I once had a conversation with one of my Project Management (PM) mentors that lasted for about an hour and started with one question. “What is the most important skill a project manager should have?” While we both agreed that being organized was a requirement, we also agreed that the most important skill was his or her ability to communicate.
Why is communication so important in project management?
Project management involves synchronizing the efforts of different individuals and groups towards a common goal. Communication is essential to synchronization. Any sports team that wants to perform does so by establishing and using various lines of communication. Project teams have a requirement to do the same thing.
Where does that put the PM? In agile framework the PM functions more in the coach role. In waterfall the communications strategy can still include coaching, but it is more likely to follow a model that helps create a common operating picture. The PMBOK has an entire chapter dedicated to the subject of project communications management. In that book the subject emerges on page 359 mid-way through the book.
Synchronizing efforts among different individuals is hard. If it were easy it wouldn’t take effort. Things would just happen. One of the techniques I’ve learned that it’s OK to say things more than once, and it’s OK to say things in more than one way. Looking at the communication model below one of the big take aways is that there’s a lot of noise between the message that’s intending to be delivered and the recipient(s). Those noise lines are the enemy of good projects.
Early on in a project it’s crucial to learn people’s preferred method of communicating. Some people will prefer good old email. Others will prefer modern chat environments. It’s hard to know which communication method someone prefers. Hint: It’s OK to ask. Once they’ve told you be sure to use that preferred method, but follow-up your communications with other tools as well. Then after some time, follow back up and specifically discuss communication formats until you agree on what’s the best one for the project.
At one point I was helping a project manager with a very difficult client. Text messages were flying back and forth hourly demanding results and updates. The client shortened a planned vacation to Australia to come and yell at the CEO for 90 minutes. It was just awful. The PM’s motivation for the project had sunken to a new low. He was smart enough to ask for help.
So I sat down with the PM and the client whom I looked up on LinkedIn prior to the meeting. When I sat down I was able to ask questions about what projects he was most proud of in his previous roles. As he was talking I could see the issue was this client was used to being a PM and was now in a role where he was the Product Owner and not the PM coordinating everything. The role-shift was hard for him, but I was able to leverage his interests and establish a positive framework for the project going forward.
We agreed to change the communication format to one that would give him visibility on the progress without interrupting his day or ours. We also agreed to a couple of basic rules:
- Emergency communications are reserved only for a highly likely threat to the critical chain.
- Bad news doesn’t get better with time.
- Scheduled update meetings at realistic intervals (2 weeks in this case)
As we discussed these the client could visibly see me writing down these three points. I repeated them as I wrote them. Before we were done with the meeting (it had moved to a local bar), I repeated what we agreed to. He heartily nodded. When it was done I drafted an email for the client that reiterated the three points above and sent it to the PM to send out to the client and our team. There was still more hard work to do after that, and we had a great PM and dev team who really pulled of miracles, but it started with saying something more than once and saying things in more than one way.
Knowing that it’s OK to say things more than once and that it’s OK to say things in more than one way is a great beginning to the most important skill in project management.