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can’t afford to miss a cue about a delay to the critical chain and it’s bad business to bulid quality solely from an outdated checklist.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.

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.

bc20transactional20comm20model

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.

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.

 

Group Dynamics In Dynamic Environments

According to the Encyclopedia of management, “group dynamics refers to the attitudinal and behavioral characteristics of a group” (Helms, 2009,  p. 354).  This definition allows us to dissect the subject in two broad categories namely, attitudes and behaviors.  These two categories aren’t exclusive as attitudes certainly impact behavior.  Similarly, other group members’ behavior can impact the attitude of group members.  The four factors I would like to discuss in this answer are trust, physical means of communicating, similarities between group members and differences between group members.

Pinto described trust for teams as “the team’s comfort level with each individual member” (Pinto, 2015, p. 193).  As this comfort level increases so does the productivity of the group.  According to Hoover and Donovan, trust and perceived trust impacts an individual’s decision to join a group (Hoover & Donovan, 2008, p. 189).  In my experience trust is the foundation of a good team.  It begins with attitude and reinforced with group member behaviors.

For years the technology that was used to communicate was seen as a vehicle and not an actor.  In The Computerization of Work the authors argue that technology functions as an agent and as an agent it acts (Taylor, 2001).  Technology’s action or inaction can have a direct impact on the behaviors and attitudes of group members.  If the conferencing application isn’t working trust of the system can be impacted and the trust of group member who suggested the technology significantly reduced.

Similarities between group members impact the behavior and attitudes of the group as well.  Group members with a shared history can pull from a greater library of experiences in group communication that can impact other group members.  A team with this dynamic stands as the single biggest piece of evidence the against popular understanding of Tuckman’s Developmental Sequence in Small Groups (Tuckman, 1965).  The popularized versions of that model (forming, storming, norming, and performing) doesn’t accommodate the introduction of new group members even though Tuckman used the idea of family dynamics (where members appear over time) seven times in his research.  This is due to his research being focused on teams in the military that have a definite start date.  Without this static starting line the theory has less value and for teams with fluid start dates among team members it can impact their progression and effectiveness.

Differences between team members also impact the team’s dynamics.  This not only impacts the skills they can bring to the team that transfer to their behavior, but also the attitudes towards teams.  The persuasion techniques required to gather team members around a clear sense of mission may have to be more varied and engaging than if the team were more homogeneous.

Using the definition of team dynamics from the Encyclopedia of Management two broad categories of team dynamics were identified namely, attitudes and behaviors.  I chose to review four factors that impacted group dynamics and referenced several diverse sources to illustrate my argument.

 

References

Helms, M. M., & Gale (Firm). (2009). Encyclopedia of management. Detroit, MI: Gale Cengage.

Hoover, K. R., & Donovan, T. (2008). The elements of social scientific thinking.

Pinto, J. K. (2016).  Project Management: Achieving Competitive Advantage, (4th ed.). Boston, MA:  Pearson Education, Inc.

Taylor, J. R. (2001). The computerization of work: A communication perspective. Thousand Oaks [u.a., CA: Sage Publ.

Tuckman, B. W. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63(6), 384-399. doi:10.1037/h0022100

Perspective Taking

    Every challenge is an opportunity.  This maxim is true among all types of groups including virtual, culturally diverse, and generationally diverse groups.  Each of these groups presents its own set of special considerations for applying perspective taking; defined as the “cognitive ability to understand the world from another’s viewpoint.”

    With regards to the disconnected nature of virtual teams the ability to understand someone else on the team can become a significant challenge.  According to the NY Times, 43% of Americans worked remotely at some point during 2016.  Yet Frey’s work clearly illustrated how virtual environments contain their own nuances for team groupness.  As one of the first studies on the subject it was observed how technology impacted the group’s ability to understand each other’s viewpoint even though both groups were from the same company, had physically met in person, and were speaking the same language.  The core of the issue identified in that study dealt in part with the natural delay of the technology at hand (Frey, 2003).

    Culturally diverse teams exhibit similar challenges.  In his book, A Thomas Jefferson Education, Oliver Demille presents the idea that having a national book helps to define a nation.  His premise is based on the idea that having a common reference points serves as a starting point to relate to others and create a shared identity.  Truly similar backgrounds help to create common ground among group members, but with those from different backgrounds this challenge can be more difficult to overcome.  Based on my experience of establishing cross cultural groups in many countries, group members from different cultural background view their current experience as a good way to establish that common narrative then it can increase their successful interactions.  It’s hard to consider someone else’s viewpoint when you don’t know what that is, but it’s a subject that most feel comfortable discussing, and that discussion can be the foundation to success.

    Generationally diverse groups not only have the problems of an uncommon heritage, they also have the challenge of dealing with individuals of varying technical abilities.  Language is very much a communication technology and older generations have impressed me by their ability to employ language with expert tone and inflection.  In environments where tone and inflection are lost (such as email) their skills can fall below the required task for communication.  This will often lead inexperienced individuals to judge those as older as less capable instead of valuing the skills they do have.  Perspective taking is certainly apt in this situation as it forces those with potentially cynical perspectives to look for the good and contributions of others.

    Regardless of the origins of the challenge in virtual teams, cross cultural teams, or gender diverse teams, perspective taking is an important skill to be applied to any group environment.  

 

REFERENCE:

 

Frey, L. R. (2003). Group communication in context: Studies in bona fide groups. Mahwah, NJ: Routledge.

Beyond Broadcasting

We often perceive communication in its broadcast format.  While not inaccurate the narrow focus of this definition creates severe limitations on the human capacity to effectively communicate.  In their book (Adler & Proctor, 2007) the authors present a model for communication that includes internal noise, external noise, and the information of both the sender and receiver.  While not directly addressing the concepts of noise reduction from this model Julian Treasure took the stage in 2011 to present a Ted Talk on listening better that has implications for project managers.  

According to the PMBOK, “project managers spend most of their time communicating with team members and other project stakeholders.”  This statement translates to a minimum of 51% of a project manager’s time being spent in the act of communicating.  This also means that if someone were to create a Pareto Analysis based upon the actions of a project manager’s use of time one of the top items to address would certainly involve communication.  This also means that any action that has an impact on improving the effectiveness of communication has a significant impact on the PM’s time and the overall project.

Incorporating conscious listening techniques advocated for by Julian Treasure include the technique of Receiving, Appreciating, Summarizing, and Asking (RASA) in the context of communicating with others (Treasure, 2011).  This listening technique can significantly enhance a PM’s ability to manage team meetings.  The non-threatening nature of this technique helps to create an environment of trust that will enable others in the meeting to bring forward ideas that can significantly increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the project.  They will certainly reduce the amount of questions which occur after a meeting due to miscommunication and reduce some of the inefficiencies inherent in general communication.

The RASA process can also be beneficial when dealing with group conflict.  Wilmot & Hocker advocated for applying a collaborative conflict management strategy (Wilmot & Hocker, 2007) and RASA falls right in line with creating this environment.  Recognizing early stages of conflict is often difficult.  I have met and worked with some professionals who didn’t recognize conflict until it was explosive.  Others operated as though conflict was always occurring.  These latter professionals believed that every conversation revolved around some conflict and so they encouraged a collaborative environment to prevent destructive conflict.  I subscribe to the theory that conflict is natural and always occurring and therefore the concept of preventing conflict is quite an anathema.  Regardless, conscious listening techniques of RASA create the space for productive conflict.

While we often think of communication in its broadcast form, communication very much involves the process of listening.  As he concluded his Ted Talk, one of the things Julian was impassioned about what informing his audience to Live to Listen.  Modern PMs need to understand how listening early and often is communication, and can save them from quite a bit of broadcasting their thoughts in the future.

 

REFERENCES:

 

Adler, R. B., & Proctor, R. F. (2007). Looking out/looking in. Australia: Thomson/Wadsworth.

Project Management Institute (PMI). (2013).  A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK guide). Newtown Square, Pennsylvania.

Treasure, J. (2011, July). Julian Treasure: 5 ways to listen better | TED Talk Subtitles and Transcript | TED. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/julian_treasure_5_ways_to_listen_better/transcript

Wilmot, W. W., & Hocker, J. L. (2007). Interpersonal conflict. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Reality, or False Scope

I recently finished working for an organization that had an ineffective method for defining project scope.  The issue remained perpetual for my 36 months of employment.  With each successive project the project’s scope would increase.  Discussion about the increase would dominate the communication channels, but their processes for defining that scope would categorically ignore large aspects of the scope required to contribute to efficiently managing the projects.

The symptoms of this that affected me the most were the budget and schedule.  Working in an international environment requires advanced knowledge of specific requirements in order to move the proper equipment and teams across international borders.  Without the proper notification teams were unable to cross country lines on schedule.  Due to the organization’s zero tolerance for failure and single layer thin assets we would often sacrifice other lines of preparation to ask high ranking officials for accelerated approval of our border crossing requests.  

The budgeted funds for the defined scope were also lacking.  While we rushed on the front end to cross international borders, we had to fight the PM teams above us who had closed out the projects on their end without paying all of the obligations incurred by their projects at our level.  This was the same organization that had no communication framework for discussing project risk.  Paragraph 11.2 of the PMBOK states that “Identify Risks is the process of determining which risks may affect the project and documenting their characteristics.”  It’s categorically impossible to identify risks when the process for developing a project scope doesn’t include a discussion about project risk.  It’s also politically difficult to discuss your failure to pay a particular bill months after you reported that the project was closed.  These organizational foibles cost our teams the ability to quickly prepare and reset for successive projects.  In this formula, not only was the current project at risk, but the future projects were as well.

What I learned from this process is that having a clearly defined project scope development process can be an advantage, but it can also be a handicap.  As a leader it’s challenging to be firm while still keeping communication lines open for issues as they arise.  The organization discussed here had an inefficiently long and redundant leadership chain. With each link it became more and more difficult to communicate from the bottom up about potential issues.  Over time these organizational realities lead to a the adoption of a zero tolerance culture.  This is one reason why I’ve been a huge proponent of flattening hierarchies and at minimum flattening communication lines.

When it comes to flattening communication lines many people in my organization love to reference leadership examples that involve video teleconferencing equipment (VTC).  While I agree that this technology can play a very productive role, I don’t believe that this technology is a complete solution.  While this tool does allow large audiences to create a multi sided virtual room, that room does not remove the political implications from communicating critically.  In fact, it could severely increase it.

Truly flattening communications lines requires adoption of not just one solution, but multiple solutions.  The axiom that a leader need be a good communicator is truer now than it ever has been.  Leaders need to be connected to a variety of communications tools.  Some of these tools should enable group conferencing (VTC) and others should enable quick and reasonably secure communications avenues such as WhatsApp.  Rocket.chat and Slack.com adopt measures that work multiple communications necessities within a single platform.

If leaders can expand their ability to communicate then we can properly identify problems with the processes we use to conduct projects.  To change the culture however, it’s going to take charismatic leaders time to request bad news at public meetings and be measured in their response to that news in order to make the necessary changes towards project efficiency.  Sometimes a poorly defined project scope is just a symptom.

 

Reference:

Project Management Institute (2013). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide) (PMBOK Guide). Project Management Institute.