privacy Policy