The Listening Difference

Listening makes a significant difference in the quality of our relationships, but we often miss opportunities to be better listeners.

Listening is a profound sign of respect. In many cultures the is tehe one who has the autority. When you take the time to listen you elevate the status of the person who’s speaking. To provide some contrast, what status does the person who constantly gets interrupted have?

Meetings are a great opportunity to practice our listening skills. All too often, we’ve gotten in the habit of bringing our devices instead of bringing our attention when we have to meet in a group. I get it, some people have lots of opportunity to be better presenters, and some meeting topics are only tangentially related to your responsibilities. In Project Management (PM) how you listen will determine client success. You can’t afford to miss a cue about a delay to the critical chain and it’s bad business to bulid quality solely from an outdated checklist. [Link]

Unless the device is the tool that allows the meeting to occur, leave the device behind. I’ve had great success working with stakeholders that had difficult reputations by bringing a reusable notebook with me to a meeting. The notebook removes the barrier created by a laptop screen. It creates more interpersonal opportunities.

The fact that I don’t bring a laptop combined with the fact that my notebook is reusable often gets the attention of whomever I speaking with and it ends up being a discussion point. I share how it’s designed for me to take photos of the pages and save my notes digitally. I share how the text washes off with water and uses a comfortable pen. Once we’ve covered the technical capabilities I then get to share the real reason for the notebook.

“What you have to say is important and I didn’t want to put a barrier between me and the things you needed to say, but I still wanted to take notes because what you were going to tell me is important.”

I haven’t met a stakeholder yet offended by that statement.

After the meeting I’ll go over my hand written notes and type up a meeting summary to send to the client.

Hi, XXX this is what we discussed.
– Thing 1
– Thing 2
– Thing 3

I agreed to do the following before our next meeting:
– Thing 1
– Thing 2
– Thing 3

We also agreed that you would do the following
– Thing 1
– Thing 2
– Thing 3

As I get working on my things if I need to ask a follow-up question can I do that over a text message or would you prefer some communication method?

Similarly, the best way to reach me is via text.

It might feel like it takes longer to write things down by hand and type them afterwords, but I’ve found this takes a lot less time than solving the problems of not listening.

But Jacob, what happens if you find you miss something in your notes?

Well, I tell the stakeholder that I was going over my notes and I’d like him to clarify something. If I’ve missed that bullet point all together then I say things like “I was distracted thinking of the second and third order effects of [bullet point 1] that I’m afraid I missed your second point. Would you mind going over that again for me to I know we’re on the same page?

When you head off to your next meeting, ditch the impulse to take your device and instead grab a piece of paper or a reusable notebook (I’m a fan) and sit down and listen.

The Earth Is Patient

Yesterday I had the chance to sit down and listen to Mike Boren who shared with us a phrase that he wasn’t going to claim as his own, but carried a great deal of wisdom.

The ox is slow, but the earth is patient.

While I don’t have time today to write up a full article of all the other nuggets he shared, this is a good one to start with and hopefully adds some value to each of your days.

Climbing Over the Fence to Ideal Employment

Jenny called a couple of months ago.  She had spent years working on her degree in nursing doing her coursework on nights and weekends.  Prior to that there was a long gap as she put aside her education goals to focus on her family.  Now it was time for her and on the horizon was something none of her coursework prepared her to do:  apply for a job.

Yesterday morning I sat down with a professional who explained that his daughter was finishing up her nursing school in the Dallas area and was two weeks out from graduation.  He was worried his daughter would have trouble with the “paying your dues” years that await a young nurse out of school–and of course that she’d have trouble finding a job.

That same afternoon I reconnected with Lynda after our paths separated in the fall.  She runs a dog kennel in our neighborhood and we talked about how great her staff was and what was new with them.  One of the young gals was pregnant (hooray!).  The other wasn’t working there any more.  The one who left was 19 and (according to Lynda) decided that she was above working weekends.  Prior to her leaving her attitude was toxic.

Lynda’s commentary was classic, “you’re 19 years old.  You don’t have the professional skills of a doctor or anything else.”  Lynda then looked at me and added, “so you know where she found a job that doesn’t require her to work weekends?  She’s working for her mom.”

Not everybody can go work for our mothers.  Some of us reenter the workforce after taking a break for family, school, military service, or any number of reasons.  The economy may be good, but being on the outside of the fence from our ideal employment is still an uncomfortable place to find oneself.  In the examples listed above the 19-year-old took the short cut to a job that’s going to make it hard for her to be employed in the future.  The gal in Dallas was coming to terms with paying her dues before she could earn the job she wants and Jenny now has a different story to tell.

Jenny got the job!  Years of taking time away from school and years of working on her coursework at night and on weekends set the foundation for her employment.  Two months ago she was sitting at my kitchen table and we were going over all the work she’d done, but she didn’t feel confident in representing that work in a resume.

The professional writing skills I’ve developed in the military make resume writing a pretty easy task.  Here are some points that I shared with her and can apply to others in similar circumstances:

  1.  Start with what you’re proud of.  In any job position you’ve been proud of something you’ve done.  These can come from work or volunteer environments, but they should be the main thing on your first draft.  Build your resume on those things and fill in the gaps later.  The things you’re proud of can come from work or volunteer environments.
  2. Speak the language of those you want to work with.  Resumes often miscommunicate for their intended audience because the people writing them and those reading them are using two different sets of vocabulary.  Often times the person reading the resume initially is an HR screener.  By nature they have a very hard job and don’t usually know the technical terms for what they’re hiring against.  Using the exact technical terms (if you qualify) of the posting is a must, but technical skillset is only one part of every job application.
  3. Don’t be a bad hire.  I know that sounds obvious, but it’s really not.  A bad hire can cost a company $50,000.  Those HR screeners look at each applicant as a $50,000 risk they are trying to protect the company from.  So if you don’t want to be a bad hire, how do you be a good one?
    • Write your resume to reflect the Ideal Team Player.  The Ideal Team Player is one of the books I have on my reading list and its an excellent one for anyone in the job market.  The Ideal Team Player is someone who is humble, hungry, and smart.  There are ways to include this language in your resume, and for those who know to look for it your words will resonate.
    • Know the Five Dysfunctions of a Team.  While this deals more with the conversations at job fairs and interviewing knowing what the five dysfunctions are and your role as a new team member (yes, talk in those terms) can make a difference in distinguishing you from the competition.  There’s a great book on the subject (also on my reading list), but if you want the summarized version, the Five Dysfucttions of a Team are:
      • Dysfunction #1: Absence of Trust
        The fear of being vulnerable with team members prevents the building of trust within the team.
      • Dysfunction #2: Fear of Conflict
        The desire to preserve artificial harmony stifles the occurrence of productive ideological conflict.
      • Dysfunction #3: Lack of Commitment
        The lack of clarity or buy-in prevents team members from making decisions they will stick to.
      • Dysfunction #4: Avoidance of Accountability
        The need to avoid interpersonal discomfort prevents team members from holding one another accountable.
      • Dysfunction #5: Inattention to Results
        The pursuit of individual goals and personal status erodes the focus on collective success.

The process above was what worked for Jenny and the look on her face when she got the job was nothing short of amazing.

Rejection is a natural part of the process.  I don’t know of anyone who found the ideal job and got hired at it with their first attempt.  The HR community in most areas is pretty intertwined.  Keep making good impressions, ask for resume feedback at job fairs (don’t just drop off the resume–get them to look at it!).  I was at one job fair recently where I was saying thank you to the event coordinator.  She started asking me questions and was impressed enough she said “I want to take a picture of your resume right now and send it to one of my friends at XXX company.”  While that kind gesture may not pan out the work above will certainly make it more likely to happen.


More Than Once

I once had a conversation with one of my Project Management (PM) mentors that lasted for about an hour and started with one question.  “What is the most important skill a project manager should have?”  While we both agreed that being organized was a requirement, we also agreed that the most important skill was his or her ability to communicate.

Why is communication so important in project management?

Project management involves synchronizing the efforts of different individuals and groups towards a common goal.  Communication is essential to synchronization.  Any sports team that wants to perform does so by establishing and using various lines of communication.  Project teams have a requirement to do the same thing.

Where does thIMG_20180409_070535004.jpgat put the PM?  In agile framework the PM functions more in the coach role.  In waterfall the communications strategy can still include coaching, but it is more likely to follow a model that helps create a common operating picture.  The PMBOK has an entire chapter dedicated to the subject of project communications management.  In that book the subject emerges on page 359 mid-way through the book.

Synchronizing efforts among different individuals is hard.  If it were easy it wouldn’t take effort.  Things would just happen.  One of the techniques I’ve learned that it’s OK to say things more than once, and it’s OK to say things in more than one way.  Looking at the communication model below one of the big take aways is that there’s a lot of noise between the message that’s intending to be delivered and the recipient(s).  Those noise lines are the enemy of good projects.


Early on in a project it’s crucial to learn people’s preferred method of communicating.  Some people will prefer good old email.  Others will prefer modern chat environments.  It’s hard to know which communication method someone prefers.  Hint:  It’s OK to ask.  Once they’ve told you be sure to use that preferred method, but follow-up your communications with other tools as well.  Then after some time, follow back up and specifically discuss communication formats until you agree on what’s the best one for the project.

At one point I was helping a project manager with a very difficult client.  Text messages were flying back and forth hourly deyellingmanding results and updates.  The client shortened a planned vacation to Australia to come and yell at the CEO for 90 minutes.  It was just awful.  The PM’s motivation for the project had sunken to a new low.  He was smart enough to ask for help.

So I sat down with the PM and the client whom I looked up on LinkedIn prior to the meeting.  When I sat down I was able to ask questions about what projects he was most proud of in his previous roles.  As he was talking I could see the issue was this client was used to being a PM and was now in a role where he was the Product Owner and not the PM coordinating everything.  The role-shift was hard for him, but I was able to leverage his interests and establish a positive framework for the project going forward.

We agreed to change the communication format to one that would give him visibility on the progress without interrupting his day or ours.  We also agreed to a couple of basic rules:

  • Emergency communications are reserved only for a highly likely threat to the critical chain.
  • Bad news doesn’t get better with time.
  • Scheduled update meetings at realistic intervals (2 weeks in this case)

As we discussed these the client could visibly see me writing down these three points.  I repeated them as I wrote them.  Before we were done with the meeting (it had moved to a local bar), I repeated what we agreed to.  He heartily nodded.  When it was done I drafted an email for the client that reiterated the three points above and sent it to the PM to send out to the client and our team.  There was still more hard work to do after that, and we had a great PM and dev team who really pulled of miracles, but it started with saying something more than once and saying things in more than one way.

Knowing that it’s OK to say things more than once and that it’s OK to say things in more than one way is a great beginning to the most important skill in project management.

Thinking In Bets

Today another book is getting added to my reading list, Thinking In Bets by Annie Duke

This is an amazing book that makes the case for understanding how our lives going forward have multiple futures. Annie carefully makes the case for seeing ourselves in this way and provides tools to help the reader live and navigate understanding how possibilities can be predictive, they are not prescriptive.

Annie explains that we often find ourselves judging our decisions by our results. Early the book she demonstrates how this cause-effect thought process is good, healthy, and helped us evolve. Then she demonstrates the limitations of such linear thinking and explains how in poker (a game where chance exists) not everything can be perfectly predictive. Her book offers down-to-earth advice on how to account for the elements in life that involve chance and how to live comfortably in that world where direct cause-effect is no longer king.


I really enjoyed how the book not only makes the case for evaluating events going forward, it also makes the case for evaluating the decisions of our past. Once we can shed the results from our decision process it becomes easier to judge our actions (and those of others) based upon the environment and knowledge they had at the time. This process is perfectly in line with Tomas Sowell’s book Knowledge and Decisions, a classic book that discusses much of the same thoughts from an economics perspective.

I believe this book has other potential benefits as well that haven’t been stated. In Smarter Faster Better Charles Duhigg discusses some of the challenges Annie faced in her own life. Anyone reviewing her academic record would list her as highly functional (all doctoral coursework complete), yet Annie suffered from anxiety. From having worked around so many people in the military with PTSD and others who have anxiety I believe this book contains helpful instructions on thinking patterns that can reduce the impact of the thinking traps so common among those who live with those issues. One of the reasons why it’s been added to the Book List is because I’ll be recommending it to many of those who struggle to live now because they are haunted by their past.

The book isn’t explicitly written towards that audience. Instead it’s written with a much broader audience in mind. It’s perfectly crafted for those interested from a business, student, and personal perspective and so I’ll certainly be recommending to those in my other professional circles as well.

If you listen to the Audible version you’ll be pleased to hear Annie read the book at her own pace and with excellent inflection. I devoured the audio version on a recent family car ride. When I got home I enjoyed letting her know how much I enjoyed the book. I love living in an age where I can say thank you to someone as famous as brilliant as Annie Duke.

I also really appreciated that she read my tweet and hit the like button.

Managing Left Field Commentary

Good stakeholder management involves understanding the perspectives of every stakeholder involved in the project.  In person I often tell people about one of the ways I personally do this.  It’s not elegant, but it’s just writing the people I meet as characters in my own cognitive process.  Once I’ve made them a part of the story of my life I assign them motivations and a pseudo-history.  As I get to know the person further I refine the character to more closely match the person in front of me.  It’s not a perfect technique, but for me it works well.  Until it doesn’t.

What happens though when you get a perspective that seems to come out of left field?

I know you’ve been there before.  You’re in a meeting the group is making good progress towards the meeting’s goal and then someone throws a verbal hand grenade on the process with a perspective that seems to come out of left field.  If it’s a meeting your just attending it could lead to some fun-to-watch drama, but if you’re even remotely invested in moving things forward, or you’re the person hosting the meeting, this sort of event can be terribly disruptive.

Here’s a few steps to overcome the disruption if you’re the facilitator:

  1.  Treat the input as legitimate.  Most people are good and think they’re being good even when their actions are disruptive.  Directly challenging someone’s world view generally encourages their defense mechanism not productive discussion.
  2. Keep the other person talking.  Don’t let them shut down right away.  Their withdrawal shifts the effort back to the group and if the comment was meant as a power play enabling the person to shut down represents submissiveness.  One quick response is to have them restate their input.  “Can you say that again?  I want to make sure I understand.”
  3. Describe the circumstances.  This next step requires some group investment–but remember the group was already disrupted, so they’re already invested–it’s OK to spend time on this.
    • Lower your ego
    • Ask for input
    • transitioning from step 2 to step 3 can be done with the phrase “I’m trying, but I don’t see it.  Can you help me understand how and why you came to this conclusion?”
  4. Stay in control of the process.  As the facilitator it’s your job to continue directing the conversation.  From this point forward your follow-up questions will be key and the goal is to help everyone in the room understand the reality where the person’s input isn’t just valid, but the best choice.  That reality is a possibility and considering multiple possibilities (even those that are unlikely) can add a lot of value.

According to Eric Ries deviants can add significant value to an organization by encouraging different perspectives that often lead to seeing value in other areas.  By following the steps identified here, you’re able to move from an environment of conflict to one of collaboration where the group learns to see things from a different perspective.

What’s the most left field situation you’ve ever come across?  What’s your technique for group perspective shifting.


A Single Question Can Lead To Powerful Understanding

I’ve mentioned before how I’m not a fan of meetings with no purpose.  While I’m not a fan, that doesn’t mean my environments are free of meetings.  If we were capable of doing what we do in groups as individuals, we’d probably do everything as individuals, but we don’t.  And since we’re not going to go it alone, let’s get used to the idea that we’re going to do it together.  If we’re going to do it together that means we’re going to need to meet.

Meetings are necessary to exchange information and they can give us a powerful venue for increasing our capacity.  Some meetings are complex.  Others can revolve around a single question.

Single question meetings are some of the most powerful for a group.

One theme in the humanities is the reality that growth in human beings occurs when they are faced with a question and actively seek an answer.  This is why we have the Socratic Method and multiple choice tests.  We view questions as essential to our learning and when we’re learning we’re growing our capacity.

Of the many groups I’ve worked with over the years, one of my favorites was the development team at Ventive.  Each month they held a “drink & think” meeting.  It means what it sounds like.  The company paid for two or three growlers at one of the local breweries in Boise and we’d focus on our technical learning as a group.

One month I got to teach the differences to the triple constraint in waterfall and agile.  Another month we did an estimate drill for a theoretical client.  Then there was the month when I brought in some painter’s tape, a stack of blank paper, and a box of sharpies.  On one piece of payer I wrote “most valuable” and put it up on the left hand side of the wall.  On the right I put up a page with the words “least valuable.”  By the time I was done everyone’s glasses were filled and it was time to ask a single good question.

“How do you add value to your client?”

I then explained that for each answer to that question they needed to write it on a sheet of paper and tape it to the wall.  Within minutes the wall was covered.

Then it was time to search for the meaning behind each of those pages.  We started with one developer and asked him to walk us through his pages and explain why.  As he did we started seeing where his strong skills matched with strong client needs.  It was also to see where he was proud to add value.

We went through each contributor this way.  Everyone had a voice.  When it was done everyone knew why each page was on the wall.  Individually these meant something, but as a group they represented what WE were capable of doing.  Each person during the meeting that day learned more about what everyone else’s strengths and challenges were.  We also had a clear way of seeing what we could do as a team.

In a fast-growing environment like Ventive where new hires were frequent meetings where we get to know one another’s strengths were key to our success.

A single question can bring together powerful answers at both the individual and group level.  So, what you need to decide is what is your next good question?