the project manager's essential tool
by Ray Boedecker
OVERLOOKED AND UNDERESTIMATED, effective communication among the members of a project team remains a key critical success factor on a software development and implementation effort. While the business of developing software applications has benefited from many advances in hardware, system support software, programming languages and software development tools, computer programmers still play a critical and central role in the software application development process—despite 20-year-old predictions to the contrary
Saved by Technology? Not Yet. Twenty years ago, as I was studying COBOL at a local community college to obtain the skills for an entry-level job in the field of “data processing,” my instructor told the class that in five years there would no longer be any need for programmers. I found this a little unsettling as I labored to master the programming language he was teaching, but I guessed that he was warning us not to become complacent after we had succeeded in learning COBOL. He seemed to be suggesting that COBOL programming would be a short-term career.
He probably based his prediction on work that was being done in the development of code generation programs; and the theory that eventually business and systems analysts, following a structured system definition and design methodology, would be able to feed information into an automated tool that would in turn generate the computer language code necessary to complete development of applications programs—a programmer-free process.
But, in fact, my COBOL instructor's prediction has not come true. Many business applications systems are still being developed using traditional software development techniques by project teams that consist of business and system analysts, technical experts and applications programmers. And for these project teams, the most important element of the applications development process is not mastery of code generator tools. It is still what it was back when COBOL was king: effective communications among project participants.
What should a project manager do to succeed in the treacherous business of taking a complex business process, the exact mechanics of which are understood by only a small group of experienced process owners, and, working with a volatile combination of hardware, networks, software, applications development techniques and technical experts, building an automated system that was sold with the promise that it would reduce operating costs, increase productivity, simplify processing, fulfill the auditor's dreams and generate management reports that will answer every question the best manager could ask? Pray. Run hard. Constantly reset expectations. And learn to communicate.
Barring major technical problems or the loss of project funding, effective communications maintained throughout the project life cycle will ensure on-time delivery of a successful applications system. Ideally, an effective communications culture is initiated by a conscious effort on the project manager's part to nurture the right environment for all the types of contacts and transfers of information among project participants.
While there are numerous automated project management tools and equally as many formal and informal methodologies for applications software development, no tool or methodology reduces the need for the conscious daily effort to ascertain that everyone is making the right connections: getting the information they need and giving the right information to others. In fact, the use of automated tools and standard methodologies tends to increase the need for vigilance about the transfer of critical information among project participants because of the false sense of security such approaches can engender. No two applications software development projects are exactly the same. The variables affecting project execution are as numerous as the individual differences of the people involved in the project.
Managers and experts in high-technology efforts tend to view project development activities as composed primarily of data and processes that have logical relationships, often forgetting the effect of the human element on the process. Each person with a role in the process introduces a different random factor, which can be viewed as either an unfortunate disruptive reality to be eliminated as much as possible through reliance on rules, procedures and methodologies or as one of the most challenging and interesting elements of the experience, to be approached with openness and wisdom.
What then are the primary inhibitors to effective communications and what can be done about them? I have found that most communications barriers fall into one of four categories: physical, intellectual, psychological, or political.
Physical Barriers. The tools for eliminating communications problems due to physical distance are ubiquitous. These tools enable geographically dispersed individuals to achieve near-instantaneous communication using the telephone, beepers, e-mail, facsimiles, express delivery and video-conferencing. Of course, everyone must understand how to use them and accept the need to use them. Individuals who do not check voice-mail or read their e-mails are not going to be effective team members when these tools are used.
Intellectual Barriers. Project team members need to know what information is important. They need to know who needs what information, and they need to know when they need someone's review and when to ask questions. The constant exchange of status updates, decision changes, priority revisions, new facts and details, questions and answers, and the like forms the neural network of a project effort.
Knowing who and when to inform, as well as knowing when and who to ask for information, is a skill that must be learned. This knowledge is one of the fundamental benefits and expectations of experience. Good managers provide formal training for this skill, and they provide constant feedback to encourage team members to focus on mastering it.
As success in the daily exchange of the right information is absolutely essential to keeping a project moving in the right direction, project managers must make creating the right communications culture one of their top priorities. Explicit training, constant monitoring and regular feedback must all be engaged throughout the project effort.
But these efforts alone will not ensure an effective communications culture.
Psychological Barriers. Communications blocks arising from the personality and emotional characteristics of the individuals in a work group are the most difficult to overcome and perhaps the most pervasive. Everyone experiences emotional ups and downs related to their work as well as to their personal lives, and everyone brings a unique set of needs and expectations to the workplace. The greatest threat to effective communications within a project team comes when team members deliberately or unconsciously fail to enter into information exchanges with other team members because of their feelings about them or about the manager who is directing the activity. Anger, jealousy, resentment, fear, distrust, prejudice and insecurity are some of the common feelings that conspire to block the communications flow.
There is considerable literature on workplace relationship issues that arise from gender, ethnic, racial and personality differences. For example, Deborah Tannen's book, Talking from 9 to 5, presents a wealth of information about the effect of gender on office communications. The more understanding that a project manager can achieve through such readings, the more likely he or she will be able to unravel the infrateam tangles and knots that surface every day in any organization.
However, understanding people and how they behave at work, based upon experience and study, will only help a project manager become more effective in fostering and sustaining effective communications if the manager honestly struggles with the same issues that everyone else is working on. If the project manager demonstrates a personal commitment to breaking through the personality and background barriers to good communications, it is far more likely that team members will take their training seriously, will hear the feedback provided, and will make the effort to overcome their personal difficulties in working with diverse groups of people.
Political Barriers. Political obstacles to effective communications abound in a project environment. Usually the project itself represents the outcome of a struggle among competing ideas for what system should be built, by whom, on what time table and at what cost. Most projects are preceded by a sales effort, and what sales effort doesn't somewhat exaggerate the potential benefits and downplay the risks and challenges. From the outset, the project team may be faced with trying to appease supporters with unrealistic expectations and detractors who are lusting for the opportunity to feast on a failure. (I have heard project managers compare their jobs to being asked to paddle a surfboard through a school of sharks.)
As they progress, projects expand, bringing more and more people into the process. One important group of project participants is the system's end users. This group will be the most threatened by the change that the new system represents. Even if they have come to hate the old system, end users tend to be the most skeptical that a new system will equal or better what they already know, especially if they have had little or no role in choosing or designing the new system. Resistance can arise from users who do not want to lose their dominant roles in the current systems environment, from systems operations staff who object to the technology choice and who will also lose, at least temporarily, their status as experts, and from managers of groups who will lose influence with the reinvented business process arriving with the new system.
Pressures also come from external sources, such as a competitive need to deploy the system by a set date or a need to complete the system with reduced resources. These pressures will force decisions and impose burdens on team members, they will threaten the integrity of the entire effort, and they will lead to compromises unforeseen at the outset. Often these compromises, while politically wise and necessary, will be misunderstood as arbitrary and destructive by project team members if no effort is made to communicate them honestly.
Some understanding of these influences needs to be conveyed to all levels of the project organization. Those who assist in leading the team need to know the full scope of the forces driving project decisions and be prepared to provide support in dealing with them. The management team needs to work together to communicate the essential facts about sudden changes in project direction or staff assignments. Politically driven project decisions must be openly acknowledged and accepted, especially when they are unpopular and hard to accept.
Project managers must create their own techniques for facilitating communications within each project team, as these techniques themselves reflect the “personality” of the project team's leaders and members. For instance, the extent to which the communications process is formalized and relies on forms and meetings will depend on the nature of the project and the needs of the group. Successful communications will occur naturally among some groups within a project team, but will need to be promoted and supported within others.
Make Communication a Commitment. Whatever the project manager does to facilitate communications, everyone involved in the project must recite a common daily pledge of adherence to one absolute rule: always follow through. If, as a project manager, I ask you for some information or assign you a task, and you do not respond, I must come back to you and find out what happened. If you did not get enough information to do the task or I was not specific enough about when I needed the information, you must come back to me and ask for clarification.
No one should ever expect that making a request guarantees the desired result. The best outcome is always that the recipient of a request responds to the requester in a timely manner. But when the request is not satisfied as expected, the requester must follow through, find out why and move to the next step. Both parties to a communications exchange have equal responsibility for the success of the transaction, but in the end it is always the one asking who bears the responsibility for following the request through to a conclusion. The manager must then work through the four categories of communications barriers and find a path to the individual's response center.
The best team members are those who only have to be asked once, who come back right away for clarification, and who let you know where they are on the road to fulfilling the request—no matter how small the item (in information technology as in most other enterprises, critical information often comes in very small packages). But these individuals do not magically appear on the scene; they exist as part of a relationship that can only thrive when nurtured in an effective project team communications culture.
Fostering and sustaining the information exchange among the human participants in a software development project is more important than ever today. Certainly, programmers have better software development tools and more powerful computers for building applications today than they did 20 years ago. New programming languages and object-oriented techniques in relational database environments have extended their range and increased their productivity; Yet, much more is expected of the applications development process today. Applications must be built quickly—before the technology on which they are based becomes obsolete. Applications must be created with greater emphasis on ease of use, as the standards for acceptable user interfaces now are much higher. And applications must perform business processes that are increasingly complex.
FREQUENTLY TODAY, the scope of applications systems development projects expands the range of people and issues with which the project team must contend to painful extremes. To face these new challenges and heightened expectations, project managers need to pay careful attention to toppling the common obstacles to communications: physical, intellectual, psychological and political. The effort will be worth the price, lowering the project's human toll and paving the way to success. ∎
Ray Boedeoter has spent the past 20 years as an IS consultant, working primarily with federal agencies. For the past 10 years, he has focused on the development and implementation of financial management applications, principally accounting systems. He is currently a senior manager with KPMG/Peat Marwick.
PM Network • December 1997