Seattle's Troubled Tunnel: 3 Communications Tips for Regaining the Public's Trust
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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?
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?
Economic and social conditions have led us into an age where workers are extending the length of their careers. For the first time in history, three generations —Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y — are together in the workforce. The generations tend to differ in values, styles and work ethic.
Baby Boomers, the most experienced workers, can easily feel a cultural disconnect with members of Gen X and Gen Y, especially in the ethical approach to work-life balance.
While many Boomers believe in working long hours, both Gen X and Gen Y believe they can accomplish the same task in less time through the smarter use of technology. This generational difference can result in misunderstandings.
Consider this example:
Julie Phillips, a Baby Boomer, is the project manager and sets a team meeting at 5:00 PM on Monday. She feels the meeting is needed to prepare for a briefing with the executive sponsor that will occur the next day.
Her team member, John, a Gen X’er, leaves early without informing her to attend his son’s soccer match. Kevin, a Gen Y’er, leaves at 5:00 to volunteer at his favorite charity.
Jane sends an email to John and Kevin indicating a lack of dedication and poor professional conduct, noting that the behavior is costing the project and the company.
What should be done to avoid such conflicts? How does work ethic play a role? What would you do in this situation?
Claudio Fernandez-Araoz, writing in Harvard Business Review, finds that the impact of demographics on hiring pools is undeniable. (“21st Century Talent Spotting," 2014.) As Boomers retire, organizations must support the rising leadership of Gen X and the increasing population of Gen Y in the workforce. (“4 Ways to Retain Gen Xers,”HBR Blog, 2014.) Millennials will represent 75 percent of the global workforce by 2025. (“Deloitte Millennial Survey,”2014)
To reduce the potential for clashes, organizations must establish and communicate their ethical values and standards of conduct. A strong ethical tone starts at the top. Organizations should define expectations for professional conduct that meet business goals and respect generational differences in values and approach.
To get optimal performance from the entire workforce, a cross-generational dialogue is useful. Dialogue as a tool can uncover inter-generational dynamics that may be affecting your company’s environment and build the bridges of communication.
For project management professionals, the PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct and the PMI Ethical Decision Making Framework are available to guide ethical behavior and address any ethical dilemma irrespective of the situation or the generation.
Claudio Fernandez-Araoz. "21st Century Talent Spotting.” Harvard Business Review, June 2014.
Deloitte Millennial Survey. Rep. Deloitte Touche Tomatsu, 2014. Web. Sept. 2014.
Hewlett, Sylvia Ann. "4 Ways to Retain Gen Xers." Web log post. Harvard Business Review. HBR Blog Network, 24 Sept. 2014. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.
Voices on Project Management Guest Blogger Shobhna Raghupathy MS, PMP is a member of PMI Ethics Member Advisory Group. She has more than 20 years of strategy and portfolio management consulting experience in telecom, healthcare and finance. A longtime volunteer leader of PMI, she is a recognized speaker at PMI® Global Congress and Leadership Institute Meetings. She is also a requested presenter at PMI chapter professional development days and symposia. Currently, she is an invited member of the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council.
A few years ago, after I finished a presentation about multigenerational and multicultural teams in Mexico City, Mexico, someone in the audience asked me what kicked off my interest in these topics, which have become a bigger trend in the past decade. The first thing that came to mind was a proverb that my late father used to say to my brother and me: When in Rome, do as the Romans do. He wanted to remind us that we need to adapt to the conditions of our environment.
My father was a member of the Silent Generation. He faced many challenges during his childhood and adolescence, but he was able to adapt to every circumstance and went on to explore opportunities in many fields: factory worker, amateur sportsman, mechanic, and opera and popular music singer. Through his interest in opera, he taught himself foreign languages -- he wanted to know what he was singing so he could add emotion to his act. Later, when he explored popular music, he learned to play guitar and created his own performance style. This is how he adapted to different environments -- by learning constantly and proactively.
Despite being from the Silent Generation, my father was an extrovert in his own way, which led him to be a great relationship builder. During our Sunday strolls in Mexico City, he always looked for tourists who needed directions and took the opportunity to practice the languages he had learned and ask questions about their culture. Adapting is as much pushing yourself to learn on your own as it is learning from others.
And while my father and that good old proverb inspired my interest in these topics, here's one piece of advice I can give you from personal experience: To master multicultural and multigenerational issues, it's pivotal to keep a positive attitude and accept the challenges that different environments offer.
What sparked your interest in multicultural and multigenerational teams? Was it second nature, or did you need to do so for a project?
Communication is a core competency that significantly impacts the outcome of a project. But mastering communication skills has been one of the toughest tasks I have faced as a project practitioner because those skills have evolved and grown along with the fast pace of technology in multigenerational project environments.
Some of us may be used to more traditional ways of communicating (as I discussed in a recent blog post), such as an in-person meeting or a telephone call. But these methods may not be effective with the newer generation of project practitioners. The generation gap may be a source of conflict or a barrier to defining common ground, since communication that may seem negative to one person may be the norm for others. For example, I remember one time when a younger team member sat three cubicles away from a senior (and older) team member, and would ask him questions via instant message. The senior team member considered this rude, since those questions could easily be asked face to face. Meanwhile, the younger team member thought he was being more productive in multi-tasking mode, asking questions via IM and emailing about project tasks.
To break down these types of barriers and diminish miscommunications, you will first need to identify the communication preferences of all project team members or stakeholders, and share them with the team. I typically meet with each team member individually, and then create a matrix listing all members and specific communication preferences for each.
When you meet with Gen Y team members to understand their preferences, use the time as an opportunity to learn about new collaboration tools that you can apply to the project as well. For me, this is how I learned about instant message chat lingo and how to share my computer desktop with others while on a video conference call. It is also during these meetings that I share with the Gen Y team members my project experience, exposing them to real-life project situations.
Finally, be aware of pushback following any kind of changes to project communications that may disturb already established practices. If you introduce too many new technologies, they may not be welcome. The best way to make sure the team adopts new forms of communication is by proposing, not imposing.
How do you ensure your project team and stakeholders adopt new communications tools?
Read more about effective communications in PMI's Pulse of the Professionâ„¢ In-Depth Report, The High Cost of Low Performance: The Essential Role of Communications.