Seattle's Troubled Tunnel: 3 Communications Tips for Regaining the Public's Trust
Human Aspects of PM,
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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 Vivek Prakash
While high-performing team members are assets for us as project practitioners, we struggle with underperformers. Generally, we have two options with underperformers — get rid of them or help them become better performers. The first option is easy, while the second requires hard work, patience and persistence.
However, the unavailability of skilled employees nowadays can make even thefirst option difficult. So helping the team member improve is often preferable. It’s a challenge, but the rewards are great: We not only convert a underperforming asset into a performing asset but also gain power and respect.
I believe that underperformance is more a perception than a reality, more an expectation mismatch than an incapability. For example, a software company might recruit team members mainly based on technical skills like programming. But all software engineers do not work alike, because their background, behavior, style and beliefs differ.
Imagine giving two different but equally capable team members, A and B, the same task. You believe A is more of a planner, while B is action-oriented. Neither approach is wrong. Employee A will create a meticulous plan before starting, while B will work with a broader plan. A’s action will start later, while B will make a couple of course corrections during the work.
If you are a planning person, you might like A, but if you are an action-oriented person, you prefer B. For urgent work, B is suitable; for quality work, however, A might be better. Based on the type of work, urgency, expected outcome and your own nature, you would pick A or B.
So if a team member is not performing well, the reason may not be his or her incapability. What if your expectations were not correctly explained to the employee? What if the employee has no motivation to complete the task?
To improve someone’s performance, I suggest changing your role from that of a boss to mentor. Why? Because a boss gives further challenges, while a mentor provides support. A boss applies pressure while a mentor tries to find a solution.
People often cannot understand their own underperformance. Providing constructive feedback with a helping hand is the first step. If the employee did not understand expectations well, clarify them. Suggest a reward for improved performance. Money is the lowest award, and you can offer it to anyone. Instead, if possible, create milestones and praise the person for reaching them.
Always try to understand the employee’s natural inclinations. Perhaps the job doesn’t align with his or her natural abilities. Consider another assignment, offer some alternatives and do not ignore the person’s own suggestions.
One more tip: Beware of labeling a person as having a negative attitude. A negative attitude is often created by the environment, an objective mismatch or employee concerns. As soon as the environment improves, objectives align or concerns are addressed, a team member’s attitude will often become positive.
You may have faced a similar challenge in your projects. What was your experience? How did you resolve it?
As we move toward the end of the year and prepare our personal and professional goals for 2015, I’ve been thinking about how someone can go from being just a manager to being a leader.
Years ago, a big project I was working on with American Express and one of its partners ran into trouble. A lot of factors probably led to that, but one still stands out to me: I was succeeding as a manager but failing as a leader. And that was the project’s ultimate downfall.
Over the years, I’ve been able to reflect and grow from that experience. Here are three ways you can use my experience to help you become more of a leader in 2015.
1. Focus on the vision. Managers are, by their nature, implementers. We get tasked with projects that we may not have had a great deal of input into. But just because we’re helping our sponsors reach their goals doesn’t mean we can’t apply our vision as well. To focus on vision in your management and leadership, start by formulating what this project means to you, the organization, the team and the end users. Then, most importantly, personalize those aspects that are likely to inspire your team.
2. Focus on important conversations.I once read that a project manager spends 90 percent of his or her time communicating. To become a better leader, focus on the most important of these conversations: ones with your sponsor and your team. They are the people who are going to be able to inform you about changes in circumstances, troubles in a project or resource challenges. While there are lots of important people to talk with, the most important are the ones who have the most direct impact on the project’s success or failure — so prioritize those.
3. Look at the long-term.This advice ties into having a vision for your project and having conversations with your important team members and sponsors. But thinking long-term also means you need to infuse your vision and conversations with a future orientation. This might mean that you talk with your sponsor about how a project fits into a long-term strategic plan for the organization. Or, it might mean that you spend time during conversations with your team members asking about their goals and values. This can allow you to shift your actions and assignments in a way that delivers on the promise of the current project. At the same time, you will have built a stronger understanding and real relationship with your sponsors and teams that will transcend your current project and have lasting benefits for projects and years to come.
What are some of the ways you’ve helped make yourself a stronger leader, rather than solely a manager?
Many project professionals find themselves in a position where they need to influence the decisions or actions of others, but lack the authority to impose an outcome. The ability to influence others is particularly important when managing teams in a matrix organization or when working as a consultant or expert advising line management or project management.
A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fifth Editionincludes influencing in its list of key interpersonal skills and provides a brief outline in Appendix X3.5. Here are some practical options for building and using influence to benefit a project.
One of the standard references defining the problem and offering practical solutions is Influence Without Authorityby U.S. professors Dr. Allan Cohen and Dr. David Bradford. This book introduces the Cohen-Bradford Influence Without Authority (IWA) model that describes how to influence others through a give-and-take exchange. The model consists of six steps, starting with “Assume all are potential allies.” Then it moves with:
· “Clarify your goals and priorities”
· “Diagnose the world of the other person”
· “Identify relevant currencies, theirs and yours”
· “Dealing with relationships”, and
· Finally at the top, “Influence through give-and-take”
The IWA model is based on creating something of value to “trade” and then obtaining the best return from your investment. It is subtly different to the transactional approach of What’s in it for Me (WIFM).
WIFM focuses on finding a value proposition that provides a direct benefit to the stakeholders you want help from. It is a simple “trade” — if they help you achieve your project outcomes, they benefit from the success. WIFM is effective in situations where a senior stakeholder (e.g., the sponsor) can directly benefit from helping you succeed.
IWA is more effective when there is no direct benefit for the stakeholder you need help from and is based on “trading favors” or, more simply, the “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” approach. We can and often do intuitively understand the give-and-take in a transaction for small things, such as sharing the effort to pick up the morning coffee. However, for large complex transactions, we need to be more methodical and think through our processes, goals and interests, those of our allies and those of the stakeholders we need to influence.
For starters, project managers who use IWA effectively know they get work done by working well within their peer network. If someone does something for the project manager, there’s a good chance the project manager will do something for him or her in return. It’s a two-way trade that benefits everyone. But even so, influencing without authority isn’t an easy task. The key to IWA is creating and banking “organizational currency” in advance of the time you need to use it.
Organizational currency comes in many formats:
· The ability to highlight and publicize good performance
· The ability to make useful connections for the person
· Useful or valuable information (for the stakeholder)
· Developing a good relationship that both people value
· Providing help or assistance needed by the other person
· Personal support, coaching or mentoring
Keep in mind you need to invest your time and effort to earn organizational currency with your stakeholders before you can “spend” it. Time isn’t a luxury many project managers can afford, but investing in relationship-building will ultimately help you to be more productive and generate quicker consensus with project team members, peers in the organization and senior managers.
The two key takeways for successful IWA? First, recognize that “give” comes before “take” in “give-and-take,” and second, make sure what you give is of value to the people you are engaging within their world. You need to understand what is important or useful to them.
What’s your number-one tip for influencing without authority?
Recently, I re-watched Borat during a long holiday weekend. Though it's a comedy, I think there are important lessons to be learned from its essence, which is an exploration of behavior: how a foreigner's actions — the norm in his or her culture — may seem offensive to another country's native population. In the film, Borat, a fictional journalist from Kazakhstan, travels to the U.S. and makes interviewees uncomfortable with his behavior. You may have had a similar experience when you started working in a multicultural project environment.
The film showed several examples of issues project managers may have experienced in such an environment. From those, I have noticed the following two cause the most discomfort among project team members:
U.S. anthropologist Edward T. Hall invented this term to refer to our personal space. Depending on an individual's culture, the amount of acceptable space around a person varies according to subtle rules.
In the film, Borat gives a great demonstration of invasion of personal space. He starts greeting New Yorkers on the street with a handshake and a kiss on each cheek. Most of the people react adversely. Some even threaten him.
Team members in a multicultural project environment may experience similar aversion, particularly during the forming stage. I remember during a kickoff meeting in Argentina with team members from Argentina, Uruguay and the U.S., the Argentine host introduced himself with a handshake and a kiss on the cheek. He started with the Uruguayans, who have a similar greeting. When the host got to the first U.S. team member, he stepped back, extended his arm as far as he could and said, "A handshake is OK for me." In situations like this, warn your team members beforehand that there might be cultural differences, and urge them to be upfront with their preferences while respecting others' norms.
In my experience, stereotyping is the main source of conflicts in a multicultural project environment. In the film, Borat stops at a rodeo dressed as a cowboy to interview a rodeo owner. Because Borat has a large mustache, the owner assumes he's from the Middle East. The owner recommends Borat shave his mustache so he can look "more Italian," which may help him fit in better.
If not managed well, stereotyping may become a barrier and impact the project work. I recently witnessed this during a project that included implementations in Latin America. One of my European colleagues was very vocal about the stereotyped unpunctuality of Latin Americans, recommending strict controls be placed to avoid any schedule slip. I had a private discussion with him to find the source of his concern. It turned out that he had not had previous experience working with a Latin American team, and he was operating on a stereotype. I asked him to give the team members a chance to prove themselves before he set any controls. In the end, his perceptions were unfounded — the team members worked as expected and met schedule requirements without the need for controls.
As projects become more global, project managers need to understand cultural complexities that lie below surface behaviors. I would advise using a holistic approach to find out more about people's cultural values and beliefs.
Have you learned cultural lessons to apply on your project team from unconventional sources?