Why Projects Succeed: Stakeholder Communication Best Practices

Why Projects Succeed is a blog series in which Slalom Business Architect Roger Kastner sheds light on key factors behind the art and science of successful project management and invites readers to discuss how they apply across different environments.

Slalom Consultant Roger Kastner

Roger Kastner is a Business Architect with Slalom Consulting who is passionate about raising the caliber of project leadership within organizations to maximize the value of projects

“Communication works for those who work at it.”
– John Powell

Since Project Managers spend a lot of time communicating, a successful Project Manager will take Mr. Powell’s advice and focus a lot of effort to ensure the fidelity of those communications. And as George Bernard Shaw points out, the biggest failure in communication is the presumption that one has communicated effectively. Therefore, there’s not a better way to wrap up my Stakeholder Management trilogy (Part 1: Tools, Part 2: Challenges) than to share some best practices I’ve found that help to prevent or remedy Stakeholder communication challenges.

Do you hear what I hear?

I recently read that a project manager spends 90% of their time communicating and I began to wonder how that number was measured. Not that I’m disputing it, I just wondered if someone was following Project Managers with a stop watch or if there was some cool “communication-pedometer” type devise being sold at the latest PM conference.

But now that I think about it, what part of a project manager’s job is not spent communicating in one form or another? Building a schedule? No, that’s a communication tool. Documenting a risk? Again, that’s a communication tool. Writing the next blog…wait, too autobiographical.

So, perhaps 90% is under-stating the real number, but I’m sure we’ll all agree that communications is critical for the successful Project Manager. And since we’re throwing out unproven (or shall I say not disproven?) metrics, I’ll go ahead and throw out another sweeping generalization via an official sounding metric: 99% of problems on projects have their root in a communication error. Here are some examples…

  • Adoption rate of an end-product is low: customer needs were not documented correctly (poor communication);
  • Project is taking longer than originally estimated: estimates were based on assumptions that were not validated with Subject Matter Experts (lack of communication);
  • Resources not available for the project: true people needs were not communicated appropriately (poor communication);

…and the list goes on. I’m willing to entertain the notion that 1% of problems are not based in communication. I don’t know what those would be, but that’s ok, I’m a giver.

So, if stakeholder communications is so vital to project success, from understanding what’s expected to get done, to managing expectations midflight, to identifying when delivery is complete, what are some of the best practices that success Project Managers employ, you ask? Here are three things I do to help prevent or remedy communication challenges.

1. Active Listening

My Slalom colleague, Carl Manello, recently cautioned in a blog post entitled “Say what?” that messages are often misunderstood because there are so many ways to interpret what is being said. Active Listening helps ensure that you are hearing what the speaker is intending to communicate.

“What I think I hear you saying is that Active Listening will help ensure what is being said is what is being heard, is that correct?”

Active Listening is the process of rephrasing and repeating back to the communicator what you heard, as a check for comprehension. Successful Project Managers will rephrase and repeat back even when they are confident they know what has been said, because a lot of misunderstandings started with someone being overconfident about what they thought they heard, or they didn’t ask clarifying questions when they knew they didn’t know exactly what was intended.

Most of you will be familiar with Active Listening, my question to you is: are you employing Active Listening as often as you should?

2. Not Afraid of Looking Stupid

When a successful Project Manager doesn’t understand something, even if she or he thinks everyone in the room does, they are not afraid to ask the clarifying question, for two reasons: First, they lack comprehension, and comprehension is paramount to managing expectations; second, they know that if they don’t understand, it’s possible that someone else doesn’t understand either but are too afraid to ask.

“Sorry if this is a stupid question, but can you tell me what you meant by…”

A twist on a common saying: “There are no stupid questions, only stupid people who don’t ask questions.” And I don’t mean for that to sound derogatory. I’m using “stupid” to connote lack of knowledge. By not asking the question, the said “stupid” person will remain short of knowledge. And more times than not, there will be others in the room who didn’t understand but we’re too afraid of looking stupid to say anything, only compounding the stupidity.

3. Listening for What’s Not Being Said

For fun, I’ve listed some of the most memorable, and not positive, things stakeholders have said to me over the years. All capture some amusing and poignant learning experiences I had during my career where I had to have thick skin and focus on the issue instead of focusing on my ego. And what’s unsaid is sometimes even more than important than what is said.

  • Who are you?” “Oh, I don’t talk to Project Managers.”
  • “I’m having a hard time telling the difference between glass is half full and stupid.”
  • “Do you have any questions so far? Oh, that’s right, this is new to you, you are too stupid to have any questions yet.”
  • “This is like a syrup truck crashing into a waffle truck. It looks yummy, but it’s really just sticky.”
  • Stakeholder quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
  • “You come off very confident, even when it’s clear you don’t know the subject, you sound very confident.”

Yeah, all those are real statements from my career, and some are wonderful gems. Was I offended or insulted by each one? Admittedly some of them stung, but there were expectations and deeper issues that lay beneath the surface of each comment. If I were to react to each of them for the sake of preserving my ego, I would have missed key pieces of information the stakeholders were trying to convey.

Instead, I took these comments as an opportunity to ask clarifying questions to determine what was truly going on.

“Help me understand that comment a little better. What is your expectation for me regarding …?”

In some cases, the stakeholder had information or a perspective I was not aware of, or vice versa. By asking for more information, we were able to share and come to a common understanding that would have not occurred had I let ego get in the way. As George Bernard Shaw points out (as do my Slalom colleagues Carl Manello and Beverly Lieblang in their blog post about communication challenges to expect while managing global teams), the biggest failure in communication is the presumption that one has communicated effectively. By asking the clarifying questions, you will validate that the message the stakeholder intended will be correctly received.

A successful Project Manager will look beyond the (un)intended insult and seek to understand the deeper meaning behind comments in order to uncover misunderstandings or missing information.

Summary

One more sweeping generalization with metrics: a Project Manager will not communicate successfully 100% of the time. That should be expected. However, there are ways to attempt to prevent communication errors, and when errors do occur, the successful Project Manager will put ego aside and dig deeper with stakeholders to uncover what happened and to determine how to move forward to everyone’s satisfaction.

Do you have any tips or tricks on how to prevent or recovery from stakeholder communication challenges? Please share by posting a comment and joining the conversation.

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About Roger Kastner
As a member of the Organizational Effectiveness practice at Slalom Consulting, I'm excited to share my perspectives and experiences with Change and Project Management to help clients and practitioners achieve their goals and objectives.

2 Responses to Why Projects Succeed: Stakeholder Communication Best Practices

  1. Jenna Evans says:

    Great article Roger! Especially the reminder to listen to what isn’t being said – that’s so often forgotten in the mad rush to document, document, document.

    Something that’s been helpful for me when I realize there’s a communication issue or gap is to stop focusing on words and start drawing. Carl’s big on this with requirements, but it works in many situations. A picture, a graph, a process depicted graphically can completely change (and hopefully clarify!!) a conversation, especially when you’re not yet familiar with the client’s jargon!

    • Roger Kastner says:

      Glad you liked the article, thanks for the comment!

      Great suggestion: Pictures are fantastic because they can help us go beyond the limitations of semantics and our own definitions for common words. Whiteboard Drawing 101 would be a great class for Project Managers!

      Thanks,
      Roger

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