Project management can be a tough job. No matter how you approach it, coordinating people and resources to achieve a common goal is challenging. Sometimes it can feel like herding cats. Other times it can feel like chasing a runaway train. But when all the pieces come together perfectly (…or close enough), it can feel like conducting a beautiful symphony.
Let’s think about that symphony for a moment. How is a group of people who have different skill sets and tools able to come together and make something beautiful? The answer lies in the conductor. With every wave of her arm, she is sending mission-critical messages to her team. Without her constant signals, the musicians would have a hard time staying together. The conductor’s job is all about communication. As a project manager, yours is too.
So, how do you improve communication and take your project management skills to the next level?
Here are 3 tips and tricks to help you to effectively communicate throughout the life of your project:
1. Treat Project Expectations Like a Team Member
A lot of leaders treat expectation-setting like a checkbox item. They develop expectations and communicate them at the start of the project, but they rarely bring them up again. Instead, expectations should be treated like a member of the team: always in the room, always part of the conversation.
This means that, like a team member, expectations have to flex and bend with the realities of the project. If an unexpected roadblock appears, it’s time to re-address expectations with your team. Are they still held accountable to that looming deadline? Do they still only have certain resources available to them? Are they expected to do whatever it takes to get it done, even if their other work suffers?
No matter what happens, your team should never have to guess what you want from them. Expectations should be explicit and they should be reiterated and readdressed on a regular basis.
Not the best at setting expectations? That’s okay! It’s not always easy. As you start practicing, here is one common pitfall to avoid:
Don’t assume that what you said was understood in the same way you meant it. Misunderstandings happen, even when you think you are being perfectly clear. These communication issues are often worse when your team is working out of different offices (or in different countries).
A quick way to check if your team has understood your expectations is to ask them to repeat back what they heard, in their own words. This allows you to spot any problems and immediately clear up misunderstandings before the work begins. By using a real-time feedback loop, you can get to work faster with greater alignment throughout your team.
2. Communicate Consistently and Transparently
This one may seem obvious, but it can be difficult to do. You may be racing against tight deadlines or have other projects on your plate. No matter what, communicating with your team should be a priority. The time you put into creating transparency and understanding across your team makes the work easier in the long run.
Here are a few quick tips to consistently boost transparency:
- Hold regular check-ins with the team and with key individuals.
Build the habit of meeting as a team to discuss priorities, roadblocks, and needs. Make sure that these meetings are happening regularly and that your team understands that they are expected to attend.
On top of this, make time to meet with individuals who have larger workloads or challenges they need help overcoming. It can be irritating to team members when the entire meeting is spent on one person’s problems. Take the conversation offline and only include the people directly impacted by the problem.
- Ask for feedback.
Create an open loop that allows your team members to say how they are doing. Asking for feedback also helps you improve your project management. The team can help you see some of your blind spots so you can get better at what you do.
- Always share the big picture.
It’s easy to lose the forest for the trees. Help your team keep the big picture in mind. Regularly circle back to project goals and the impact the project has on the company. This will help your team stay focused and motivated.
- Communicate clear timelines and milestones.
It’s hard to stay focused and motivated when deadlines are constantly shifting and milestones don’t exist. To help your team, set reasonable timelines and discuss them during every meeting. If a timeline needs to shift, bring your team into the process and help them understand why. On top of that, set clear milestones that allow your team to see their progress. Celebrate whenever the team hits milestones and share recognition.
3. Reinforce the Use of Your Project Management Tools
There are a lot of tools out there that you could be using to help manage your projects (Trello, Smartsheets, Basecamp, etc.). These tools are intended to help align resources, keep track of deliverables, and create transparency.
No matter what you pick, there might be people on your team who are reluctant to use it. They may say that the tool is too difficult to learn, or that it’s a time-suck preventing them from getting “real” work done. As frustrating as this may feel, it’s important to keep the big picture in mind. You are using this tool for a reason. Communicating the big picture and the long-term benefits will help your team get on board.
There are four important steps to effectively communicating this with your team:
- Listen to and empathize with their pain points.
Effective communication is a two-way street, so it’s important to listen to your team. Try to understand what is truly going on. To get to the root of the problem, you can borrow a technique from Lean Six Sigma. It’s called “The 5 Whys.” In this method, you ask “why” enough times to get to the heart of the issue.
The idea here is to dig deep enough to find root causes, not just symptoms of a problem. Your team member may say that they don’t have enough time to use the project management tool. Five “whys” later and you find out that they have too many high-priority projects and they are dealing with issues at home. These challenges are wearing them down and making them feel overwhelmed. Knowing this, you can work with your team member to reduce stress and make your project management tool more approachable.
- Communicate the value of the tool.
This is where the big picture comes in. Help your team see it. What value does the tool create when used consistently and correctly? How does it help the team be more successful overall?
If the tool prevents miscommunication, helps with accountability, and streamlines processes, it’s important that your team understands this. It’s also important to share what happens when the tool isn’t consistently used by the entire team. Maybe it causes roadblocks, wastes time, and creates confusion. By sharing this information you help each team member understand how the tool benefits them. This approach helps overcome resistance and enables you to start using the tool to its best abilities.
- Take time to save time.
A project management tool is an investment intended to boost efficiency and streamline projects. It likely costs some money and it takes time to learn. That means you are asking for an investment from each of your team members. It’s important to acknowledge and communicate this. Help them see the importance of their investment – they are taking time now so that they can save time later on. On top of that, figure out ways to help your team find the time to learn and build the habit of regularly using the tool.
- Be consistent.
Opposition to your project management tool is frustrating. It may feel easier to avoid conflict and do all the backend work yourself. Resist the urge to cave to the complaints of your team. Work with them to remove the roadblocks and consistently reinforce the importance of the tool. Every time the team works around the system, gently steer them back to the tool. Don’t give up! Consistently bringing the tool to the forefront will help your team understand its importance and it will remind them to use it.
Managing big projects is always a challenge, but clear communication will make it easier. Focus on aligning your team to the big picture, sharing information regularly, and using tools effectively. Put in the effort to communicate with your team and you will inevitably see results.
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