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So What?

As we know, 80-90% of a project manager’s time is spent communicating.  The challenge for some project managers is that their communication appears to fall on deaf ears.  Team members don’t follow established procedures for status reporting or issue notification and senior stakeholders procrastinate or avoid decision making, issue resolution or risk response execution.

When asked, the project manager might point to minutes from meetings, project status reports and e-mail messages to prove that the requests were made.  Sadly, this ignores a core principle of the basic communication model as per the PMBOK Guide, 4th edition: “the sender is responsible for making the information clear and complete so that the receiver can receive it correctly, and for confirming that it is properly understood”.

If the message encoding the information the project manager is hoping will generate action is not perceived by the receiver to be as important or urgent as the project manager feels, the outcome will not be the expected one.

The project manager may wish to have team members follow certain “common sense” steps for sharing information or for escalating appropriately but if the impact of their not doing so is not clear to them, the team members are likely to perceive this as bureaucracy or micro-management. 

If the project manager takes the time to explain the linkage between the requested information and gaining greater predictability on achieving the project’s objectives and is successful in  communicating how the success of the project aligns with the success of the team members, they are likely to at least understand what’s in it for them and why it is important to the project.  This does not guarantee 100% compliance, but at least expectations were appropriately set.

With senior stakeholders such as a project sponsor, a different challenge presents itself.  If the project manager cannot clearly articulate the business impacts of a decision, issue resolution or risk response, at best, the senior stakeholder will procrastinate, but worse, this poor communication will impact the stakeholder’s perception of the professionalism and effectiveness of the project manager. 

While observing the body language or verbal reactions of senior managers to a project manager who is clearly missing the mark with their communication attempts, I’ve often mentally drawn cartoon bubbles over the senior stakeholders’ heads with the thought “Why are they wasting my time?”.

Even if the project manager clearly explains the business impacts of not fulfilling a request, it may still not be perceived as a high enough priority.  Sometimes, there is nothing more that the project manager can do in this case beyond further escalation but if there is the potential of a downstream impact to other more critical business outcomes, it is the responsibility of the project manager to help the senior stakeholder understand these ripple effects.

It would be wonderful if Star Trek’s Universal Translator existed, but until it does, project managers who are unable to answer the “So What?” question might suffer the same fate as an average red shirted crew member!   

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