By Conrado Morlan
In project management, communication is a core competency that significantly impacts the outcome of a project. Most likely, you have worked hard to master your communication skills. Then all of the sudden, the way we communicate changed. The style had to adapt, evolve and amplify with the support of technology during the pandemic.
We were accustomed to more traditional ways of communicating, such as in-person meetings (with groups, or one-on-one with stakeholders), spontaneous conversations around the office, and conference calls, among others. But most of these methods were totally erased when, by necessity, we started to work remotely.
In a matter of weeks, we had to close the communication gap by learning on the fly how to use new technology tools featuring virtual rooms with a mosaic of participants, featuring screen sharing, tool chat, or instant messaging (IM). We faced the challenge of having to define new rules of communication and common ground (like having cameras on or off during the meeting, and muting your microphone if you aren’t talking).
In just a few months, we adjusted to a new way of communication: online calls instead of phone calls; recorded online meetings with automatic transcripts instead of handwritten meeting minutes typed out afterward; more IM communication instead of email communication.
For many project managers who are still remote, this continues to work well; for others who have returned to the office, they are starting to readapt to (or are missing) the “old way of communication.”
Readapting to the “way things were” won’t be an easy task. Many people have lost that sense of personal interaction, and it is becoming more difficult to bring several people together at the same time in a meeting room to discuss the project. People’s preferences have also changed, and many prefer a virtual meeting as they think that there will be no difference to a meeting’s outcome if the meeting is in-person or virtual.
Perhaps the outcome of the meeting will be no different, but what about in-person human interaction—a key element for communication? Reading non-verbal cues is becoming more difficult, a valuable element that will confirm if a “yes” is truly a yes or instead a “maybe.”
As a project manager, what has been your biggest challenge in adopting and adapting the “new way of communication” in your projects?
After a recent project progress meeting with my team, one of the senior members and I discussed the face-to-face communication challenges we have with other members. We concurred that when the person receiving the information has low retention, it results in false assumptions and a misunderstanding on the topic of discussion.
Why is this happening? If the person receiving information confirms that everything is clear, why do we still have communication issues in projects? Usually, it's because taking notes in a meeting is going away, as many team members wait for a meeting recap that summarizes their action items.
In face-to-face communication, we spend most of the time listening—and apparently, we're not good at it. We filter what we want to hear, and that may result in a broken message.
That senior member of my team is part of the silent generation. He mastered his listening skills in an environment without all of the ways to "replay" conversations that we use today. In addition, he mentioned that the communication environment before was "less polluted" than today, where we are bombarded with things that affect our ability to pay attention.
I asked the senior team member what the key elements of good listening skills are, based on his experience. He recommended:
What are the face-to-face communication challenges you have experienced with your team? Do your team members pay attention when you speak? What advantages and disadvantages do virtual meetings have?
By Conrado Morlan
Did you know PMI is supported by volunteers from around the world? I had no idea when I first joined PMI in 2005.
That changed in October 2007 when I joined the ranks of PMI volunteers, a community of practitioners who give their time to work on activities that make a difference around the world. I learned about the many services undertaken by volunteers, including writing PMI standards, preparing questions for certification exams, organizing global conferences and presenting at PMI events. And the list goes on and on.
My first opportunity as a PMI volunteer came three or four months after I registered as a volunteer: participating in an item-writing session for the Project Management Professional (PMP®) exam in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. At first, I had too many questions and felt daunted. Would I be able to deliver? Am I experienced enough? Would I be called again after this session?
When I arrived in Philadelphia, I put that feeling away and got ready to spend three days with a selected group of experienced project management practitioners from the United States and Canada. The session was quite productive; we shared our personal experiences and produced great material for the next version of the PMI certification exam. The experience was one of a kind; I could not believe everything I learned in three days, and for free.
I went on to participate in sessions in São Paulo, Brazil; Mexico City, Mexico; Washington, D.C., USA; Macao, China; Amsterdam, the Netherlands; and more. I had the fortune to write items for the PMP, Program Management Professional (PgMP)® and Portfolio Management Professional (PfMP)® certification exams.
But that was just the beginning. I kept looking for volunteering opportunities and, on several occasions, submitted papers for PMI congresses in North America and Latin America. Many of my papers were accepted and well received by audiences across the globe.
Through the years, I also have supported local chapters as a keynote speaker or guest speaker in Dallas, Texas, USA; Mexico City, Mexico; Costa Rica; and Nuevo León, Mexico. This has enabled me to share my experiences working with multicultural project teams and meet practitioners from different latitudes.
In 2009, at the congress in Orlando, Florida, USA, I tried something new: writing columns for a special edition of PMI Today. I then co-authored articles for PMI Community Post, have been quoted in several PM Network articles and, as you know, am a frequent contributor to Voices on Project Management.
My proudest moments as a volunteer were when I was selected as a core team member to develop the Implementing Organizational Project Management: A Practice Guide and The Standard for Organizational Project Management in 2013 and 2016, respectively. The opportunity to interact with other project leaders from around the world and contribute to the profession was extraordinary.
If you’re still wondering why I am grateful to be a PMI volunteer, try it for yourself. Take the opportunity to live your profession with passion. See what you can gain by sharing experiences with other colleagues while developing and mastering your skills in a friendly environment.
What are you waiting for? Make your mark and join the local or global volunteer team to grow and advance the project management profession.
By Conrado Morlan
As a project management practitioner, I’ve been lucky enough to deploy programs and projects across the Americas, supported by teams in South Asia and Europe.
Working on those assignments enriched my multicultural background and helped me learn and become proficient in Portuguese. But as I’ve learned throughout my career, language is just the tip of the iceberg.
Based on my personal experiences, here are three key areas of focus I recommend that practitioners consider before, during and even after their next global assignment:
It is imperative that global project management professionals understand an individual's personal, national and organizational cultures, so they can better align the team and gain greater influence.
Learn about the country’s culture—do your research and find out similarities and differences. Include cultural differences as one of the topics on the agenda of the kick-off meeting. Use that time as an open forum for everyone to share and record their cultural experiences. Keep those cultural experiences in a repository with documents and useful video clips that can be later used to induct new team members.
Cultural awareness is a skill that should be developed and mastered. Incorporating a cultural differences exercise establishes respect and empathy for diverse values and behaviors, which in turn creates an open and accepting team environment.
As a global project management professional, you may worry about resource planning. Resources may not be your direct reports, meaning you don’t have control over their schedules.
Instead of struggling, apply the Chinese army approach: Imagine you have unlimited resources available. Assume you have resources with the right skills who can be assigned to the different roles in your project. Do not worry yet about assigning names to the roles.
You may find that the roles can’t be filled with internal resources because of a lack of required skills or capacity, so your solution may be to outsource resources.
To complement the approach, you’ll need to adapt and remaster communication and negotiation skills, which will help you get the best resources.
The project management profession now goes beyond just managing projects. The profession helps to achieve business objectives and explore new ways to lead, execute and deliver. Technical expertise in project management is not enough; global project management practitioners must adopt a business-oriented approach.
My suggestion is to become SMART. The SMART concept includes a portfolio of skills the global project management practitioner must master to meet the needs of the organization in the coming years.
Being SMART means you are:
To become SMARTer, global project management professionals need to continually strive for excellence and master new skills to support professional growth and help the organization achieve its business strategy.
If you’ve been exposed to global programs or projects, what advice would you offer to other practitioners?
By Wanda Curlee
PMI is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, an occasion that has led me to reflect on projects from my past. While I don’t have 50 years of experience, I do have 30.
Over those years, I have been a project manager or project team member across many industries. But by far, I’ve learned the most on Department of Defense (DoD) projects. In fact, my very first project was a DoD project. I’ve found that in this industry, the project manager is responsible for all aspects of a project. And when I say all, I mean all.
The project manager needs to understand the contract from beginning to end. From my first federal project to the most recent one, the contract was well worn, as I would look at it many times a day.
On a federal project, there are various sections of the contract. For example, Section B describes how the supplies or products are to be formatted and supplied. Section C is always the statement of work (SOW). Other sections provide the names of administrative and technical contacts, how invoices should be formatted, when the invoices need to be submitted and what supporting information is needed.
There is a section that lists all the rules, regulations and laws that the contractor must follow and obey. This list usually runs more than five pages, printed on both sides and single-spaced.
The statement of work is also always very detailed. Think about a contract for a nuclear submarine, an aircraft or some other vessel—the SOW would be tens of thousands of pages. While I never managed those types of contracts, I did oversee some pretty intense technology programs, where the SOWs were thousands of pages.
I learned that having a team I could trust was instrumental in delivering a complex project. Trust meant that the team understood the needs of the project. They knew when deliverables were due and what the client expected, and they kept everyone informed if there were issues or delays. The team also kept detailed records and updates. This meant the project manager should never be blindsided, and with that, neither should the client.
Of course, I did not learn all this on my own. I had a wonderful boss/coach who saw my potential. He took the time to explain why things were happening the way they were. I was allowed to work in different departments to learn how each area affected the project. To this day, I am very thankful, and I pay it forward. I have always taken the time to mentor and coach those on my project teams or in organizations I ran. The greatest reward was to see those I mentored surpass me in rank within the organization.
When I think back to the moment where I earned my chops, it was a U.S. Air Force project to design a paperless office and non-hackable email system. Don’t laugh! As you may have guessed, the initiative was not successful. Within two years, the government canceled the project. But one thing I’ve learned over the years is this: Unsuccessful projects provide a wealth of learning, maybe even more than successful projects.
What have been the most influential projects you’ve worked on throughout your career?
By Conrado Morlan
I’ve been running for eight-plus years—ever since my son suggested I do a half marathon in San Antonio, Texas, USA. So when a friend suggested I try a triathlon, I was ready for it. At that point, three years ago, I had 10 full marathons and 15 half marathons under my belt.
The triathlon includes three disciplines in a single event: swimming, cycling and running. It was the athletic challenge I needed, similar to the professional challenge I encountered when I moved across industries to keep leading and managing projects.
To get ready for the triathlon, I had to go back to the pool and start swimming after a long time away. I borrowed a road bike from a friend to start the formal training. We worked out on our own on weekdays and as a team on weekends.
That first experience transformed me into a triathlete enthusiast, which led me eventually to the Ironman 70.3. The "70.3" refers to the total distance in miles covered in the race, consisting of a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride, and a 13.1-mile run.
The short distance triathlons helped prepare me for the Ironman 70.3. And as I’ve come to realize, learnings I’ve made along the way also apply to project management. These are my three main findings:
1. Expertise and Experimentation
Mastering all three disciplines in a triathlon can be difficult. My background is in running, but I was new to swimming and cycling. My coach gave good tips and workouts that helped me manage my bicycle on hills, navigate sharp turns and use all of my leg muscles to have a better stroke.
For swimming, I followed my instinct and experimented with the breaststroke. I soon felt confident in the pool and gradually in open waters. My experiment worked out, as I finished my swim in the Ironman 70.3 about 20 minutes ahead of the cut-off time.
As a project management practitioner, you may have mastered an industry-standard methodology and need to catch up with the new trends. In the triathlon, you may not transfer skills from swimming to cycling or running, but in project management, you can.
Communication, time management, and people management are required regardless of the methodology or best practice that will be used in the project. This gives you room to experiment. At project checkpoints, you can inspect, adapt and make the required changes to improve your project and be successful.
2. Transition Is Key
The transition is where the triathlete moves from one discipline to another, changing equipment. The area should be prepared in advance, with the gear set up in a way that helps the athlete have a smooth and fast transition. The time spent there may define the winner of the competition.
I would compare the transition area with the risk registry. The more prepared the project manager is, the less impact there will be to the project. The “gear” in your risk register will include the most impacting risk(s), the risk owner and the actions required to mitigate the risk if it arises. It’s a working registry, so the project manager should keep adding risks during the project as required.
3. Anybody Can Help You
A triathlon is not a team event, but that does not restrict the triathlete from getting support from others. Before the competition, the athlete may have followed a training plan supported by a coach, they might have been mentored by fellow triathletes and, last but not least, they likely benefited from family support.
It’s common for some triathletes to have a race sherpa on the competition day. The athlete and sherpa will discuss beforehand what tasks each will take on during the race. In short, a race sherpa will lend a hand whenever necessary and cheer for the athlete during the competition.
As a project manager, you have your project team, stakeholders and sponsor(s), but that does not restrict you from getting help from people outside the project. You may have an internal or external mentor, somebody in your organization who can be influential and help you address issues. I used to have a list of people in the organization I contacted in advance. I let them know about the project and asked them if I could ask for support if needed. That simple action helped me on several occasions when I faced a challenge.
If you are an athlete and a project manager, what lessons have you learned from practicing your favorite sport? Please share your thoughts below.