Join Doug Rose for an in-depth discussion in this video Understanding leadership language, part of Project Management Foundations: Communication.
When I was a project manager, I worked for a large telecommunications firm. The new program manager invited all the project managers into a room and told us a great story. He told us the story of how General Washington crossed the Delaware, when he arrived with his army on the other side, they burned all the boats. Then he told us about how the troops stood next to the warm blaze and realized that they were burning their only way home. Our new manager wanted his project managers to think like George Washington. We needed to motivate our teams to commit 100 percent to everything, we need to eliminate doubt and be free to make some mistakes.
He'd finish this story by throwing his fist in the air and saying, "So don't be afraid to burn your boats!" It was a great story, and even though it wasn't historically accurate it was very motivational. We all shuffled out the conference room with boats blazing in our imagination. But none of us had any real sense of how to make this an action item for our project. How does a project manager to commit a hundred percent to everything? So much of project management is balancing resource and constraints. Giving 100 percent to everything is a mathematical impossibility.
Unfortunately, this is the part of stakeholder communication where you need to take a terrific story and break it down. Like many professions, executive stakeholders speak their own language, so if the primary stakeholder for your project is an executive you might run into problems with leadership language. If you're a long-term project manager, you're probably familiar with some of the more popular leadership phrases. "We need to be proactive and not reactive." "We need to make sure that we have "the right people on the bus." "There's a lot of potential for synergy here." The challenge with these phrases is that they're not very descriptive.
Being "proactive" is not a very clear description of how to "pro-act". Does that mean you have to tell the stakeholder everything? Does that mean that you should make decisions without guidance? There's no universal understanding of "being proactive." That's the challenge with leadership speak. It's almost always allegorical, and project management is almost always practical. So if your stakeholder uses a lot of these phrases you need to disassemble them into actionable items.
If possible, have a one-on-one conversation with the stakeholder. Give them specific examples about challenges in your project and ask them what they think. Often you can extract some practices and processes from the stakeholder just based on examples. Sometimes you don't need this one-on-one clarification if the stakeholder provides documentation. When that happens put a lot more emphasis on the documentation. This new manager followed up his talk by giving us very stringent project management guidelines.
He laid out a very specific process for doing risk analysis. The risk analysis documentation was hardly motivational. But it was very clear, and everyone knew exactly what to do. On his own, the new manager provided very specific actionable items. In some cases these items even contradicted the point of the story, that's why you would never want to be in a meeting with your stakeholder and recite leadership language as a reason for some decision. Maybe not everyone can agree on what "proactive" is.
But if everyone is unhappy then clearly, you haven't been doing it right. Finally, keep in mind that the stakeholders almost always know what they're trying to communicate. So the leadership phrase is not used to cover up their own uncertainty, in fact many stakeholders might feel it's condescending to try and explain proactive or synergy. What you might hear is leadership language, they will hear is a clear directive. So don't assume that you have the freedom to interpret leadership language. Your stakeholders are not saying, "You're free to interpret synergy." They will assume that you know what synergy means and that you're ready to apply it exactly the way they're imagining.
As a project manager, you need to extract those action items. If you don't extract your action items, your stakeholder might assume that you just weren't listening. The soldiers in George Washington's army may have been motivated by leadership but they were directed by clear action. Be sure to keep the two separate in your projects as well, that way you won't find yourself explaining to leadership why your project didn't have enough synergy.
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- Using formal and informal means to communicate
- Prioritizing stakeholder needs
- Listening actively
- Planning project communication
- Understanding leadership language
- Writing clear and concise project reports
- Learning how and when to say "no"<br><br>
- The PMI Registered Education Provider logo is a registered mark of the Project Management Institute, Inc.