by Maria Isabel Specht, PMBOK® Guide-Seventh Edition Development Team member
When I retired from the petroleum industry after 31 years as a researcher and project manager in Venezuela’s hyper-inflated economic conditions, it would have been easy for me to accept my son’s offer to support me and stay at home. Instead, I took on the new phase of my life with a curiosity that has left me continuing to develop as a project manager, an educator, and even a mom and a grandma. That journey, and the growth I’ve experienced, have inspired me to develop a new project management mantra: projects are led by people, done by people, and made for people.
I entered my retirement with an intellectual curiosity that led me to pursue education in neuro-linguistics programming (NLP). I realized that I could still improve the way that I communicate, even after a full career in a competitive industry. I learned to develop active listening skills that allowed me to do something I call “designing my conversations.” This means I work to listen and respond in my interactions, and to understand the unique circumstances of the people I communicate with. It also means I focus on achieving specific goals through my conversations. My colleagues at NLP School noticed my interest and recommended I consider additional training as an ontology coach. I began to have a realization: communication and project delivery are deeply related.
I began applying more of my communication tools in project environments. With the help of two philosopher mentors, I envisioned projects as a net of conversations. In these conversations, people are bringing their own backgrounds, their emotions, their fears and their personal goals. By understanding the people’s motivations, I am able to listen and understand better–and this has led me to better project outcomes. When project leaders view their projects as nets, they can coordinate efforts and understand impacts across the project. They become more effective.
On the other hand, when I looked into projects that showed no success, I considered that there must be something we were not considering. I asked myself, “What if we are not considering that a main focus of projects is people?” The success of projects is based on people–and people can be successful if they have empowering conversations.
As project leaders, we need to endorse our team members by actively listening to them and valuing them. We have an opportunity to create this environment on our teams, which will increase the team’s effectiveness and lead to better outcomes. Even though we are in a hostile economic environment in Venezuela, we are still having fun on our project teams because we have a sense of community, we are working in collaboration, and we deserve it.
I see messages about the communication processes – emitters and receivers, but what about the emotions? I propose that a fundamental principle of project management is to nurture a project environment that values individual commitment, collaboration, and communication.
Now, I work at the university level as a “divergent teacher”—I do not deliver a master class of lectures to my students. I teach my students, aspiring mechanical engineers, through projects. And as I teach them, I encourage them to apply active listening techniques and to design their conversations. Sometimes, they apply these skills on our in-class project teams. Other times, they take these skills into their personal lives and report out on communications with their others. I joke with my students that even my son is one of my stakeholders. The next generation of project leaders will be more impactful—and better off—if they are able to navigate in the complex web of project communications using active listening and designed conversations. This leads to the coordination of actions for making decisions, building relationships, evaluating new possibilities, and creating new realities.