Communicating Effectively

Communicating Effectively

When referring to communications and project management, you should be aware of what you do and what you should do.  A lot of issues we suffer from are caused by poor communications.  I can’t stress enough how much of a positive or negative impact communications can have your project.

What do I recommend you do?  Here is an ordered list of communications methods.  The first on the list is your last resort and the last on the list should be your preferred method.

First up is email.  Yes, email.  For most people, this is their preferred method of communications.  Actually, it should be your last.  Have you ever sent an email that was completely misunderstood?  Did you ever write an email that showed up in someone’s inbox it shouldn’t?  Has email become a complete time suck?  Well, stop feeding the fire.  Get your butt out of that chair and go talk to the person or people.  Go to the bottom of the list and work your way up.  You last resort is to send an email.  By the way, don’t be checking your email every 5 minutes.  It’s a compete time suck.  Check it, at the most, once an hour.  Make sure everyone knows you don’t check your email that often.  It helps manage expectations and could even encourage one-on-one communications (if it’s that important)

Our second to last communications choice is telephone.  Yes, telephone.  It’s a little better than email.  At least you can sense emotion if you’re listening closely.  When communicating, use the senses you have available to get indirect feedback.  Try smiling when you talk on the telephone.  I bet the other person will know you are.  I know telephone calls can really dirupt you flow of work but it’s better than someone showing up at your desk unannounced.  Timing of communications is almost as import as the method used.  Try to plan your telephone calls.  Voicemail is nothing more than audio email, as far as I’m concerned.  Make sure you leave your name and telephone at the beginning of the voicemail (and end).  Explain why you are calling.  Don’t just say you’ll just call back.  Voicemails are fragmented and can easily be taken out of context, if the relevant information is not included.

Next on our list is video-conference.  If you are working with distributed teams, video-conference is a really great way to communicate.  One-on-one communications is still our primary choice but this is a very close second.  As technology advances, so do our efforts to have good meaningful exchanges.  A picture is worth a thousand words and so it being able to look your colleagues in the eyes (or at least see their face).  When talking with someone, I believe body language communicates a lot.  Video-conferencing also allows a much more rapid exchange of “visual” ideas.  Image putting you hands in the air and saying “the fish was this big”.  Now imaging trying to communicate the same idea via telephone or email.  Need I say more?

And so we arrive at my primary choice of communications… face-to-face talking.  Lisamarie Babik and Menlo Innovations refer to this as High-Speed Voice Technology™. When is doubt, get up out of your chair and into the face of another person.  Remember, the things you say and the things people hear are not always the same thing.  You can’t have agreement until the thing you say and the thing someone hears are the exact same thing.  So, what is a way to help ensure someone hears what you intended them to hear?  You need to ask questions.  The next time you are talking with someone, ask questions so you feel completely confident they heard exactly what you wanted them to hear.  Once you make it past that, things should go much smoother because you’ll both be seeing eye-to-eye.  Try that with email sometime.

Just because I’m advocating face-to-face communications, I’m not saying you should be having more meetings! Do what makes sense.  But, let’s say there is going to be a meeting?  When inviting people to your meeting, choose High-Speed Voice Technology™ first and then move on down the list.  Imagine having a daily 15 minute meeting with 5 people.  Now imagine what you would do, and the level of effort and complexity, if you couldn’t all meet in person.  It should make you appreciate a face-to-face talk just a little more.

Like the images?  Find them at Pictofigo

7 Replies to “Communicating Effectively”

  1. Well written! I so much agree with email being the lest preferred choice.My ordered list would be face 2 face , telephone and then email. I may follow up the face 2 face or telephone interaction with an email just to document it or keep it as a reminder, but avoid it as much as possible.

    1. Thank! Communications is so much more of an are than a science. I know people who live in a cube and refuse any face to face meeting invitations. That’s not me!

  2. Derek, it seems to me that your pronouncement about email is a vast over-generalization.

    1. I am unsure why an email is any more likely to be misunderstood than a conversation. Granted if there is misunderstanding it requires a follow-up email whereas with a conversation it might be clarified on the spot.

    2. The importance of having a paper trail cannot be underestimated, and email is an invaluable part of that trail. I cannot count the number of times my ass has been saved because I have been able to point to written communications that took place, and in every single instance I would have been up the creek if I did not have it. Case in point. I email participant A that their design is not going to work and point out the specs I provided to them. Participant A still builds their design wrong. Cost to fix is several thousand dollars and participant A claims they were never told. I pull out the written communications.

    Let me add some clarification here. I am often not the PM on these projects, rather I in the PM for my company. Therefore all I can do is repeatedly follow up on issues and try to make sure they get done right. But I don’t control nor choose the rest of the project participants and without exception some of these will be pass the buck types. And there is one or more of them on EVERY project I work on. If I don’t use email with them, I would be screwed on every single project. It is a CONSTANT method of managing risk that voice conversations cannot approach IMO. However voice conversations can certainly supplement email and visa versa.

    None of this is meant to suggest that in-person communications should not take place, or that telephone calls and in-person meetings are not also invaluable. I just disagree with what seems to be an over-generalization. I think it depends on the project, people etc.

    1. This is totally an over-generalization! The important thing to note about my writing style and this blog is to start a conversation. Your comment furthers that conversation and adds value to it. Imagine how painfully boring my blog would be if I tried to cover every little scenario. No, I’m trying to have an informative yet entertaining blog. Let me respond to your points.

      1. Yes, if there is misunderstanding it requires a follow-up email whereas with a conversation it might be clarified on the spot. I think of it as parallel versus serial communications. I’m also big on body language or hearing the tone of a voice.

      2. I completely understand the CYA scenario. When I think I’m in a CYA scenario, I write a follow-up email. “Per our conversation, I am confirming….” I may also make this a cc email. By the way, [recipient], I’m informing others of our conversation.

      The point I was trying to make with the blog post is I believe people should have conversations. They should engage others. I 100% agree that it depends on the project, the people, and the situation at that moment. I hope people don’t read my blog and believe (that I believe) what I write is the only way to do something. Again, this is to spark a dialog.

      Thank you for reading my blog and adding to the conversation!

    2. David, could you update your Disqus account to include an email address or send me your Twitter ID (if you have one)? I think you make very valid points and would be interested in following what you have to say elsewhere.

  3. Derek, thanks for your response. I doubt we are really in much disagreement. I will create a disqus profile next time I post. A couple of other thoughts. I feel that for many things email is more efficient because it does not require reaching the other person at a time that both of us are available, and therefore allows people to manage their time much more effectively. For instance, I can answer all of my emails between 3-4 as opposed to having my productivity devastated by being interrupted with phone calls all day. For our own projects I actually look upon email as a more “disciplined” method of communication, that is, the better our processes and PM are, the less fires there are to put out and the more I can rely on email.

    As I am typing this a typical example occurs to me of why I often don’t bother with a phone call. The projects I am on literally often don’t have schedules or plans. The “schedule” is a due date someone pulled out of their ass. If I call and ask someone “when will your deliverable be ready for me so I can have my deliverable ready”, the answer I get the majority of the time is “I’m waiting on xxx I don’t know”. Perhaps it would help if I mentioned the industry I work in. I work with very large residential projects in the construction industry. Contractors in this industry rarely ever even have a plan or schedule, they pretty much wing it from start to completion. So I have learned to not even waste my time. Instead I’ll send an email out asking for a schedule and reminding the parties that my turnaround time once I receive the necessary info is going to be two weeks. Another CYA move since I know I won’t get a schedule so that way when they call me and say “we need this tomorrow” I can remind them that I told them it would require two weeks.

    Having said all this, your post is probably a good reminder not to rely on email too much and that a phone call or meeting are probably a good human touch even if not “necessary”, and might elicit info that an email won’t provide.

    I’m actually a huge proponent of visiting the project site for inspections so I hope I don’t come off as suggesting that everything should be done via email.

    1. David, what I like about project management is we can all have the same goal and arrive there a different way (and not be wrong). We have different styles but we can both still be successful. I can certainly see email as necessary if you’re using it as (legal) proof a conversation took place. That’s where I can also see the CYA cc email coming into play.

      I’ve established a bit of a precedence in my office. Everyone knows I only check email at the top of the hour (if I’m not in a meeting). If there is an emergency, either come directly to me or call me. Don’t cry wolf too many times though. Look at my shared calendar. Don’t send me last meeting invites. I commonly get an email starting with “Derek, I know you won’t read this email right away but…”

      I really think communications is the most important part of our jobs AND the most challenging. It’s one of those soft skills that changes from project to project and from customer, vendor, and team.

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