Overcoming Communication Barriers



Today I went out to get some exercise by running to pick up a few things at a local store.  Many times on my runs, I am able to open my mind and ponder over life and work problems.  During this particular six mile run, I was stopped by a young lady in a car.  When she caught my attention, she waved me to her car.  Upon approaching, she made it clear that she was mute.  She was highly agitated but I waited to see what she was going to do next.  She pulled out her iPhone and opened a web page that had a store address on it; she was obviously lost.  This store was next to where I was headed.  I thought “no problem” and proceeded to give her directions.  She stopped me and motioned that she was also deaf.

I immediately switched to panic mode and thought:

  1. How am I going to help this poor lady?
  2. I looked in her car (which was very clean and new) and wondered if I should offer to ride with her to the store:
    1. Was I willing to take the risk that she was a serial killer trying to get me into her car? No!
    2. Was there a pen and paper visible that I could write the directions on? No!
  3. Could I speak slowly and use my hands to direct her to the store? Perhaps, but I do not know sign language!

Taking a gamble on the latter, I slowly talked her through the turns while pointing to the road ahead.  Luckily, there were only two turns to get to the store.  She used her hands and repeated what I had shown her. She thanked me with sign language (I do know that sign) and was off.  The good news is that when I reached my destination, her car was in the parking lot.

I started thinking on the way back from the store about the many communication barriers project managers often face on a project.  For example:

  1. Language differences
  2. Co-location of project team members
  3. TAWAU (The acronyms we all use)
  4. Cultural differences
  5. Psychological drivers
  6. Barriers caused by varying perceptions of reality
  7. Barriers caused by differing levels of understanding and comprehension

This experience made me think about the importance of breaking down communication barriers on projects.  I like to believe that I positively impacted that young lady’s day by finding a way to communicate with her.  It is the responsibility of any project manager to adjust how we communicate by understanding the needs of our audience. I often say that “understanding” is the first step for “improving.”

Language Differences
Trying to communicate with someone that is deaf or mute is difficult.  Another example is working with someone that does not share your first language.  I have struggled with understanding people whose first language is not English.  When faced with this barrier, you may have to communicate in writing or use images to facilitate better communication.

Co-Location of Project Team Members
When working on projects that have team members in different locations, it is very hard to pick up on the non-verbal forms of communication.  Consider how much information we convey with a smile or a frown.  When you are on conference calls, you miss out on this important form of non-verbal communication.  My suggestion is to use video conferencing where possible to convey this non-verbal feedback.

The Use of Acronyms
You should stop and take count of how many times a day you or someone on your team uses acronyms.  If someone new joins the team this could really be an obstacle if your corporate culture is driven by the use of acronyms.  You could create a “cheat sheet” as a project tool that could be used to help new team members transition on the team more easily.

Cultural Differences
I work for a company based in Ireland.  I joined this company after spending most of my career working for US-based organizations.  One of the biggest lessons I learned about the Irish was that using surnames to address them is in very poor taste.  I was only told this after being with the company a year while out at a pub.  Imagine my embarrassment when I thought back to all the times I had done this on calls and in person.  In my mind it was easier to use surnames and common in previous companies I worked for when addressing individuals on calls that shared the same first name.  Now that I have learned this I try to address team members by their first name and first initial of their last name.  I would encourage you to understand cultural differences when you work on projects that have project team members in other areas of the world.

Psychological Drivers
You can learn a lot about project team members during the course of a project.  What motivates these individuals is very important to know.  One of the best examples is recognition.  I am motivated by doing a good job and being recognized for the hard work needed to achieve positive results.  I do not mind how this recognition is given; it could be verbal 1×1, verbal in a team setting, email, or corporate reward structure.  There are team members that cringe at the thought of being publicly recognized and are not motivated by recognition.  They may be motivated by time off in lieu, money, or many other factors.  It is important to understand what motivates your team members so that you do not accidentally use a form of recognition with them that is unwelcome.

Barriers Caused by Varying Perceptions of Reality
All of us synthesize our decisions through a lens of past experiences.  Depending on our experience level and the environment in which we grew up or currently live, our decision making processes are quite different.  There have been times that I struggled with understanding why someone could not move past a specific issue.  It was not clear until they let me know that this issue was something that they had previously encountered on a project and had a very negative outcome that directly impacted their employment.  As soon as I understood this barrier, we worked together to articulate the risk associated with the issue and clearly document mitigation activities.

Barriers Caused By Differing Levels of Understanding and Comprehension
Not all project team members have the same education level and comprehension speed.  It is important to take the time to understand what each individual brings to the project and how best to utilize those skills for successful delivery.  On one project I worked, one of the development team leads was especially good at working through logical timeline facilitation activities.  Typically these sessions would have been facilitated by the project manager.  On this team the project manager was new to the role and was not comfortable standing in front of the team facilitating this activity.  I instead approached the project manager about giving the team lead the opportunity to demonstrate leadership skills by giving him the opportunity to run the session.  I immediately saw relief on the face of the project manager and he was actually excited to approach the team lead with the request.  The team lead agreed and felt like he had been recognized as someone that could do something more than just lead developers in writing code.

The key takeaway from this article is the importance of taking the time to identify barriers you may face on your project and determine the best strategies to communicate effectively.

A special thank you to Jerry Johns for acting as my editor on this article!

ABCs of a PMO



Many times in my project and program management career I have looked to my company’s Project Management Office (PMO) for help and support.  A PMO will offer leadership to help solve difficult business and technology problems, serve as a sounding board to explore new approaches and strategies, and provide a framework for a standard project methodology in order to initiate and execute projects utilizing industry best practices.  The PMO will also help identify the best resources for the area of expertise a project manager requires to fulfill a project or program need.  Typically the PMO is staffed by individuals with an abundance of project and program experience so that they can offer mentorship that supports the project, program, or portfolio environments.  Without a PMO in place there could be inconsistent approaches and delivery standards which could lead to poor project outcomes.  The organization may not realize the return on investment for the business case driving the project delivery without a solid PMO practice.

The Project Management Institute (PMI) defines a PMO as “An organizational body or entity assigned various responsibilities related to the centralized and coordinated management of those projects under its domain.  The responsibilities of a PMO can range from providing project management support functions to actually being responsible for the direct management of a project”.  The PMO’s focus should be on continuous improvement and support to improve the organizations’ and individuals’ project management execution capability resulting in faster delivery.  I have worked in organizations where the PMO has provided support along with audit functions and in other organizations where the PMO has provided direct management and execution of projects.  I want to cover some key observations from my experiences, where the PMO helps contribute to successful project implementations whether they are vendor lead or internal application development initiatives.

Availability of Support Resources:  Most of your project management responsibilities occur during normal business operating hours (unless your stakeholders are global) so the PMO should have resources available during these hours or be flexible enough to work around project demands.  It is assumed that all of the tools, templates, and the lessons learned repository(s) are available electronically at all times. This is a critical aspect of a project’s success and your PMO should play a key role in it.

Support versus Roadblock:  PMO processes and support should not be so onerous that they stall or delay the activity of the project. A great PMO offers partnership with the project manager in a way that enables success. The PMO should monitor the perception of their audience and adjust their approach to ensure they are fostering project success.

Current Process Framework: The PMO should provide current and easily used project management tools and templates. All new processes and tools should be implemented in support of the defined project methodology being utilized within the organization.  There should be an analysis by the PMO of the cost to implement changes in the process or tools from a resource knowledge perspective and organizational change management perspective.  The PMO should also validate that any changes in process or tools adhere to the vision, mission, goals and objectives of the organization.  There should be an active auditing function of the tools to ensure the ongoing effectiveness is realized.

Training and Career Progression: Many times project managers believe their first responsibility is to successfully execute the project they are working on and support their team member’s growth.  This leaves very little time to focus on their own skills and stay abreast of new practices within their profession.  The PMO should offer training that is in support of the variability of the project. This would include online sessions held in the evenings or weekends, white paper soft-copy distribution, and finally classroom courses that can be taken either during project downtime or in between assignments.  The PMO should also encourage Project Managers to continue their education as a requirement for career progression.  This would also support the requirements of PMI for the project management certification continuing education requirements.

Resource Competency: Project managers look for and value guidance from experienced professionals who have walked miles in their shoes, and have lived through tough project battles.  The experience gained while working through diverse and challenging engagements help the PMO better support the project management team.  PMO resources should be very familiar with the daily challenges facing their project managers and their skillset should be highly experienced.  They should continuously look for new and more efficient ways to execute projects within the organizations culture.  

Resource Availability: Project managers look for resource availability from the PMO to staff their respective projects.  Once a project manager identifies the types of resources they need to staff their respective engagements a process and tool should be outlined by the PMO to support the acquisition of resources needed.  The PMO should have visibility of all the organizational project and program resources needs in order to support the organizations ongoing business strategic initiatives.

In summary a PMO is a very valuable area within the organization when there is a clear understanding of the role the PMO plays within the organization based on the culture and resource needs.  The PMO should be looked at as a center of excellence that provides support and a framework for those that are effectively executing projects.  The PMO should also provide clear direction and quality resources for the project managers within the organization.  Finally the PMO should be looked at as a valued corporate service or function by providing thought leadership and project management direction for the organization.  If these processes and functions are in place then an organization will be able to reap the benefits of consistent delivery of business driven strategic goals.