From tech talk to top talk! (Engineered conversations for project managers)

Abstract

As a Project Manager, are you communicating the messages you want to communicate? Are you better at giving instructions than participating in win-win conversations? Are you better at “tech talk” than “top talk” (effective communications for improved results)? How would you assess your communications skills either one-on-one or one-to-many? Are you getting the results you want most of the time? Or, do you encounter a “failure to communicate” more often than you would like to admit?

As a Project Manager, your success and results depend on those key conversations that require your attention throughout the project. Making things happen through other people requires strong communications and leadership skills. These skills must be applied every time you have a key conversation.

Pick up where A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (2004) leaves off. Learn how to engineer your conversations for win-win solutions and to improve and sustain success. The purpose of this paper is to provide tools and techniques for designing and engineering your conversations to ensure project success. Included are tips and techniques for focusing your message, active listening, asking the right questions, and building relationships by developing your conversational skills.

This paper will provide an introduction to tools and techniques for enhancing communications and conversational skills for Project Management professionals. The author will introduce common problems encountered when Project Managers fail to communicate properly. This paper is organized into five sections:

  • Introduction to key conversations – learn the importance of key conversations to the success of project management
  • Analysis of a key conversation – understand the components of a key conversation
  • Listening – learn techniques for improving your listening skills; improve your listening in order to improve your conversations.
  • Asking questions – learn to use questions to build relationships and to achieve your objectives.
  • The Engineered Conversation – learn the composition of an engineered conversation. Learn how to develop strategies for your key conversations. Learn to apply a model for improving effectiveness as a communicator and as a leader through your engineered conversations.

Introduction to Key Conversations

Per the PMBOK® Guide, 3rd Edition, “Project managers can spend an inordinate amount of time communicating with the project team, stakeholders, customer, and sponsor.” (PMI, 2004, p. 221). The quality of this time will determine the success or failure of a project. Effective communications are key to maintaining stakeholder relationships and project team cohesiveness. The project manager is key to project communications management, ensuring that the information is clear, unambiguous and complete.

In order for the project manager to be effective, the project manager must make the transition from “tech talk” to “top talk.” Technical project managers tend to lean towards “tech talk” – they are comfortable with detail and tasks and are not comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. This type of conversation can lead to narrow objectives which more often than not do not meet the stakeholders’ needs. While this type of conversation may be effective for managing specific tasks, it is not effective with larger scale projects requiring the management of multiple stakeholders and needs. “Top talk” on the other hand develops an encompassing vision, communicates the vision, and develops relationships to help execute the vision.

The table below highlights the differences between “tech talk” and “top talk” from the perspective of soft skills required to be an effective project manager.

“Tech Talk” versus “Top Talk”

Exhibit 1: “Tech Talk” versus “Top Talk”

Key conversations will of course vary by the project management process groups as defined by the Project Management Institute. For each process group, we will briefly discuss the key conversations and potential challenges within that process group.

Initiation

The initiation phase of a project is critical to the definition and survival of the project. A properly defined concept will ensure the success of the project. More often than not, conversations in the concept phase are often “apples to oranges” instead of “apples to apples.” The project manager must direct all conversations toward the often difficult goal of clarifying the project concept among all stakeholders.

Some of the specific challenges for the Project Manager in managing effective conversations within the Initiation process group include the following:

  • Developing the project vision: The conversational challenge is to ensure that the vision is broad and encompassing but yet “SMART” – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Bound. A “tech talk” approach tends to focus too narrowly on a few technical objectives.
  • Communicating the project vision: The vision must be clear enough that it can be articulated at all levels of the organization.
  • Communicating the approach: Conversations must support a project binding approach that obtains buy-in from all stakeholders.
  • Requesting funds: Conversational challenges include selling the benefits of the project in order to obtain approval of the funding.
  • Setting priority: Conversational challenges exist for setting the project priority not only against other project priorities but against competing demands for the organization's funds, resources, and time.

Planning

Some of the specific opportunities for the application of effective conversational skills in the Planning process group include the following:

  • Overall planning: The “tech talk” tendency is to focus on tactical objectives versus strategic objectives. The “top talk” approach is to ensure that planning not only addresses both short term and long term objectives but also considers long-term relationships.
  • Developing and communicating the project scope: The conversational challenges in developing and communicating scope include ensuring that stakeholder needs and challenges are balanced against each other and against the objectives of the project.
  • Communicating the schedule: Schedules are a source of conflict due to competing priorities among stakeholders. “Tech talk” focuses on the dates; “top talk” addresses stakeholders needs and long-term relationships when developing the schedule and obtaining commitment to a project schedule.

Executing and Controlling

Some of the specific opportunities for the application of effective conversational skills in the Executing and Controlling process groups include the following:

  • Stakeholder management: The conversational challenge is to ensure that stakeholders’ needs are managed effectively. “Tech talk” focuses on the tasks while “top talk” focuses on the relationships.
  • Conflict management: Conflict happens. The conversational challenge for the effective project manager is to resolve conflict while protecting and developing stakeholder relationships.
  • Decision making: Stakeholders expect the project manager to be decisive. “Tech talk” tends to focus on making the decision. “Top talk” on the other hand provides the effect of decisiveness while also balancing stakeholders’ needs and long term impacts.
  • Leadership: “Tech talk” leadership tends to focus on providing direction to resources to complete tasks. “Top talk” leadership motivates individuals to perform as a team. The conversational challenge for the project manager is to lead by serving. By understanding the needs of the team members, the effective project manager will work to support those needs while obtaining support for the project objectives.
  • Negotiation: The tendency for the “tech talk” project manager is to focus on obtaining a quick resolution which often leads to a compromising (“lose-lose”) solution. The conversational challenge for the effective project manager is to not only solve the problem but look for ways to enhance the relationship in the process; this provides a “win-win-plus” solution.
  • Coaching: Effective coaching to resolve poor performance is a series of conversations often starting with the difficult conversation confronting the performance issue. Effective conversations will not only resolve the problem but build a more effective team member.

Closing

Some of the specific opportunities for the application of presentation skills in the Closing process group include the following:

  • Final acceptance of project deliverables: Effective conversations will not only facilitate acceptance of the project results but will build long lasting relationships.
  • Team shut-down: Critical conversations are required to address uncertainty and people concerns. Conversations should also serve to reward the team members for their contributions.

Analysis of a Key Conversation

“When we understand what makes people receptive to influence, we are in a position to be a motivating force in their lives.” (Jeary, 2005, p. 42).

Every key conversation contains the following components: The Situation, the Relationship, the Message, The Sender, the Receiver, the Medium, and the Result. These are further defined below:

The Situation

The situation is the context in which the conversation occurs. Why is conversation required at all? Of course, any situation can be a cause for a conversation. Earlier we explored many of the reasons in a project for a conversation. Questions to ask about the situation include:

  • Who initiated the conversation?
  • Why is the conversation desired or required?
  • What will be the subject of the conversation?
  • Where will the conversation be held?
  • Is the situation formal or informal?

The Relationship

Every key conversation involves a relationship. If only two people are involved in the conversation, then each person needs to consider the relationship of the other person. Is the relationship a temporary one or a long-tern relationship? Is the relationship vital to the health of the project? Additionally, the state of the relationship going into the conversation should also be considered. Is this a strong relationship or a weak one? Does the relationship need to be enhanced?

How important is the relationship in the conversation? Rob Sherman, in his introduction to his book, “Sherman's 21 Laws of Speaking,” reports that “one executive observed, ‘just five minutes in front of the right audience can be worth more than a whole year behind your desk.’” (Sherman, 2001, p.8).

The Message

The initiator of the conversation usually has a message in mind for the conversation. What is the message and what is the purpose of the message? Is it meant to be informational, persuasive, inspirational, or entertaining? Any of the purposes can also serve a dual role of building a relationship. Ideally, the message should be clear and concise. Multiple messages in the same conversation not only diffuse the impact of the primary message but could hinder the relationship or the credibility of the initiator of the message.

The Sender

The sender is usually, but not always, the initiator of the conversation. Regardless if the sender initiates the conversation or not, the sender is the owner of the message of the conversation. The sender's leadership style, conversational style, personality traits, background and power can of course affect the delivery of the message.

The Receiver

The receiver of the message is the recipient of the message. Similar to the sender, the receiver's leadership style, conversational style, personality traits, background and power can also affect the receipt of the message.

The Medium

The medium or how the conversation is physically conducted is another key component of the conversation. Will the conversation be conducted one on one, face to face, one to many, over the phone, over a video conference, or by some other means? Will eye contact be involved or not? Will you be able to perceive body language or facial expressions? The medium can affect both the delivery and the receipt of the message of the conversation.

The Result

The final component of the conversation is the result. Any conversation that doesn't die a premature death leaves a result. Was the result positive or negative? Was it the desired result? Did the result harm the relationship or enhance it? Was the result specific enough to initiate additional action?

Listening

“Don't jeopardize a relationship by failing to listen when the other person is speaking.” (Fine, 2005, p. 58)

This section addresses the importance of listening skills. Enhancing your listening skills will move you from ‘tech talk” to “top talk.” A conversation requires listening. In order to achieve the desired result or even have a chance of achieving the desired result, the send of the message must use effective listening skills.

Listening helps achieve the sender's objectives while enhancing the relationship with the receiver. The following are a few non-verbal techniques for enhancing your listening skills:

  • Make eye contact. Let the other person know that you are focused on them.
  • Be attentive and alert. Even subtle non-verbal signs may indicate that you are not interested.
  • Use your body language to indicate that you are interested. Conversely, watch for subtle body language that may indicate that you are not interested.
  • Listen for the intent of the words spoken by the other person not just the words.
  • Look for the messages communicated by the body language of the other person speaking.
  • Listen for key words; some words such as “concern” or “issue” indicate that more conversation is required.
  • Eliminate distractions and interruptions.
  • Take notes.

The following are verbal techniques for enhancing your listening skills:

  • Paraphrase. Repeat back what you heard in your own words.
  • Acknowledge feelings.
  • Echo. Repeat back the ending of statement in the form of a question.
  • Ask questions (more in the next section)
  • Summarize the conversation.

Asking Questions

As a project manager, you ability to ask questions is just as important as your ability to deliver a message. It is through questions that you build on the relationship you began by listening. Asking questions is key component of the engineered conversation which will be shared in the next section.

Generally there are two types of questions: closed and open. Closed questions focus on clarifying and are usually answered by a “yes” or “no.” Closed questions can also be used to request specific information, i.e. “What is the name of your primary client?” Open questions allow more freedom in the response, i.e. “Why is Company X your favorite client?”

Ask “why?” to help you understand motive or perspective. Use the “why?” question to help clarify personal, project or business agendas, i.e. “Why is it important to you that this project be completed by the end of the month?” Asking agenda questions help develop a relationship because as you begin to understand motive, then you can cultivate your conversations and your actions to provide value.

The Engineered Conversation

The Engineered Conversation is a four stage process composed of the following four stages: Assessment, Planning, Execution, and Closing. If properly executed, the Engineered Conversation can transform your “tech talk” into “top talk” and create lasting relationships with your project stakeholders. Let's explore each stage briefly:

Assessment

Prior to holding the conversation, perform an assessment of the components of the conversation: the Situation, the Relationship, the Message, the Sender, the Receiver, the Medium and the Result. Even if the conversation is impromptu, perform a quick mental assessment of those components. Analyze each component and determine strengths and weaknesses going into the conversation. Use the following table (Hierarchy of Receiver Needs) to help define questions which may be used to determine the personal, project, and business agendas of the Receiver.

Receiver Hierarchy of Needs

Exhibit 2: Receiver Hierarchy of Needs

This stage of the Engineered Conversation should also include an honest assessment of barriers to effective communication. The following are just some of the barriers which may be encountered when conducting the conversation:

  • Listening skills
  • Culture
  • Intelligence
  • Knowledge base
  • Language
  • Situational status
  • Emotional status
  • Authority or position
  • Common sense
  • Gender
  • Attraction/repulsion

If you face any of these barriers or a combination of them, it is worth your investment of time to strategize ways to minimize them or deal with them directly. Often, just talking about the barrier in an open non-confrontational approach may minimize any negative impact.

Planning

Plan your Engineered Conversation before you have it. Specific items to plan include the following:

  • Icebreakers or courtesy conversation. Plan the non-business portion of your conversation. Refer back to the last non-business conversations and comment or follow up on them.
  • Purpose. Define your own purpose and refine your message to support this purpose. Understand what's at stake.
  • Result. Plan the result you expect. Why would the Receiver support this result?
  • Plan questions to move from the “unknown” to the “known.” If you don't know the agendas of the Receiver, then plan questions to help you understand them.
  • If you can, plan for the location, the medium, and the time allotted for the conversation. Each of these factors can affect your outcome.

Execution

In execution, deliver the message you planned to deliver (“Talk”), listen to your Receiver (“Listen”), and ask questions to confirm understand and to determine agendas of the Receiver (“Ask”). A rehearsal prior to the actual execution will significantly enhance your chances of achieving the desired results. As you listen, pay attention to key words such as: change, issue, concern, stress, challenge, and any repeated word. These words are clues to the agendas of the Receiver and require probing.

Close

Use verbal and non-verbal listening techniques to close the conversation. Summarize the conversation and obtain agreement on next steps. You should also take the time after the conversation to perform your own assessment of the conversation, the results, and the state of the relationship. Develop lessons learned; remember that you are trying to develop a relationship and you will hopefully have opportunities for additional Engineered Conversations.

Conclusion

As a project manager, you can make the move from “tech talk” to “top talk” by improving your conversational skills and by creating an Engineered Conversation for all of your critical conversations. Take advantage of the techniques introduced in this paper and improve your relationships. Engineer your conversations to develop win-win-plus solutions, to develop long profitable relationships, and to improve and sustain your personal and business success.

Fine, D. (2005) The Power of Meeting New People. possibilitypress@aol.com: Possibility Press

Jeary, T. (2005) Life Is A Series of Presentations. New York, NY: Fireside.

Project Management Institute. (2004) A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) 3rd ed. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Sherman, R. (2001) Sherman's 21 Laws of Speaking. Blacklick, Ohio: Cedar Creek Press.

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.

© 2008, Eddie Merla, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2008 North American Global Congress Proceedings – Denver, Colorado

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