In Part I of this post, we discussed two communication mechanisms–Situational and Empathic Communication–that project managers can use to ensure that stakeholders hear and understand key project issues.
In my experiences working with many project managers in a PMO environment, Situational and Empathic Communication–along with Resonance and Metaphorical Communication, the two communications mechanisms that I will discuss in this Part–have been used widely by successful project managers.
In the sciences, we study a phenomenon called “resonance.” Resonance is the state of a system in which an abnormally large response is produced by the system, as compared to a standard external stimulus. Once again, it is we are most interested in the “cause” and “effect” relationship. Resonances are observed in many physical systems. In nuclear physics, resonance occurs when there is a high probability of a certain type of action or reaction occurring if the conditions are right. For example, if a neutron of a certain energy comes in close range to an nucleus which has a high resonance cross section for absorption at that energy, then there is a high probability of absorption of that neutron by that atom.
There is an analogous situation in behavioral or emotional systems in which an external stimulus causes some form of a larger than expected response on the part of the person affected by the stimulus. Certain music, for example, is known to cause an emotional reaction. For example, the songs of Paul McCartney or Sting cause a “resonance” in the emotional behavior of many of their fans. This emotional response can be built upon to form a “market” for that particular music. The same can be said of certain foods. Pizza or Mexican food can, for example, cause a “resonance” response in some people who have a “taste” for that type of cuisine.
Perhaps you have never thought of markets in this way before. How can you estimate the market size for a new song by a particular group?
Now, how can an understanding of “resonance” help project managers communicate with project teams and stakeholders?
When I worked in a PMO for ConocoPhillips, we developed a number of SAP ERP projects for the organization during the merger of Conoco and Phillips Petroleum. After the first three or four of these projects were completed, we noticed that one aspect of the project which created longer actuals in terms of both budget and schedule, was a phase known as “data conversion.” “Data conversion” was a very general term that often included such competencies as “data scrubbing,” “data interpretation,” “data cleansing,” as well as other related activities. We asked ourselves the question “Why does data conversion create such problems for project teams?”
What we found was that project teams, no matter how exerienced in SAP projects, inevitably underestimate what it will take to convert the data from the original system, into fully compatible and useable data for the SAP application. Typically, the number of resources would be underestimated, or the point in the project where data conversion would have to be initiated was miscalculated, or the “data conversion” team might be missing some key component of expertise.
How could we correct this situation and learn from past project mistakes in such a way that future project managers on SAP projects could fully anticipate the scope and resources required for an on budget, on schedule completion of “data conversion”?
We wrote a Project Lessons Learned document that would strike a “resonance” in any qualified project team. The project manager only had to discuss the Project Lesson with his team and his project planners in order to effect a full and complete understanding of the problem, so that the team could understand and successfully act during the project’s execution. By covering all the topics of data conversion, timing, competencies, special expertise, inclusion of all known types of data shortcomings, the project manager was able to address any question that the project team might have regarding data.
Striking this “resonance” was essential to future on budget, on schedule performance in the SAP ERP arena.
So, as a forward thinking project manager, look for those topics that will strike a “resonance” in each of your stakeholders, topics which you can call upon time and again to elicit a greater than expected response to your message. You will find that these topics are numerous, and can be counted upon to reach project team members, sponsors, and steering committee members of business functional groups. Some of these topics might be Organizational Change Management (OCM) plans, Risk Analysis and Vendor Management.
Metaphors are an effective way to put a situation or an issue into a context that another person or group can better understand. A metaphor is a figure of speech , symbol, or image that can help illustrate a point and connect similar or dissimilar items.
When people are able to see how to apply familiar processes and behaviors and attach their prior knowledge to various situations, it makes it easier for them to come up with action plans. It also enhances esteem and gives them confidence.
A number of years ago, after very successful runs in London and New York, Phantom of the Opera came to one of the performing arts centers of southern California. My family was very excited but, when I went to the box office to buy tickets, the earliest tickets I could get were for a performance four months in the future.
I had heard so many great things about the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and the performances of his leading actors Michael Crawford and Sarah Brighton. So, I thought I would prepare myself for the upcoming performance by listening t0 the soundtrack on cassette tape. I had an expectation that I would be able to enjoy the “atmosphere” of the performance by listening to the music and the interaction of the characters on the soundtrack.
What happened? Without seeing how the perfomers interacted or how their roles were related, I really could not understand the context of the music or how it enabled the action. My understanding of the entire performance was incomplete. Many key things were missing. It was not until I saw the production with action, music, interaction, themes, and a plot that I realized what a fine “tapestry” that Andrew Lloyd Webber had woven.
Such is often the case with project teams. They may not see the full context of a project. Someone must communicate to them the “big picture”–the subtleties of the interaction among their roles, communicated messages and feedback about the project, various decisions that had been made, etc. That is where metaphors can be so valuable and effective.
On the Sunday, March 14, 2010 episode of “Meet the Press,” Tom Friedman of The New York Times ,and Tom Brokaw, the guest moderator, were discussing the United States’ role in the Middle East, and the perception of the U.S. in the eyes of many of its residents. This exchange ensued:
MR. FRIEDMAN: Yeah. I mean, look, everyone in the Middle East is watching. You know, Tom, we both grew up in the Midwest. You remember, we used to talk about the Minnesota State Fair.
MR. BROKAW: Right.
MR. FRIEDMAN: I used to go the state fair as a kid. There was a guy at the Minnesota State Fair who could guess your weight. I was fascinated with that as a five, 10-year-old. How does he get–and if he didn’t get it right, you won a Kewpie doll or whatever. In the Middle East, people can guess your power from a hundred paces. They have to. That’s how, how they survive. And if we look weak, vis-a-vis our closest ally in the region, that will have regional implications.
Tom Friedman used a terrific metaphor at that spot in the interview. Each television viewer was given a picture, indelibly etched in their mind, of a man in the State Fair sizing up the power of someone he barely knows. And all for the sake of survival!!!
If you are a project manager, the next time you send one of your project team members to talk to someone in the business functional area about a potential change in project scope that the business functional group may be considering, why don’t you use a metaphor when suggesting to your team member how the interaction should go? For example, if your project team member is a baseball fan, consider this approach:
“During this interview, why don’t you approach Jim as if he is the starting pitcher in a baseball game, and he has loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth inning, with your visiting team ahead 6 to 5 with two outs. It’s crunch time! Let him know that you understand that he is upset for letting those batters get on base. But be forceful, and let him know that, if he allows a run or two to score, it’s a whole new ballgame with your project. More scope means more dollars and inevitably missing the Job #1 date. Which is it going to be? Let him know that the project team and the sponsor would rather that he pitch a strike out, and that, together, you can still achieve that goal and win the game. If you frame it in such terms, he will deliver his best and, more than likely, you both will emerge with a win-win.”
I hope this discussion of four communication mechanisms has been informative, and that it will enable you to communicate effectively with all stakeholders. I would be interested in learning more about your experiences using effective communication tools in the Comments section.