Giora Lavy, PMP, Amdocs, Ra'anana, Israel
by Elisa Ludwig photo by Debbie Zimelman
when it comes right down to it, project teams function much like a benevolent dictatorship. It's up to project managers to make the final call. But they also have to make an effort to listen to the rank and file—or they could find themselves facing a coup d'état.
No one likes to feel like their voice isn't being heard. So when project managers take the time to actually put down the phone and carve out a few moments to truly listen to their team members, it can help them feel like their opinions matter and that they have a stake in the project outcome.
“So much of what we do as project managers involves talking and listening to our teams,” says Kris Arvind, PMP, managing director for the Asia Pacific region of the management consultancy CGN & Associates Inc., Chennai, India.
But project managers then have to find a way to take in all those opinions without abandoning their own responsibility as the one in charge.
Building a collaborative atmosphere can lead to what he terms a “co-authored solution.”
“Everyone gets together at the beginning and you establish that it's about everyone figuring this out and the project is not a one-man show,” he says.
The team then has regular meetings to review project goals and progress.
“When we hit a roadblock, the project manager doesn't come in and tell everyone what to do. He talks to everyone and pools their ideas for going forward,” Mr. Arvind says. “Once you develop that kind of dynamic, it becomes a habit and the team will expect this kind of participation.”
TIP Keep it personal. “We rely on e-mail and our BlackBerries so much of the time. It's much better to pick up the phone or meet someone in person. In person you can also read someone's body language, which can give you a better idea of what they're really thinking,” says Kathy Bromead, PMP, State of North Carolina, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA.
Listening to ideas from the whole team drives home the point that project managers know they don't have all the answers.
“People on my team know I'm not an expert in every area, and I give them a lot of room to express themselves and share their own experience,” says Giora Lavy, PMP, quality director of the corporate quality unit at telecom solutions provider Amdocs in Ra'anana, Israel.
And he listens.
“If you want to participate in a discussion, it is most important to really learn how to listen and absorb what someone else is saying,” Mr. Lavy says.
But true, active listening—with-out mentally jumping ahead to prepare a response—is a rare commodity in a world full of glittering distractions, like the beloved instant messaging.
Fortunately, it's a skill that can be learned.
Mr. Lavy, for example, enrolled in a debate workshop, which he says has helped him “learn to more quickly assess information and respond to it.”
And project managers may want to look outside the usual required reading of management buzz books.
Take Tom Nieukirk, director of knowledge management at CGN's office in Peoria, Illinois, USA. He likes to draw from the parenting guide How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and How to Listen So Kids Will Talk [Collins Living, 1999].
“This book gives you amazing insight into group dynamics and communication. And what you find is that as a project manager you're kind of like a parent to this group,” he says. “It's very easy to make statements without thinking about the receiver, and that will inspire people to rebel or push back.”
Sometimes, though, there's nothing wrong with provoking some “constructive conflict.” Mr. Lavy assigns a team member to play devil's advocate, questioning the ideas at hand to generate critical thinking and even spark a debate.
MAKE THE CALL
Now listening to team members is all very well and good. But at some point a project manager has to make a call.
“The team should understand that the project manager is in control and has the ability to make decisions,” says Kathy Bromead, PMP, director of the State of North Carolina's enterprise project management office in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA. “You want to k to have consensus and you want people to express themselves, but the bottom line is that the team won't always necessarily agree with the project manager, and the project manager has to make a decision regardless.”
talk to me
No team is exactly alike, but certain personalities do seem to pop up with a certain frequency. There are inevitably the team members who just can't stop themselves from spouting out their thoughts. And then there are the more introverted ones who may very well have some valuable opinions to offer—if they would only speak up.
It's the project manager's job to create a situation where both people feel comfortable—and the quiet one isn't overshadowed by the “motor mouth.”
“A lot of times, quiet people have good ideas but they just get intimidated talking in front of the group,” says Kathy Bromead, PMP, State of North Carolina. “As a project manager, it takes a while to learn the different styles of people on your team and what works most effectively to draw them out.”
Project managers can encourage discussion by taking an individual aside or approaching them with a directed question, such as, “I was thinking about the timeline for this project. Do you think it looks realistic?”
And it doesn't have to be during an official brainstorming session.
“On a large team it can help to use an informal means of gathering information, such as going out for coffee or lunch,” says Carlos Urrea, PMP, Proyekta. “This gives the team member some confidence that they might not have in front of a large group of people.”
if you want to participate in a discussion, it is most important to really learn how to listen and absorb what someone else is saying.
—Giora Lavy, PMP
To mitigate any potential disagreement down the road, Mr. Arvind reminds team members that information gathering and decision-making are two distinct processes. Although they sometimes overlap, the one doesn't always directly feed the other. And information gathering that doesn't inform decision-making is still valuable for the project journey.
“Ultimately the final decisions come down to the client needs and the project scope,” he explains. “You need to be frank about that in the beginning so people don't feel that they are being ignored or that their opinions are not valued.”
Still, team members may have vested a lot in what they're sure is a brilliant idea. Project managers may not see it that way, but they still need to tread carefully.
“It's always hard to tell someone it's not going to work, but you have to be productive and move forward,” says Mr. Nieukirk.
On a recent CGN project, the project manager went to his team and solicited ideas for dealing with a sudden change in scope. One person later complained that his ideas were not taken seriously. Mr. Arvind arranged a meeting and the project manager explained why the ideas wouldn't work and asked the team member to propose alternatives.
“The answer can't be, ‘Because I told you so,’” Mr. Arvind says. “You have to keep team members involved and engaged.” Asking team members for alternatives “puts the onus back on them to come up with another idea and goes back to the strategy that the team members are the co-authors of this project and we're still in this together.”
Asking team members for alternatives puts the onus back on them to come up with another idea and goes back to the strategy that the team members are the co-authors of this project and we're still in this together.
—Kris Arvind, PMP, CGN & Associates Inc., Chennai, India
ANSWERING TO THE HIERARCHY
Keeping discussions rooted in facts and using both quantitative and qualitative analysis can help project managers make a case for their final decisions.
“I always try to be very clear that our objective is the success of the project,” says Carlos Urrea, PMP, Proyekta, Buenos Aires, Argentina. “If I am responsible for the project I like to listen to suggestions and comments but it's not always possible to implement them.”
On a past government project, for example, Mr. Urrea's team suggested eliminating certain bureaucratic procedures and paperwork—a change he was not at liberty to make.
“I understood, and even agreed with these people, but it was simply not possible,” he explains.
It's a powerful reminder that there is a structure outside of the team.
“I always tell people that organizations are not democracies,” says Mr. Arvind. “We still have a hierarchy to answer to, and the project manager ultimately has to make decisions based on a chain of command and other circumstances.”
With so much potential for miscommunication and misunderstanding among team members, keeping project goals at the forefront reminds people that there is more at stake than hurt feelings.
“As you work with people, you find that the key to facilitating and guiding communication is keeping your eye on the deliverable,” says Mr. Nieukirk.
Otherwise emotions can creep in—and that can lead to trouble.
But by making sure team members are reminded of their common aims, a project manager can avoid the drama and keep the discussion on a productive track.
“It's always easy for somebody to point out, ‘We should be doing this or that.’ But the important thing is to share your thought process and encourage team members to do the same so you understand where they're coming from and you can build a level of trust going forward,” Mr. Nieukirk says. “You have to be very open with everybody all the time. The minute you don't have time to talk to your team is the minute your project will fall.” PM
PM NETWORK MARCH 2009 WWW.PMI.ORG