As a young PM, I asked instructors and mentors what skills are critical to become an amazing project manager. The answer was almost always, communication, communication, communication. Project managers are critical to the success or failure of a project, and excellent communication skills are critical, they said. In my mind, it sounded so glamorous – I imagined PMs as diplomats who could make or break the outcomes of projects (and organizations) with their words, be them spoken or written.
I realized that most of the ‘communication’ I was doing barely qualified as communication. It was more like the thump on my wrist when my watch tells me it’s time to stand up.
I thought of all of the important projects in the world. I thought about technology projects, projects that bring water or critical infrastructure into communities, projects that effect the way we live and work everyday… and I thought about how my communication skills could be critical to the success or failure of project delivery. Ok, maybe I’m a bit of a Rockstar in my own bedroom, but here’s the thing – as an experienced project manager, I realized that most of the ‘communication’ I was doing, barely qualifies as communication – it’s more like the thump on my wrist when my watch is telling me that it’s time to stand up. Is that really communication?
It took me a while but, eventually, I realized that when instructors, mentors and even PMI extolled communication, they were mostly talking about the sheer volume of it and not the power of words. In fact, if you breakdown what project management communication entails, I’d estimate that well over half of it is following up with people on the completion of tasks. Following up with people to keep things from falling through the cracks is not constructive communication and it’s no stinking fun either. In fact, I’d call it a big waste of time, especially because I’m pretty sure a fancy watch can do most of that… thump, “did you do the task you agreed to do last week?” “what percentage of it did you get done?” I know I bring a lot more to the table than a fancy watch does, and so do you.
How could I expect to be a respected member of the team, or in my organization if at least half of my communication is following up and babysitting?
If you’re anything like me, you didn’t decide to be a project manager to thump people by sending follow up messages and reminders (and then a loving hand crafted summary of the results of the follow in a PowerPoint presentation). I became a project manager because I care about delivering value, resolving conflicts to produce an outcome, clearing obstacles for my team, to advocate, negotiate, to overcome obstacles as a team to achieve a greater result…
How much more effective would you be as a project manager if you weren’t spending so much time with Follow-up, Communication’s Ugly Cousin? And what about your team members… what does it say about them that I was willing to set reminders on my calendar to remind them about what they should be doing? I don’t want to be a babysitter, but many of us have accepted that role. What does that say? It implies that my team can’t be trusted – that they need a babysitter. I certainly wasn’t thinking that consciously, but that sentiment must have been lingering somewhere, otherwise, I wouldn’t feel the urge to set those reminders.
How could I expect to be a respected member of the team, or in my organization if at least half of my communication is following up and babysitting? As a seasoned project manager responsible for multi-million dollar projects, I was stretched so thin due to all of the follow up and reporting tasks. I was horribly stressed and unhappy. Something had to change. Out of desperation and beyond exhaustion, I decided to do things differently.
It wasn’t that my team was incompetent – they were just busy – the information they needed was not readily available to them
Part of the problem was that no one could see my project schedule unless I emailed it to them or exported it to Excel. Another issue was that action items, issues and decisions would get lost in everyone’s email. It wasn’t that my team was incompetent – they were just busy. The information they needed was not readily available to them and the time that they might spend searching for what they needed was just enough time to get distracted by ‘doing something else’ in their email. I knew that if I could give my team access and visibility to the next pieces of work, it would help them see the larger picture – and it would save them time from looking in their email for my last reminder message with all the right attachments or links to the shared drive.
In a nutshell, here are four things you must have to get away from spending time with the ugly cousin…