If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere right now, you may be dealing with inclement winter weather. That in turn means your local public officials are dealing with how to communicate during a crisis. Project practitioners can learn from them.
Late last month in New York, New Jersey and the New England region in the United States, officials were tasked with preparing citizens for a snowstorm called “historic” before it arrived—but which ultimately spared New York City and neighboring New Jersey. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had to defend the decisionto shut down the city’s subway system due to snow for the first time in its 110-year history.
Similarly, project managers must be aware of the downsides involved with communicating risks on fast-changing projects to stakeholders. If flagged risks don’t materialize, we might find ourselves unable to gain cooperation at a later date.
Here are three communication rules of thumb, each corresponding to a project stage, to keep in mind when you have imperfect information about a project with constantly changing variables—but still must address stakeholders.
1. Plan ahead: One of the first rules of crisis management is to be fully prepared for a crisis.In New York City last month, we saw de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo get out early and explain that the forecast indicated the storm could be the largest in the city’s history. Only 6 inches of snow ended up falling, but the city’s leadership did have a good plan and did effectively prepare the population for the storm.
What can practitioners take away from this? Depending on the type of project you are running, take a few moments to think about how you are going to communicate with your team in case of a problem or uncontrollable event occurring, even if it’s just laying out the steps you need to take on the back of an envelope.
2. Have a clear message:When you are communicating in a variable or crisis situation for your project, you need to have a consistent message, even if you are delivering imperfect or changing information.
Think about how the U.S. National Weather Service issues “advisories,” “warnings” and “watches.” Although some people can be confused by these terms, the service’s definitions of them are distinct.
As a project manager, you may want to put your stakeholder messages into three categories: best case, worst case and most likely case, for example. Choose whichever categories work for your project and clearly define them. Bottom line: Confidently communicate what you know and how it will impact the project and your stakeholders.
3. Review and adapt: Like all good project managers, you likely review best practices at the end of your project. If the project involved communicating in crisis—whether related to weather or a different kind of variable circumstance—it’s especially important to take a few moments at the end to review what worked and what didn’t.
Like the planning and messaging stages noted above, the review doesn’t need to be highly complex. These questions can elicit communications lessons learned:
• How well did my plan allow me to begin communicating early in the crisis?
• Was my message easy for all stakeholders to understand?
• What about my communication delivery methods worked? What didn’t work?
• Did stakeholders respond to my message in the way that I wanted?
These are just three approaches crisis communications. How have you overcome communication challenges driven by project crises or adverse situations in your organization?
Seattle's Troubled Tunnel: 3 Communications Tips for Regaining the Public's Trust
Human Aspects of PM,
PM & the Economy,
PM Think About It,
Categories: Best Practices, Change Management, Communication, Complexity, Ethics, Generational PM, Government, Human Aspects of PM, Leadership, Lessons Learned, PM & the Economy, PM Think About It, Program Management, Project Delivery, Project Failure, Project Planning, Social Responsibility, Stakeholder, Strategy, Teams
One of the biggest public works projects in the United States right now has some major problems. It’s a more than $3 billion effort in Seattle, Washington to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, an aging elevated highway on the city’s waterfront, with a 2-mile-long tunnel. If you’ve been keeping an eye on the project, you know that the tunnel-boring machine (dubbed “Bertha”) broke down more than a year ago, creating various challenges and overruns. Public outcry is mounting.
Now, if you’re like me and believe in the power of communication to ensure that projects run more smoothly, the tunnel project has highlighted the need for more openness, better stakeholder management and speaking to your audience in understandable ways, instead of falling into buzzwords or corporate speak.
If I were working on the project right now, here are three things I would look at to regain the public’s trust and help everyone in Seattle and the state of Washington understand exactly where the project is.
1. Be willing to convey incomplete information. The project’s big challenge is that the machine built specifically for drilling the tunnel encountered a setback when it struck a metal pipe during the excavation process. Unfortunately, it took project leaders over a week to convey the extent of Bertha’s problem, the course of action and any sort of timeline to get things back on track. Since Bertha stopped working in December 2013, information has trickled out to stakeholders.
The project’s leaders could have set a much different tone early on by stating what they know and what it means to the project—along with an acknowledgement that they really aren’t 100 percent sure what the solution is, and a clear statement that they will work to provide status updates to all stakeholders as often as possible.
Instead, it’s been “hard to get straight answers,” as the Seattle radio station KUOW put it.
2. Be honest. This really goes hand in hand with the first point about having the confidence to convey information that is accurate, even if it is incomplete. The public has begun to doubt that project leaders are being honest about the tunnel’s current status and future. This is partly because when the city’s department of transportation (DOT) or the state government has updated the community about the project, they have given information that seems farfetched and is tough to believe in light of Bertha’s lack of progress.
Case in point: A DOT official recently toldSeattle’s City Council that the project was “70-percent complete.” That claim was met with a great deal of skepticism by journalists and members of the community.
The lesson for project managers is: Don’t fudge information to avoid blowback. In the long run, you are putting your project at a strategic disadvantage because you may lose funding or you may come under heavier oversight…or worse. So just explain things in an honest and forthcoming manner.
3. Be consistent in the delivery of information. A lack of consistent communications has been one of the big failings for the Seattle project team. And when there’s an information void, it will usually be filled by something you aren’t going to like. In this instance, the lack of communications has led to a real breakdown of trust.
That’s why you need to make a plan for communicating consistently with stakeholders. It should include the best ways to communicate with specific stakeholder groups, and a plan for gathering accurate, up-to-date information from the project team. To ensure timely gathering, build the consistent delivery of information into day-to-day project activities. Set a schedule of when you want your team members to communicate information to you, and hold them accountable.
In turn, you need to inform key stakeholders of when and how you’ll communicate information to them, and then stick to that plan.
In most cases, communications comes down to recognizing the importance of clarity in effective project leadership. In Seattle, you can see what a lack of a clear process can do to the trust between stakeholders and the project team. I’m confident that most unsuccessful projects began to unravel when communications stopped being clear and consistent.
What do you think?
By Jen L. Skrabak, PMP, PfMP
As you reflect on 2014 and prepare for the New Year, consider these eight resolutions for your project portfolio in 2015.
1. Be a portfolio leader. Don’t just manage the portfolio — lead it by thinking in terms of profits and losses. In that sense, how does it compare to other portfolios or business units? What was your 2014 return on investment, and what is your 2015 estimated return? Is this within your organization’s expectations? What projects/programs were a drag and should be stopped? What projects/programs have the potential to generate the most returns and can be a calculated risk? (A calculated risk has a reasonable probability of generating a return; of course, what is “reasonable” depends on your organization’s risk appetite and threshold.) If you were an investor, would you invest in your portfolio? Asking these questions may help you decide what to do differently in 2015.
2. Accelerate the business. Ensure strategic alignment by thinking about your portfolio as dynamic and agile — an accelerator to business goals and objectives. How can you free up resources to innovate rather than just keep the lights on?
3. Sell your portfolio’s value by understanding your audience. Speak the organization’s language while remembering the 5 C’s: clear, concise, credible, creative and compelling:
Clear— Frame the discussion in terms the other party can easily relate to and understand.
Concise— Long decks and presentations will lose your audience. Think elevator speeches: If you can’t sum it up in a sentence or two, it’s probably too complicated to understand. And if it’s too complicated, then you will not have the opportunity to influence, let alone reach agreement.
Credible— Know what you’re talking about and be prepared. This means doing your homework before coming to the table.
Creative— Look beyond the obvious to find the solution.
Compelling— Always know what’s important to the other party and what will drive them to action. Tease out the underlying need instead of only the stated desire. Understand what your bottom line is, and theirs.
4. Establish a culture of innovation. Do this, and you can deliver long-term as well as quick wins.
5. Make data-driven decisions.Look at the facts to drive decisions, not emotions. Don’t get attached to pet projects.
6. Engage with the world.Go beyond stakeholder engagement at work. Don’t forget about yourself, your home and your community.
7. Trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. That little voice is an early indicator — listen to it. Sometimes when we forge ahead against our instincts, we find out later that it would have been better to take another course.
8. Find meaning in your portfolio. Your portfolio delivers the impossible — innovative projects and programs that have not been done before. What achievements in the past year were key to the organization, in terms of values, culture and feeding creative juices? How can you do more of that in 2015?
My father spent decades working for a telephone company. When I was quite young, he took me to see a large centralized telephone switching facility. I was amazed and enthralled at seeing all the technology it took to carry a person’s voice over a telephone line between houses on a street or across oceans. Leaving the facility, he told me, “You know, all of what you saw here doesn’t matter unless we can get the last 100 feet of a person’s phone line right.” Although the end-user experience back then consisted of selecting numbers on a rotary dial, there were still many technological considerations in getting things to work in the last 100 feet from a telephone pole to a house.
Over the span of my project management career, I’ve realized the wisdom in getting those “last 100 feet” right for an end user — and how doing so is an essential part of the success of a project. Here are important components for getting those last details right:
1. Find end-user stakeholders. It is very common to have one or more stakeholders who are leaders in an organization. Stakeholders who are leaders provide essential strategic direction to a project. However, it is equally important to get the perspective of the people who will eventually use the outputs of a project. In addition to leadership stakeholders, create a group of end-user stakeholders that can provide a detailed perspective on these outputs. This balance of stakeholders between leadership and end users will give an all-encompassing view to help the project meet objectives.
2. Mind location. Quite often, a project manager is physically located near the project’s leadership stakeholders. However, certain types of projects that involve the creation of new processes and products would be better served if the project manager were located closer to the team serving end users, or the end users themselves. Doing so provides additional visibility to factors affecting the project that may come up in formal meetings. For example, the president of a global automobile company prefers to be located out on the design floor so he can have clearer communications with his designers, which results in higher-quality automobiles.
3. Develop functional success criteria. Much of our project management time and efforts focus on meeting functional requirements. But it’s also valuable to know how well we are meeting these requirements. To improve the quality of the outputs of a project, document functional success criteria for each requirement. For example, if a requirement states that a process is intended to produce a certain product, also specify performance criteria for the product. This can include functional success criteria such as: “Billing information must be displayed within two seconds for a customer inquiry 99 percent of the time.” Adding functional success criteria will promote end-user satisfaction and overall project quality.
4. Measure outcome-based metrics. We all know the value of measuring our project performance with A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)metrics such as schedule performance index (SPI) and other useful progress indicators. While these measurements are important, we also need metrics that measure the performance of the outcomes of the project. These can include adoption rates of a new process, evaluating end-user satisfaction with a survey and analysis of labor costs to complete a task. As these measurements typically occur near the close of the project, they can be conducted by someone other than the project manager.
It has been many years since my father took me into the telephone switching room. However, his comments about the importance of getting it right to the very end have stayed with me throughout my own decades-long career.
Do you have any tips on managing the “last 100 feet”?
You want your projects to get off to a good start and end without major glitches. However, what typically happens is that projects begin with many unknowns and continue to progress with more unknowns. Not only that, projects hit many bumps along the way — and you are constantly addressing problems, attempting to resolve issues and rallying to minimize risks.
Faced with this, I recommend approaching projects with a “project network diagram” mentality. (A network diagram is a planning tool that shows sequences of tasks, dependencies on tasks and impacts on a project.) Here are tips on using a network diagram mentality for managing project schedules:
1. Count backward. There are tasks that inevitably depend on each other and have specific time frames. For example, it might take 10 days for one task to be done and 15 days for dependent tasks to be complete. So right away, you know you already need 25 days for that project. So these start-to-finish and other connecting relationships matter when building a schedule, as do float, slack and critical path times. These are all time factors you consider when doing backward counting. The technique of counting backward helps define the schedule because you focus better so as not to miss a number or a task.
2. Look in other directions. A horse can see in one direction with one eye and in the other direction with the other eye. A project manager needs to do the same and constantly be aware of the surroundings. A network diagram offers this peripheral vision by encompassing all the aspects that matter to the project — and helps you set boundaries. A view in one direction can focus on what’s happening in the project. The other direction could be the bigger picture of your project. Let the boundary be what could potentially surface from either of those directions. For example, say your company has a portfolio of projects it has to complete. So at the same time you’re keeping an eye on the spending on your project, you also want to be aware of whether the company will be able to maintain your resources over the length of the project, especially in an economy in which layoffs happen all the time. If your company has to release some of your resources, what then would be your contingency plan to still make sure your project can be completed?
3. Keep the end in mind. Have an idea of the goal the project should achieve. Encourage team members to maintain a layout of their tasks in a way that identifies and prioritizes what must be done and can be done to reach that goal. Then, inspire your team to approach all tasks with confidence. In a network diagram, after having laid possible connections together, the project manager sets controls in place, giving him or her the capability for more optimal opportunities of project success. Manage your time and your project team’s time based on making it to the finish line.
What method do you use to help you prepare for and better manage project schedules?