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Being Heard and Not Ignored
By Thomas Cutting

I spent most of Saturday on a soccer field either watching my daughters play or refereeing. It made me think of the similarities between a referee and a project manager. The referee has 17 rules to remember and enforce. They give him a whistle and everyone has to listen to him. His word is law. If anyone takes a swing at him or even talks harshly to him he can pull out a red card and send them packing.

For the project manager the rules are constantly changing. They give him a budget to balance and nobody listens to him. His word is ignored. Anyone can take a swing at him and he can be sent packing at any time. Oh, and no whistle. Okay, so there aren’t many similarities between the two.

There was a specific meeting at which I first realized people were listening to me and actually taking me seriously. I don’t recall the exact topic but I remember looking around while I was speaking. I thought, “Wow! They are paying attention to what I’m saying. Oh, crap, what am I saying?”

Have something to say. The first step is to have something to worth listening to. Any fool can blab on for hours about nothing. In that meeting I could have been shouting nursery rhymes and no one would have listened.

Know the language. One of the biggest challenges facing PMs as they enter a new environment is being able to speak the lingo. The basics of project management are fairly universal but the specifics of the assignment are extremely diverse. You aren’t required to be the expert on all technical pieces, but you need to be conversant in the language.

Last week a PM was telling me about a recent assignment she managed. She took over an infrastructure roll out of approximately 70 new servers. Being her first infrastructure project, she was basically clueless. Acronyms and phrases were being thrown at her like rice at a wedding. With a little effort, listening and guessing she was quickly spouting words like racks, servers and cabling. As her vocabulary improved, so did her credibility.

Say it with conviction. One of the things they teach a new referee is to say it like you mean it. If you don’t act confident the parents and kids start to question your ability to ref. The same is true with project management. A weak, unsure PM will not instill confidence in the team and every decision made will be questioned. Be sure of your facts and don’t wimp out. When the budget isn’t enough or the timeframe is too short, say so. If a Change Request is the right thing to apply, let it be known.

Let me be clear, this is not:

  • A shouting match where your voice is loudest because you are in charge.
  • An excuse to skip out on the homework necessary to have a solid plan.
  • A cover up for not having the evidence to back up you statements.

Speak with confidence and be able to back up your position with facts, evidence and good logic.

Having something to say, knowing the language and speaking with conviction allow you to get your thoughts out. Now you will need to be quiet.

Listen to others. For those of us who think we have a lot to say, this is the toughest part. We are constantly thinking of the next answer or defense for what the person across the table is saying. I learned some time ago that my ideas aren’t the only ones and sometimes they aren’t evens the best. The team you lead and the people you support, both management and business, are there because they have competence in their area. Granted, there are always exceptions to the competence rule, but in general they know their stuff.

There are many books the encourage “active listening” that involves looking at the individual, nodding at key points they make and commenting back on what they said. These actions make the speaker feel as if she is being heard. This is great as long as you really hear what is said. You can easily nod your head and say “yup…yup…yup” and never hear anything.

Once you have heard what was said, process it. If it makes sense, act on it. Adjust your opinion, thoughts or plans. If it doesn’t fit with the program, explain your reasoning and move on.

Allow questions. Being project manager is not for the faint of heart. Despite your careful planning and communication you will be questioned, second-guessed and challenged on a regular basis. Rather than trying to quell any questions or contrary opinions, I suggest you give a forum for discussion and encourage people to ask. I see 4 things that this does for you.

  1. It gives your team a voice and invites them to be involved. This gives them ownership in the process even if you don’t alter your plans after considering their input.
  2. You have to think. If you are answering questions, you need to honestly think through your stance and be able to defend it.
  3. Questions allow you to refines or refocus your direction. Good questions make you think and good thinking can lead to better results.
  4. Discussion gets the dissention out in the open. If you can hear and field the questions you stand a chance of removing opposition. If the second-guessing is being done behind your back it may spell disaster.

Thomas Cutting, PMP is the owner of Cutting’s Edge (http://www.cuttingsedge.com/) and is a speaker, writer, trainer and mentor. He offers nearly random Project Management insights from a very diverse background that covers entertainment, retail, insurance, banking, healthcare and automotive verticals. He delivers real world, practical lessons learned with a twist of humor. Thomas has spoken at PMI and PSQT Conferences and is a regular contributor to several Project Management sites. He has a blog at (http://cuttingsedgepm.blogspot.com).

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