Written By:  Suzie Dang |  Published:  2/24/2020

A Lesson in Effective Communication

A significant part of project management is effective communication. I didn’t start my career as a project manager, rather in civil engineering. My first project as a project manager went as smooth as a baby’s bottom. There were small issues that arose, but nothing large enough to cause impact that would derail the train. My team was amazing in that if I had decided to leave for a week or two, the project would continue to run smoothly and I had nothing to worry about.

My second project, not so much. Turns out, I did such a great job with my first project, my director had decided I’d be more than fit to save a project from the flames. Having no idea what “saving” a project entailed, I tried to hit the ground running as that was expected of me.

I soon came to the realization that there were many contributing factors that lead to the project being derailed and unable to hit the projected go-live date. One of the main reasons was with the technical lead on the project. There were issues with performance and lack of attendance; as a leader on the project, that impacted time-sensitive decisions and productivity of the team.

I approached my technical lead, took him out for coffee and had a discussion with him. I wanted to understand the purpose of his actions. He was pretty straightforward in his response: He did not want to be a technical lead and was pushed into the position by his manager. He longed for the freedom of remote work and flexible hours his previous position as a developer had offered him, but was pleased with his rate increase with the new promotion.

We concluded with set goals and milestones in order to hold him accountable. As his project manager, I worked to try and support him. Soon after, performance started to slip again and attendance was almost nonexistent.

Despite my efforts in trying to support my team member, it was evident that I needed to communicate this to management as it started to negatively impact the project scope, schedule and team dynamic. I made a few mistakes when initially raising this to my manager:

  1. I communicated only specific issues. For example, I forwarded my manager an email thread that described and questioned why scope was removed from the project. At the time, the technical lead took scope out of the project due to technical complexity without communicating this to anyone
  2. I let my frustration show in my communication.

My communication didn’t land, and I couldn’t figure out why. I reached out during a project manager meeting with my current issue, and a fellow coworker brought to light the topic of effective communication. These are the things I’ve learned:

  • What information are you communicating? We tend to get caught up in details of what we’re communicating. This often comes with a long story leading up to what our intended topic is. When you are communicating, be concise as to what you’re trying to get across.
  • Why are you communicating? There should always be an intent behind your topic. In project management, we can agree that there are numerous things that we think could be done differently. Not all of this should be communicated. For the most part, opinions don’t matter unless you can back this up with information and data in which there is impact to the deliverable.
  • How does an individual receive information? We all receive information differently. Some prefer a long email with details and bullet points; others prefer diagrams and colorful pictures.
  • When does an individual receive information? There are effective times to communicate something. For example, walking with someone to a meeting and quickly dropping information may not be the most effective way to communicate.
  • To whom are you communicating to? Oftentimes, copying numerous people in your email may make you feel like your chances of being heard are more likely. Make sure your communications have intent and are meaningful to the people receiving it. You can train someone to ignore your communication by “spraying and praying” too often.

After this discussion I had with a fellow project manager, I approached my managers and team differently. Face to face with my manager, I discussed what the impact of this resource was causing to the project such as budget, timeline and scope. I then presented options as to what I thought were possible resolutions. My communication was finally received. Although there was no resolution to the specific issue itself, I confidently and effectively communicated an issue wherein it was received by whom I intended.

I took these learnings across all my interactions at work, not just with issues. I noticed a change in how people treated me, meaning what I had to say was almost always received with utmost importance. I started being able to move people toward actions that were in my favor based on effective communication.

The effort to communicate effectively is worth the output, especially in workplaces. Know that we all have different ways of receiving information—and it changes with each individual. Taking the time to understand this is a key activity in project management.