Thursday, May 17, 2012

that’s not what I meant …

We have all sent or received an email that was misinterpreted. Regardless of whether we are the sender or the receiver, the experience is crummy. We feel defensive, misunderstood, unappreciated, angry, sad … the list of adjectives could go on and on.  In good scenarios, we recognize that there is a communication break down, pick up the phone, and the issue is happily resolved five minutes later. Too often, we reply in an increasingly cold way ensuring that the sender also feels the alienation we experienced.

While it is more than possible to misinterpret what someone says in person, the odds are higher with email communication. “Face-to-face interaction … is information-rich. We interpret what people say to us not only from their tone and facial expressions, but also from their body language and pacing, as well as their synchronization with what we do and say” (Goleman, 2007).

side by side …

This communication demo illustrates how a brief email, a voice mail, and an in person conversation can use the same words but create very different experiences. The email is not offensive, but it seems cold and allows room for interpreted blame – which leads to room for defensiveness. If I had received this email, I would have felt like I needed to explain why I had not gotten my piece completed on time. The voicemail is slightly warmer; however, I still felt slightly defensive. While the in person interaction does still have the urgency of needing the completed work, the body language, her smile and relaxed tone feels more like a reminder. I’d be more likely to respond pleasantly and collaboratively.

what can be done …

When working on a project, these steps will help increase the positive communication:

-       Create an audience list to ensure everyone who needs information receives it. Clear communication will help keep everyone informed and avoid hurt feelings (Portny, et al, 2008).
-       Meet with key players at the start of a project to talk about communications. In the meeting, clarify the benefits of strong communications and identify any potentially problematic issues - words, analogies, approaches, etc. (Laureate, 2012).
-       We are less likely to misinterpret email communications from people we know and have communicated with in person (Goleman, 2007). Develop initial face-to-face relationships and nurture those throughout the project.
-       When informal conversations occur, follow up with a formal written summary (Portny, et al, 2008). I have found this helps tie the feeling of the in person communication to the more formal email communication method, buying me an emotional buffer and increasing the chance that subsequent email communications will read as less cold and stiff and decrease the chance for misunderstanding.
-       Finally, you may need to tailor your communications to meet different needs of project team members, stakeholders, or key players. As the project manager, it is your job to communicate with them, not their job to conform to your preference (Laureate, 2012).

I fear workplace miscommunication is not going away any time soon, but we can take steps to minimize the occurrence and mitigate the damage. An acknowledgement of the derailment usually goes a long way toward getting communication back on track!

Goleman, D. (2007, October 7) E-Mail is easy to write (and to misread) The New York Times. Retreived from
Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2012). Practitioner voices: strategies for working with stakeholders [Video webcast]. Retrieved from
Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2012). Project management concerns: Communication strategies  and organizational [Video webcast]. Retrieved from
Portny, S. E., Mantel, S. J., Meredith, J. R., Shafer, S. M., Sutton, M. M., & Kramer, B. E. (2008). Project management: Planning, scheduling, and controlling projects. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

reflections on project management ...

Having worked on projects both professional and personal, I am grateful to think back over them with mostly fond memories of overall success. A few wildly successful ones, a few mostly successful ones, and only a handful that would fall into the “um … yeah” bucket. For this, I am grateful. Not only for my mother who instilled in me a natural “plan-y-ness,” but also for a company of strong project managers to work with and for. One project sticks out as less than successful.

here’s the scoop …

I was asked to join a group dedicated to reviewing different aspects of the company all from the customer’s perspective. The team was not only cross departmental but included some really strong people. While discussions were energetic, involved, and really good conversations, the group never seemed to be going anywhere. Finally, after the leader of the group was moved into a different role, the group fizzled.

post mortem …

As I study project management, one of the aspects that was a pleasant surprise for me was the idea of conducting a “post mortem” on projects. While called by different names, the importance of reflecting on the project – successes and failures – is a running theme (Allen & Hardin, 2008; Greer, 2010, & Portny, et al, 2008). This is something I stress in my current job as a consultant, so I am happy to see it carry over to the project management world. While it is common to reflect and learn from your mistakes, it is also important to reflect on your successes. What aided that success and can be replicated in future projects or across the company?

where we fell down …

This was something I had not done for the previously mentioned customer experience group. As the group fizzled without a formal closure, I had not taken time to reflect on that experience. No time like the present:

While there was a clear need for the group and we had some amazing brainstorming sessions, no purpose was defined, no support gained, and no formal approval was ever given for the group – all key aspects to successful projects (Allen & Hardin, 2008; Greer, 2010, & Portny, et al, 2008). Ultimately, the project never actually formed. You will notice, I keep referring to “the group” rather than “the project team.” Essentially, we wanted to be a project, but we really weren’t.

Not all groups are meant to be – this is a reality of the project management world. Projects should be presented to senior management for approval to help ensure employees are focusing their efforts in the areas that are in line with the company goals (Allen & Hardin, 2008; Greer, 2010, & Portny, et al, 2008). However, in this case, the project “lead” never got things to that point. She lacked the management skills to go through those initial planning and approval steps.

What the group needed was for a Project Charter to be completed and presented for approval or not. While the group “lead” was in the default place to spearhead that task, any one of us in the group could have brought that need to light as either a recommendation for her as a next step or to offer to transition into that role. As a team member, here lies my greatest post mortem “take away” – to recognize that all team members have a responsibility to help keep the project on track. While the project manager should bear a large portion of that responsibility, every member can take an active leadership role to help keep things on track and heading in the right direction – and do so in a respectful and professional manner.

Allen, S., & Hardin, P. C. (2008). Developing instructional technology products using effective project management practices. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 19(2), 72–97.
Greer, M. (2010). The project management minimalist: Just enough PM to rock your projects! (Laureate custom ed.). Baltimore: Laureate Education, Inc.
Portny, S. E., Mantel, S. J., Meredith, J. R., Shafer, S. M., Sutton, M. M., & Kramer, B. E. (2008). Project management: Planning, scheduling, and controlling projects. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.