Diversity your ability to communicate

Abstract

Throughout the life cycle of a project, project information morphs into many forms, whether it is work breakdown structure (WBS), Gantt, timelines, project reports, and so forth. It is up to the project manager to continually change the data into something more digestible to the consumer of the information, either internally or externally, which leads to many lost hours on simple data entry.

This paper will demonstrate how to increase communication by utilizing mind mapping to visualize a project. Mind mapping is an effective tool for diversifying your communication in all types of projects. Mind mapping not only allows you to visualize the project in a graphic way, but also allows you to transform that visual into something linear or organic, depending on the individual's thought process. This paper will focus on how to avoid some of the common pitfalls in communicating a project plan and effectively communicate to all participants in the project without constantly re-creating data into different formats. The first part of this paper will discuss the traditional pitfalls in communication; the second part discusses the solutions to those pitfalls.

Introduction

Communication is much like planning a vacation. You may have all your clothes packed, the hotel booked, but if you don't have a vehicle to get you there, you're lost.

Many project managers have indicated that the lifeblood of a project is communication. Although there has been no formal research on the topic, it is believed that 90% of projects fail because of lack of communication. There are many factors that can influence communication on a macro level, such as politics, culture, and language. The real problems occur on the micro level, which is how individuals process information for communication. Many individuals prefer to view and communicate information in a linear format as opposed to an organic format, and this is where the problem occurs.

Communication

The Problem

Many stakeholders are involved in the project life cycle; to maintain the focus, I will refer to communication among the central project team members. Typically, the communication among these individuals is where project success or failure begins.

All projects need to start with some type of communication plan, which typically looks like this:

  • Project communication strategy
  • The kick-off meeting
  • Roles and responsibilities of the team
  • Project status meetings and frequency
  • Change control communications
  • Project review meetings
  • Transition from deployment to operations
  • Closure meeting

The plan is not the issue. The problem is how information is processed and delivered in each phase.

For example, what is being displayed in Exhibit 1 and Exhibit 2?

WBS

Exhibit 1 – WBS

Mind Map

Exhibit 2 – Mind Map

The same information is being displayed in both exhibits. Which one did you gravitate to or understand better?

Exhibit 1 is very linear, whereas Exhibit 2 is very organic; both could be right and both could be wrong. Are you communicating to a predominantly right-brain thinker or a left-brain thinker? This will determine how your project team member processes the information you are trying to communicate. The ability to be flexible will multiply your success factors within the project plan.

The left side of the brain processes information in a linear manner; it processes from part to whole. It takes pieces, lines them up, and arranges them in a logical order, and then it draws conclusions. The right brain, however, processes from whole to parts, holistically and it starts with the answer. It sees the big picture first, not the details (Web-us, 2010).

As a result, if you don't know who you are communicating to and how to communicate then you could be in for project failure.

The Consequences

The problem has been identified, but do you understand the adverse effects in this communication breakdown? Poor communication can lead to the following trouble areas.

First, expectations can be different among members of the project team if there is a communication breakdown. The team makes decisions based on the best information they have at any given moment. If the project plan is being processed differently then the project is a prime candidate for derailment. Make sure everyone has the same information; as a result, they will have the same expectations.

Second is the impact of surprise. This happens when the project team members are unaware of their exact responsibilities. If this occurs, the team member finds out at the last minute and it's a rush to get tasks completed; thus, quality suffers. The last-minute requests surprises the project manager and he or she does not have adequate time to prepare.

Finally, the state of the project is invisible to most members. If the project status is unclear, then the deadlines are unclear. The pitfalls with this scenario are obvious.

If any of these issues happen they will cause the project to either extended the expected end date or cost more money. If either of these situations occurs you can count on project failure. Once one problem occurs, its' a snowball effect, and it's almost impossible to slow down. We have successfully discovered where the problem can occur and a few issues that can happen. What is the solution?

The Solution

Now that we have seen the pitfalls in communication and how to avoid them, we need to figure out the solution; having the right instruments in your tool box is essential. You need to understand your team and how it processes information, but you don't want to re-create information into different formats all day long.

Do you mind map? No, this is not a technique out of a 1980's sci-fi thriller, nor is it a Freudian philosophy. Mind mapping, which is also sometimes referred to as “visual mapping” or “idea mapping” allows for the gathering, organization, and presentation of a great deal of information and can be used to visualize, structure, classify, and analyze complex ideas and concepts. This functional approach makes it far more powerful at a meeting than simply taking notes. Because mind maps are visually oriented and allow for the gathering, management, and sharing of a lot of information, they're ideally suited to be a project management tool. This is why mind mapping has increased in popularity over the last several years, across all industries in the project management arena.

For the past several years, I've been using mind maps as a project management tool to facilitate meetings, document project scope, identify risk, and even find my next job. Mind mapping is an effective tool that will help any project manager save time and improve communication with his or her team members in an effective and creative way. A mind map is a graphic network diagram consisting of nodes, branches, colors, and icons, which are used to help convey an idea (Gantthead, 2010).

Mind mapping allows a project team to quickly capture information in a planning session and turn that information into different visual structures depending on how the information needs to be received. The project lead has the ability to go from linear to organic with a simple mouse click.

Furthermore, not only do you have the ability to switch formats, but you also have the ability to integrate with MS Project. Does this scenario sound familiar? The project team is brainstorming with sticky notes or on a white board. They define the scope of the project during this session; at the end of the session, everyone takes out their camera phone and takes a picture so they can re-create the information into their preferred scheduler which, in most cases, is MS Project. This is a complete waste of time! You can now visualize in a linear or organic format with a mind mapping tool and easily transfer that information to MS Project without re-entering the data.

A mind map is a very organic way to view a work breakdown structure, which is a more linear approach. The work breakdown structure helps you manage expectations and avoid misunderstandings and misconceptions about the project scope and result (Buchtik, 2009).

Let me paint another picture for you. The project manager is preparing for his or her weekly status meeting. This week, upper level management will be attending the meeting. We already know that we don't want to show the details involved in the Gantt chart, so we spend half the day re-creating the information into another format (Excel or PowerPoint) so it can be digested easier. This is another complete waste of time! Depending upon your manager's thinking style, you can easily switch the information into an organic mind map or a linear timeline that will be easier to understand. All of this is done without re-creating the information.

So, with a mind mapping tool, not only do we have the option to display information in an organic or linear format, but these tools allow us to eliminate the need to re-create the same data. This tool not only helps diversify our communication but also saves us time.

Conclusions

Communication is the glue that holds the project together. Poor communication can cause many problems within the life cycle of the project plan. The ability to communicate to all project team members ranks high in the factors for project success.

Communication, which includes a common understanding of tools, culture, politics, information processing, and so forth, are components that enable communication among team members. Project managers can facilitate a common understanding by analyzing information processing across the team in either a linear or organic way. Once the project manager determines the communication constraint he or she can effectively transfer information across the team by utilizing a mind mapping tool.

Mind mapping is an effective way to gather information and organize information in a planning session. Mind mapping will also allow the project manager to effectively communicate the information in a multitude of formats or quickly transfer information into a project plan. All of this can be done without re-creating the data.

References

Web-us (2010). Left Vs. Right. Which Side Are You On? Retrieved May 1, 2010 from http://www.web-us.com/brain/lrbrain.html.

Makar, A. (2009,May 12) Mind Mapping for Efficient Project Management Retrieved January 1, 2010 from http://www.gantthead.com/content/articles/249259.cfm.

Buchtik, L. (2010). Secrets To mastering the WBS in real-world projects. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute

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 or any listed author.

©2010, Brandon Conrad
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Washington, DC

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