The right thing to do isn’t always on the checklist

People often make checklists, and while they’re not bad tools they really aren’t the best tools ever. Most people who read English have their brain trained to read top to bottom left to right. What happens if the thing that’s the most important on your list isn’t what you remembered first and isn’t what you wrote first on the list?

Then there’s the question about who value to whom.

Don’t smirk. It’s real.

Different stakeholders will see different items on the list as having different values. At work, I measure each task I do based upon the value it has to the business (business value), project value (does it help us move the project forward), stakeholder value (something that improves the stakeholder experience). By measuring my tasks against their intended benefits I can easily adjust and pivot to doing the work that has the most value.

Often times though, the right thing to do never makes it to my checklist.

I saw Michele in the hallway the other day and she looked like she needed a friend. So I asked a question that allowed her to stop and take a breath and describe what was going on. As I listened she could see the value of her efforts. I could appreciate the challenges she was facing. The conversation was mutually beneficial.

Listening was the right thing to do.

But it wasn’t on the checklist…

The Listening Difference

Listening makes a significant difference in the quality of our relationships, but we often miss opportunities to be better listeners.

Listening is a profound sign of respect. In many cultures the is tehe one who has the autority. When you take the time to listen you elevate the status of the person who’s speaking. To provide some contrast, what status does the person who constantly gets interrupted have?

Meetings are a great opportunity to practice our listening skills. All too often, we’ve gotten in the habit of bringing our devices instead of bringing our attention when we have to meet in a group. I get it, some people have lots of opportunity to be better presenters, and some meeting topics are only tangentially related to your responsibilities. In Project Management (PM) how you listen will determine client success. You can’t afford to miss a cue about a delay to the critical chain and it’s bad business to bulid quality solely from an outdated checklist. [Link]

Unless the device is the tool that allows the meeting to occur, leave the device behind. I’ve had great success working with stakeholders that had difficult reputations by bringing a reusable notebook with me to a meeting. The notebook removes the barrier created by a laptop screen. It creates more interpersonal opportunities.

The fact that I don’t bring a laptop combined with the fact that my notebook is reusable often gets the attention of whomever I speaking with and it ends up being a discussion point. I share how it’s designed for me to take photos of the pages and save my notes digitally. I share how the text washes off with water and uses a comfortable pen. Once we’ve covered the technical capabilities I then get to share the real reason for the notebook.

“What you have to say is important and I didn’t want to put a barrier between me and the things you needed to say, but I still wanted to take notes because what you were going to tell me is important.”

I haven’t met a stakeholder yet offended by that statement.

After the meeting I’ll go over my hand written notes and type up a meeting summary to send to the client.

Hi, XXX this is what we discussed.
– Thing 1
– Thing 2
– Thing 3

I agreed to do the following before our next meeting:
– Thing 1
– Thing 2
– Thing 3

We also agreed that you would do the following
– Thing 1
– Thing 2
– Thing 3

As I get working on my things if I need to ask a follow-up question can I do that over a text message or would you prefer some communication method?

Similarly, the best way to reach me is via text.

It might feel like it takes longer to write things down by hand and type them afterwords, but I’ve found this takes a lot less time than solving the problems of not listening.

But Jacob, what happens if you find you miss something in your notes?

Well, I tell the stakeholder that I was going over my notes and I’d like him to clarify something. If I’ve missed that bullet point all together then I say things like “I was distracted thinking of the second and third order effects of [bullet point 1] that I’m afraid I missed your second point. Would you mind going over that again for me to I know we’re on the same page?

When you head off to your next meeting, ditch the impulse to take your device and instead grab a piece of paper or a reusable notebook (I’m a fan) and sit down and listen.

Beyond Broadcasting

We often perceive communication in its broadcast format.  While not inaccurate the narrow focus of this definition creates severe limitations on the human capacity to effectively communicate.  In their book (Adler & Proctor, 2007) the authors present a model for communication that includes internal noise, external noise, and the information of both the sender and receiver.  While not directly addressing the concepts of noise reduction from this model Julian Treasure took the stage in 2011 to present a Ted Talk on listening better that has implications for project managers.  

According to the PMBOK, “project managers spend most of their time communicating with team members and other project stakeholders.”  This statement translates to a minimum of 51% of a project manager’s time being spent in the act of communicating.  This also means that if someone were to create a Pareto Analysis based upon the actions of a project manager’s use of time one of the top items to address would certainly involve communication.  This also means that any action that has an impact on improving the effectiveness of communication has a significant impact on the PM’s time and the overall project.

Incorporating conscious listening techniques advocated for by Julian Treasure include the technique of Receiving, Appreciating, Summarizing, and Asking (RASA) in the context of communicating with others (Treasure, 2011).  This listening technique can significantly enhance a PM’s ability to manage team meetings.  The non-threatening nature of this technique helps to create an environment of trust that will enable others in the meeting to bring forward ideas that can significantly increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the project.  They will certainly reduce the amount of questions which occur after a meeting due to miscommunication and reduce some of the inefficiencies inherent in general communication.

The RASA process can also be beneficial when dealing with group conflict.  Wilmot & Hocker advocated for applying a collaborative conflict management strategy (Wilmot & Hocker, 2007) and RASA falls right in line with creating this environment.  Recognizing early stages of conflict is often difficult.  I have met and worked with some professionals who didn’t recognize conflict until it was explosive.  Others operated as though conflict was always occurring.  These latter professionals believed that every conversation revolved around some conflict and so they encouraged a collaborative environment to prevent destructive conflict.  I subscribe to the theory that conflict is natural and always occurring and therefore the concept of preventing conflict is quite an anathema.  Regardless, conscious listening techniques of RASA create the space for productive conflict.

While we often think of communication in its broadcast form, communication very much involves the process of listening.  As he concluded his Ted Talk, one of the things Julian was impassioned about what informing his audience to Live to Listen.  Modern PMs need to understand how listening early and often is communication, and can save them from quite a bit of broadcasting their thoughts in the future.




Adler, R. B., & Proctor, R. F. (2007). Looking out/looking in. Australia: Thomson/Wadsworth.

Project Management Institute (PMI). (2013).  A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK guide). Newtown Square, Pennsylvania.

Treasure, J. (2011, July). Julian Treasure: 5 ways to listen better | TED Talk Subtitles and Transcript | TED. Retrieved from

Wilmot, W. W., & Hocker, J. L. (2007). Interpersonal conflict. Boston: McGraw-Hill.