Voices on Project Management

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Voices on Project Management offers insights, tips, advice and personal stories from project managers in different regions and industries. The goal is to get you thinking, and spark a discussion. So, if you read something that you agree with - or even disagree with - leave a comment.

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8 Steps for Better Listening

Categories: Communication

In my last post, I discussed the benefits of learning to listen. Here, I will share easy, actionable steps to help develop your listening skills. While going through the steps below, please remember, listening more and talking less are two sides of the same communication coin. 

  1. Start your discussion by praising the other person who has just finished talking, even if you disagree with him or her. Normally we do not disagree with all the points of the other person, but we tend to ignore the points of agreement. Starting with praise will help you listen to the other person completely, and you will be compelled to try to find points where you agree rather than disagree.
  2. Remember that more talkative people spill more information, and that can be used against them. As talkative people listen less, their questions also often go unanswered. When you are aware that you may be providing unnecessary information to others, you'll make an effort to speak about only what is necessary. 
  3. Better listeners get more information from others, which they can use to fine-tune their point of view and present it more effectively. When you're eager to improve your thoughts, you listen more carefully, because that helps you strategize. Listening will make you a better negotiator.
  4. Write down points of agreement and disagreement. When you write down the points, you have little option but to listen. 
  5. If you do not get the opportunity to talk, the sky will not fall. Moreover, it is of little use talking in a forum that does not give all participants an opportunity to present their point of view. Most of the time, when someone says, "Listen to me," the opposite happens.
  6. Don't try to win the speaking contest. Instead, focus on winning the hearts of the people by understanding them. Many times, more talkative people appear to win the battle, but they lose the war. More talkative people do not converse, but instead force their viewpoint on others. This creates a negative perception of such a person that sustains beyond the conversation and impacts the overall relationship. 
  7. Establish simple, fair rules. In a group, ground rules help create an environment of listening. For example, solicit opinions one at a time, give everyone two minutes to put up their points in round-robin fashion, or ask that everyone reiterate the previous speaker's point of view before making his or her own. 
  8. Take an example from the deaf. I will leave you with a thought from A Comma in a Sentence by Indian businessman and author R. Gopalakrishnan, in which he gains a valuable perspective from hearing-impaired teacher Bruno Kahne. The book paraphrases Mr. Kahne: "Deaf people look at the speaker in the eye and make sure they are fully present in the interaction. They absorb more and retain more. In many management situations...there are simultaneous and multiple conversations. That will never happen with deaf people. They follow a strict protocol of one person speaking at a time. Consensus and agreement are reached faster than out of a heated and overlapping conversation. In the long term, slower is faster. Deaf people are direct and they communicate with their thoughts and feelings.... They are economical about the way they communicate. For the same reason, they listen well, too."

What is your top tip for becoming a good listener? 

Read PMI's The Essential Role of Communications to learn more about effective communication.
Posted by Vivek Prakash on: February 02, 2014 09:22 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Careful -- What You Measure Is What You Get

Categories: Communication, Metrics

"You cannot manage what you cannot measure" is a common mantra of today's business world. But to really make a difference on projects, you also have to make sure you're measuring -- and communicating -- the right things.

A policy introduced to measure the performance of our local hospitals a couple years back offers a salient lesson. Our state government decided to incentivize hospitals by rewarding good performance and penalizing poor performance using a standard set of KPIs.

The plan created many vested interests:

  • The government's desire to look good by reducing patient waiting time
  • The hospitals' desire to achieve the maximum budget income for the year
  • The administrators' desire, both in the hospital and the government, to avoid rocking the boat 
But an audit found KPI-induced behaviors, in many cases, were worse for patients than if nothing had changed in policy.

For example, one key measure was the time patients wait in the casualty/emergency area before being admitted to the hospital. So to avoid a fine for failing to admit the patient within the prescribed maximum time, some administrators were transferring patients from emergency care to the operating theater's waiting area. 

The action meant a reduction in the level of care, with the patient being moved to an area with little monitoring capability. Throughput in the operating theater was also diminished due to overcrowding and skilled staff having to spend time on patient care rather than surgery.

The government had its data and the hospital system responded to the stimulus of the KPI, but everyone forgot the key objective: enhanced patient care. 

There are a number of important lessons in this story to consider when setting up project dashboards and the like:

  • The KPIs you choose communicate to stakeholders what you think is most important. What is easy to measure is not necessarily important.
  • What you choose to measure will change behaviors. Focus on things that matter, such as value and benefits, not easy-to-measure statistics, such as time and cost. 
  • Make sure the data is validated. 
  • A KPI system cannot solve the problem, but it can be a powerful facilitator of solutions if it's set to measure the right statistics and ask the right questions. 
Simply identifying a problem and creating a KPI is not enough! Work with the project team to make sure an effective solution is crafted and then measure the effectiveness of the solution. This is far more challenging than simply processing monthly reports on easily accessible information such as schedule performance, but it can really contribute to the overall performance of your organization. 

Finally, remember that if you pick the wrong KPI, you will get behavior changes, often times for the worse. It's better to have an informed conversation with key stakeholders over value and what really matters. 

What messages are you sending with the metrics you choose to measure success?
Posted by Lynda Bourne on: January 29, 2014 11:24 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

3 Ways to be a Better Communicator

Categories: Communication, Teams

As project managers, it's easy to get caught up in the technical aspects of our jobs. For example, if you are in IT, there is always a new bit of code, application or hardware that -- if you invest the time in learning about it -- will make your work easier. 

But I'd like to share the number-one way you can actually improve your project management skills -- and it won't take days of learning a new technology or software. It's by using communication skills you already have in a more focused, conscious manner. 

  1. Build communication into your everyday plan. Project managers tend to get pulled in multiple directions. So instead of being the driving force behind the information flow, you end up reacting to the latest problem or sponsor demand. While you are never going to be free of these things, you can manage them more effectively by creating a communications plan. This can be as simple as having a daily status meeting to cover where everyone is, or as elaborate as a multilayered communications plan that accounts for interactions with sponsors, team members and stakeholders. Either way, start by planning for how you want to manage your daily communication, and your project management will get easier. 
  2. Be specific. We find ourselves dealing with very complex and difficult projects. With this complexity comes the challenge of making clear your directions, instructions, timelines and goals. The best way to overcome that is by being extremely specific. As a project manager, you may not have the industry-specific technical skills needed to understand every aspect of your project, but you should know what goals are driving the project, which means you have the ability to set and understand very specific objectives for your team. This is going to help you not only manage the workflow more efficiently, but your communication with your sponsors, stakeholders and teams will be more efficient because you are going to have more specificity with which to address their questions and concerns.
  3. Show empathy and support. You know what pressure from sponsors, stakeholders and team members feels like. So take a step back and think about how those parties feel as well. After all, you are often at the center of the flow of all information into and out of the project. So to really move your communication and project management skills forward this year, be consciously aware of how the flow of information -- or lack of it -- can make your team and stakeholders feel. Let them know you understand how they feel about being a little behind on the information curve. Express your support for the project and the work that is being done. Often this little step of positive communication can win you big points with stakeholders. 
With these three tips, you can do a better job of managing the aspects of communication that you can handle -- making the aspects you can't always control a little easier to navigate. 

Read PMI's The Essential Role of Communications to learn how effective communication impacts the success of your projects and programs. 
Posted by Dave Wakeman on: January 24, 2014 01:13 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Listen Up

Categories: Communication

Project management is about making decisions and actions, and actions don't require words. Speaking is inversely proportional to the exchange of information: Silence allows the other to speak more, and thus those who listen receive more information. The more information you have, the better decisions and more effective actions you can make. 

By focusing on listening, you can know the issues beforehand and can sense the problem before it hits the project. And when you know issues and problems, you solve them before they damage the project. Here are a few scenarios that illustrate the power of listening.

If you don't listen

U.S. author and businessman Dr. Stephen Covey said, "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." This temptation to reply is so intense that it leads to frequent interruptions, ignored viewpoints and fewer opportunities for others to share their knowledge. Information flow is blocked, which impacts decision-making. Interruptions also make people feel like they are not respected and valued, leading to dissatisfaction, loss of interest and attrition. What's worse, when it's the customer who is not listened to, it could lead to loss of business. 

If you listen

A positive attitude toward listening creates a productive environment. When people's opinions are heard and acted upon, they feel respected and valued, which motivates them and garners higher levels of commitment for you. And a sense of commitment yields powerful results: Team members won't need to be "controlled," support functions become eager to help, and customers contribute instead of interfere. 

So why do people not listen? 

The reason for a lack of listening skills in project management varies. For example, a person may have grown up in an environment that does not promote listening. He or she may lack patience and critical thinking -- when he or she hears a new viewpoint, instead of evaluating his or her beliefs, the person immediately defends preconceived ideas. In addition, delivery and timeline are so important that he or she does not bother with other people's comments. Multitasking also impacts listening, and someone might often pretend to listen while his or her attention is on responding to emails.
How can someone develop a listening attitude? Adopt and religiously follow some of these points:

  • Realize that the sky will not fall if you lose the opportunity to express your viewpoint.
  • Focus on content and not on speaker's style of delivery.
  • Paraphrase the speaker's viewpoint before presenting yours.
  • Stop multitasking -- prioritize and focus on one item at a time.
  • Feelings, respect and experience are more important than results. Better feeling, respect and experience will bring better results.
  • Organize your meetings to reduce interruptions. Do not rush your meetings. If you're crunched for time, allow fewer people to speak, but listen to everyone fully, respond and take notes.   
  • Seek feedback, publicly or anonymously.
  • Appreciate! The more you appreciate others, the more others will appreciate you.

Old habits die hard, and things do not change overnight. But if you recognize that a change is needed, start with some of the bullet points above, and work your way up to all of them. It takes some time to get results, but eventually you will observe a significant difference. 

How did you develop your listening skills? Read more about the impact of effective communications in PMI's Pulse of the Professionâ„¢ In-Depth Report: The Essential Role of Communications.

Posted by Vivek Prakash on: January 10, 2014 10:30 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Harnessing the Law of Reciprocity

Categories: Communication, Stakeholder

I have become an ardent advocate for "the law of reciprocity" -- the principle that when you do a favor for someone, he or she will have a deep-rooted psychological urge to do something nice in return. And I believe it should be consciously practiced within the work culture. 

Reciprocating to a goodwill gesture is one of the universal rules of good manners. It is a principle that comes naturally to many of us despite our culture. Organizations and businesses are now capitalizing on this principle to build relationships internally with their employees and externally with clients and customers. Reciprocity exists in many different ways, such as: 

  • Information or good advice that is of value to the receiver 
  • Help or a kind gesture 
  • Recognizing and appreciating a person's contribution
  • Remembering events that are of importance to others
  • Rewards, celebrating personal or group achievements and successes
  • Sharing job opportunities or networking leads
  • Creating convenient services for employees, such as complimentary or subsidized meals for workers or on-site child care 
  • Free services for clients and customers
  • Thank-you messages
  • Public acknowledgment or mentions of good work 

So how can a culture of reciprocity help projects and those who work on them? 

Employee psychology surveys and studies have found a positive relationship between supportive organizations and employee commitment to the organization. These employees often also showed willingness to help the organization reach its goals. What's significant from these findings is that as reciprocity as a whole increased, so did employee obligation.  

Commitment and obligation to pursue project goals is ideal for project managers and project-orientated organizations. Therefore, creating a reciprocating project environment can only deepen individual and team commitment and ownership of tasks and concern for the project. It can also help increase individual satisfaction and team motivation as individuals feel supported, valued and connected. 

Project leaders can utilize the law of reciprocity by engaging and encouraging feedback from team members, and then using the information to create well-defined and simple processes or provide the means to make their work efficient. By removing unnecessary obstacles and demonstrating an active interest in wanting to help, leaders send a clear message to the team that its time and views are respected and valued. In return, team members may feel more obliged to reciprocate these efforts and show willingness to support the project and the manager during difficult circumstances. 

Reciprocity with project sponsors and executives can pay dividends for a project manager as well. A sponsor may become more willing to support the project manager in pivotal matters, such as acquiring resources and approval processes. And being in a reciprocal relationship allows project staff to say no to requests without angering or offending stakeholders -- with good relationships, there is more understanding and forgiveness for when things go wrong. 

Beyond project teams and stakeholders, reciprocity should be exercised with clients, customers and vendors. This is good for projects as it helps develop robust, long-term relationships rather than one-time engagements. And these relationships are especially useful when negotiating for resources, contracts, deadlines and finance-related matters.

But beware of how you approach reciprocity. It should be informal and without expectation of return in a specific situation or by a specific date -- otherwise it becomes a bribe, something negative and undesirable. Reciprocation should be carried out with sincerity, generosity and integrity. 

Can you think of a time when you used reciprocation to help with project work?
Posted by Saira Karim on: January 03, 2014 05:51 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
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