Project Management Institute

Building bridges, not rivalries

Communications-building and group brainstorming sessions can electrify team performance by identifying and resolving key communications stumbling blocks.

Jane Griffin

Our basic flaw as humans is the failure to communicate. In Kurt Vonnegut's book, The Breakfast of Champions, the space creature Zog comes to earth from the planet Margo with the key to world peace and a cure for cancer. On Zog's planet, they communicate by farting and tap dancing. This “language” doesn't work as well on earth, where the head of a household in Connecticut brains Zog with a golf club after the alien tries to warn him that his house is on fire.

Our differences may not be as severe, nor do our misunderstandings usually have consequences as grave as those suffered by Zog, but the problems are the same. Each of us is influenced by our perceptions, vernacular, and indigenous language—that is our reality.

A Common Vocabulary

You can implement systems “good, fast, and cheap,” but if the results are not acceptable to the client, you will not be successful. Through years of consulting with a variety of clients, I have found that the key to implementing systems “good, fast, cheap and acceptable” lies in the ability to communicate properly from the beginning and gain consensus on the end results. Although this sounds like common sense, it's amazing how often we forget that communication is fundamental. Four years ago I began conducting what we call Concur sessions. These three-to five-day off-site sessions bring together 25 to 40 people at all levels across an enterprise to build visual and dynamic models that, when implemented, will solve their business problems. The tangible result is a business model or a strategy built quickly, with everyone's agreement. But the intangibles are what ensure successful implementation.

Processes, Not Personalities

Participants come into Concur sessions with mixed emotions. They're not sure what's going on or what's being asked of them. We make sure that hidden agendas surface the first day, that they are addressed, and that participants realize the benefit of checking their political and territorial issues at the door. The second day the light bulbs start going on. The participants begin communicating with one another at a gut level. They start exchanging ideas because they trust that they're not going to be reprimanded or criticized.

We encourage participants to share their ideas and opinions, but we stress no “ownership” of ideas. We brainstorm ideas; we discuss and capture them without trying to sell the idea to the group. Because the ideas are separated from the people who first voiced them, the participants begin to concentrate on processes, not personalities. This takes the personality out of the issues people fight over.

The Magic Moment

In every session, there is a magic moment when the participants start working as a team, when they realize that they are on a common mission and have a common goal. They begin to feel secure enough with each other to passionately disagree, have fun, confront each other, and sometimes even agree on issues they once considered quitting over.

One session we facilitated involved a client organization in which people commonly had worked for the company for 30 years or more. The customer service representatives were referred to as “the girls on the helpline”—not a single male worked in the customer service department. Behind the scenes, the “girls”—really women in their 40s and 50s”—were the only ones who dealt with merchants, installers, sales people, three levels of management, not to mention customers, every day.

At first, these women were reluctant to speak. They were shy, not very sure of themselves, not sure what would happen if they spoke out. So, I wasn't surprised when they started whispering to each other. Even though one of the rules of the session is “no sidebar conversations,” I sensed that the women were building a voice through their whispers, so I ignored it. Instead, I walked over to Sarah and asked her what really goes on in the customer service department.

By the end of the week, these women were pounding their fists on the desks, saying, “This is not the way it happens!” They were role playing, showing the rest of the group what really happens, and telling us how they thought things should work. Finally, management woke up and said, “Hey, these women really do know what goes on out there.”

The Domino Effect

As each day of the Concur session ends, camaraderie builds. Almost invisibly, a model of the company is built by those who know the most about it and have the biggest stake in its success—the employees. A common reaction after the second or third day is, “I've never attended a meeting where I learned more about my organization. I learned what everyone else does, what their perspectives are, and how what I do affects them.” Often we hear, “I learned what things I can do differently today, without a new system, before the reengineering starts.” These positive realizations have a domino affect. People shift their perceptions to the importance of communicating and the importance of the processes.

Even when participants finish the sessions not liking one another any more than they did before, they leave with respect for each other's ideas, a greater appreciation for compromise, and a set of agreed-upon deliverables from the plan they created together. More importantly, the participants become missionaries to the rest of the organization.

This can only happen in organizations that believe in and practice empowerment of their people—organizations that are willing to invest the time and money to reap the benefits. Creativity doesn't happen on demand; time and friction are required to ignite the sparks. Phenomenal results can be achieved if an organization is willing to listen, invest the time, create the environment, and not be afraid of constructive confrontation at all levels. ▄

Jane Griffin, CCP, is founder, president and CEO of Systems Techniques, Inc., an Atlanta-based information technology firm. She has designed and built data warehouses for clients in healthcare, government, banking and telecommunications.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM Network • August 1996

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