Effective Communication: A Missing Piece in Project Management

Kurt Schmidt, Director of Project Management, The Nerdery
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Kurt Schmidt, Director of Project Management, The Nerdery

The key to success in project management is an emphasis on customer service. Quality customer service – both internally and externally – always starts and ends with clear and concise communication. With all the processes in managing a digital project, the focus on providing a solid engagement for the stakeholders can be treated too passively. Getting your stakeholders excited about their project can be an uphill battle, and keeping them engaged can be near impossible in some cases. In this article, I’ll outline some concepts and strategies that project managers can use to keep project stakeholders happy throughout their project.

One of the most overlooked skill sets in project management is the act of building consensus. You may have the most detailed status reports or the most broken-down work breakdown structure, but that doesn’t necessarily mean your team or stakeholders understand where their project stands. It’s human nature to interpret documentation differently than others around us, so it’s a project manager’s sacred duty to avoid saying anything that could be lost in translation. What one stakeholder may read in a sprint plan can sometimes be seen in a much different light to other team members. Take the time to confirm that you and your stakeholders are digesting the same information, and to know that you’re all aligned on its meaning.

Some team members and stakeholders may hesitate to speak their true mind in a larger group. So, schedule regular one-on-one meetings with your team to root out any underlying issues, and work together to resolve any challenges before they become larger issues that affect the project overall.

What does it mean to “read between the lines” in my world of digital project management? Much like the above paragraph, you need to understand what your team and stakeholders are taking away from project meetings and supporting documentation. As you prepare your next meeting agenda, try to think of all the talking points that you anticipate the team will contribute. What will the invitees add to the discussion? What do you hope they’ll add?

Anticipate how your stakeholders or team might react to your agenda. You should already know how they would respond – albeit in a general way – to the topics at hand. If you have no clue how they’ll react, then it’s time to more-fully integrate yourself into the project. Ask questions, and then even question the answers. Dive deeper and root out all the possibilities.

"Anticipate how your stakeholders or team might react to your agenda"

In my digital project world of custom software design and development, I’ve seen some of the most detailed project plansfalter simply due to a shared misunderstanding of the nomenclature used in an engagement. Words have meaning – just make sure your stakeholders know exactly what your words mean by providing ample context and clear definition of your thoughts, direction and purpose. At the start of your project, list out common and uncommon words that will be used on your project – and clearly articulate their definitions. Literally, give your stakeholders a glossary, for their reference – particularly if you work in technology, as I do. This glossary can be added to your project charter or statement of work for referral throughout the project.

Also, don’t focus only on technical or project management terms, but also define the business terms that could be considered insider-lingo to some. What you call a “SCRUM” meeting might be thought of as a “stand-up” meeting to a stakeholder – and while that example doesn’t seem like a large issue, it certainly can be as people come on and off your project over time. What you refer to as a WBS (work breakdown structure), “task” or “stakeholder” matrix might simply be referred to as “that spreadsheet” by your team. If your stakeholders understand why the sheet exists as much as how to use it, you are already further ahead in the communication game than most.

Adapt your language to your stakeholders. Coach your team  members on doing the same. Be flexible so that your team and your client will better understand the opportunities and issues that you communicate throughout the project.

Nothing on this planet makes concepts more easily understandable or more quickly recalled than face-to-face communication. The most successful projects I’ve experienced are completed by fully embedded and co-located teams, but this is not always possible in every project or engagement. You may find yourself managing a project with team members or stakeholders in other office locations, or even out of the country. No matter what the location challenges are, you should try to have all of your meetings in person or via video conferencing means. While this can be a challenge, it’s well worth the effort; a failing project will create far greater challenges for you and your project’s stakeholders.

Project management is primarily a task in controlling and monitoring project success, and that’s as simple as it sounds until it suddenly isn’t – usually because of failure to communicate. Focusing on quality communication and clear direction will help ensure that you are a respected leader within your project team, and looked at as a solution-oriented lead to your stakeholders. Most importantly, proactive project management gives stakeholders peace of mind, keeps your team engaged, and gives your project its best chance to succeed.

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