PM Perspectives: Communication games with the engineers

Mar 09, 2011

By Christine Brack, PMP, ZweigWhite A CEC of Metropolitan Washington invited me to present a session on Effective Communication in February to their emerging leaders and other distinguished constituents. Good techniques and best practices are essential in every corner of the organization, but one cannot deny the criticality when applied to projects. Although I had the podium for four hours that snowy and chilly morning, it took only 15 minutes to illustrate the dynamics of communication, expose the frustrations and assumptions prolifically found in teams, and underscore the role each member plays in the success or failure of the project outcome. A session on effective communication would lack any real usefulness if I did all the talking— so I unleashed a little parlor game upon this large group and watched their lessons learned unfold before their very eyes. I won’t go into vast detail about how the game is facilitated, but the teams are small (five members), the only communication allowed is through written notes, and each member is given an individual sheet of instructions. The task is to be completed within 15 minutes. When time was called, and the quiet room finally filled with the crescendo of sighs, whistles, and laughter, we discussed the phenomenon of what just took place. We didn’t learn “something new” about the stranger or colleague next to us. We didn’t have to think on our feet about what we were going to “bring to a picnic.” This exercise intentionally mirrors the arrangement and structure of a real project team— and the behaviors displayed are the culprits but also the muscle behind good project communication. In their own words, here are some of those discoveries: 1. I gave them a matrix because I thought it would make their job easier. The “principal” thought he was doing the team a big favor by designing a tool they could use to solve the problem. What he didn’t share was the goal of the task with his project manager. Without the meaning behind the activity, the team found the matrix useless and mysterious and proceeded to work without it. Principals take note: Serving good intentions and half-solutions on a silver platter are almost futile exercises if not paired with a purpose. 2. I was bored. I was waiting for him to give me more. Everyone comments on the work ethic of Millennials. On this day, I had a healthy roomful of young engineers who would defy most of the stereotypes. Lower down the communication chain, they had even less direction and were given far less attention. They followed instructions, sat and waited for further word. And they waited, and they waited. And when they asked questions, the project manager was too busy to answer right away. So they sat there and waited some more. Could this be why Millennials want to leave at 4:30? Can we say we know our team’s skill sets, and how we can leverage those? Are we ignoring the potential we have sitting around us? Are we talking about it? 3. The note with the goal written on it is sitting here but I guess we forgot to pass it around. Only the “principal” was informed about the objective of the exercise, and for this particular team it made its way onto paper but it didn’t get any further. What a shame, because had the team shared this knowledge, they admittedly wouldn’t have duplicated efforts— indeed a very expensive drill. If principals and project managers share the mission at the onset of a new project, remarkable differences in efficiency and profitability will certainly take place. 4. When I stepped out of the way, he was successful. I let him be the PM. All principals can point to the time they were full-time designers. As a leader, it is tough to shake the temptation to take the reins and call the shots— even though we delegate that responsibility to our PMs. In this scenario, the principal began to gum up the process but when he stepped back, the project began to roll. They found a solution within minutes. 5. If I could do it over again, I’d be more efficient— then maybe my coffee wouldn’t have gotten cold. How often are PMs so caught up in the flurry that they miss out on the finer things in life— or simply feel like they have aged 10 years? Projects aren’t supposed to make us feel awful. Applying good communication practices ensures this isn’t the case. I would like to again thank Mac Cannon, executive director of ACEC of Metropolitan Washington, Angela Marchetti and Eric Rehwoldt of Schnabel Engineering, and Lou Robbins of Dewberry & Davis LLC for the invitation to speak at their emerging leader forum. I would also like to thank all the attendees for their participation and commentary— which gave me ample material to craft this article— which broadly provides learning insight and valuable perspective for the rest of the industry.

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