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Critical Listening

The Art of Critical Listening is improving the personal connection you make with team members and project stakeholders by intensely engaging as you listen to what they say. This works because most people are not accustomed to having their words carfully listened to by others.

You’re probably familiar with the terms “critical thinking” and the “art of listening.” Both are important skills to cultivate in the project management profession. But just as important is the ability to use both skills in combination in communications with your team members and stakeholders. Project Manager Skills Main PageCritical Listening

What is “critical listening?” Simply put, it is the ability to pay attention to what other people are saying while assessing the validity and value of the information they are conveying. This skill—and it’s a learned skill for most of us—is an important one to consciously work on and use in your daily project manager role. Here’s an example that illustrates why critical thinking and critical listening, working together, are important.
Not long ago, I was a member of a “kaizen” (i.e., a process improvement team) on a large government contract that was experiencing numerous process management issues. Our team’s objective was to identify the failures or rough spots in our processes, analyze their causes, and suggest corrective actions. The team consisted of eight people, one from each major organizational component: Project Management (me), Finance, Contracting, Engineering, etc. Our team leader did a fairly good job of leading the group through the initial problem identification phase. But it quickly became apparent that the Finance Office representative, who was quite young but also quite competent, was being all but dismissed by the team leader. Each time she attempted to speak (in her too quiet voice), she would be talked over by others, including the team leader, or quickly moved past without being acknowledged. Before long, she’d had enough and simply stopped trying. Around the end of the third day, the team leader finally asked for her thoughts on something in a too-late attempt to engage every team member. Without mincing words, she let the team leader know the following:

  • her inputs didn’t appear to be of any interest
  • her opinions and insights did not matter
  • project management was the source of most of the problems
  • the team was not going to succeed if they chose to use their assumptions about financial processes instead of the facts she had to offer.

She then folded her arms and sat back to await our response.

I agreed with almost everything she said (except the part about Project Management, of course)! The kaizen team leader had been guilty of a series of failures in critical listening. First, he clearly wasn’t listening to this young but valuable member of his team. The few points she had managed to make early on were later picked up by and attributed to other members. And after several frustrated attempts to be heard, she simply “bailed” on the team in speech and spirit. As a result, her ideas went unexpressed and unexplored. The opportunity for a fuller range of data to sift and analyze was lost and the group’s dependence on its own perceptions increased.

Second, the absence of critical thinking and listening enabled the real possibility of false conclusions. The Finance Office member’s dressing-down of the team left us wondering if we were guilty of gross “group think.” Had we substituted perceptions and opinions where facts should have been gathered and applied? Did this cast doubt on the accuracy of the conclusions drawn so far? Had we ignored the basic principles of critical thinking in addition to being poor listeners? The team, which included me, concluded the answer was “Yes” on all accounts. Once that house of cards fell, the group’s faith in its own ability to deliver a valid end product was damaged.

Critical listening combines the core principles behind critical thinking and the art of listening. Make sure that you are truly listening when in a conversation. That means no multi-tasking, no checking cell phone messages, reading email, etc. Be fully engaged in the conversation. Ask questions to make sure you haven’t misunderstood or translated the intended thought into something you expected to hear.
While listening, be open to new information, something you don’t expect, something that differs from your understanding or experience. Try to be neutral and accept verifiable information that differs from your beliefs. But be ready to challenge what you hear if it doesn’t add up. Can you or the other person provide evidence to substantiate or refute the information you’re receiving? Are the assumptions being made reasonable? Can they be validated by facts?

Finally, be open to changing your mind or position if the information you receive and process does pass muster. Project management is as much about information management—“listening” as well as “talking”—as it is about planning, controlling, leading and any of the other skills you must have and cultivate to be a successful PM. It can be hard to change a position you’ve become comfortable with, so ask yourself questions if you must. Challenge your commitment to a “fact” and try to base your perspective on valid rationale rather than an emotional attachment.

So, how did things turn out for the kaizen? After some repair work on team functions and the information generated, the kaizen managed to recover—albeit a little less sure of itself than it had once been. Five days after starting, it had identified over 50 verifiable process issues, most with suggested corrective actions that were later implemented. And with the team’s new-found respect for “critical listening,” Project Management was cleared of most of its alleged offenses.

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Project Questions Video

All project managers spend a great deal of time with executives handling Project Questions after status reports, project plan presentations and discussions of change requests. How the project manager handles these project questions will have a significant impact on the  level of executive support the project receives.

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com
Dick’s Books on Amazon

Project Questions Video Synopsis

You’ll see a project manager who has just completed a status report and is answering questions from several executives. One of the executives is a micromanager and is very uncomfortable with the freedom that the project manager has allowed members of the team. Another executive wants the project manager to take a more authoritarian approach with the team members by using punishment to encourage outstanding performance. And another executive is simply angry with the whole project because it’s not giving her what she needs. So she’s very dissatisfied with the project manager’s work. You will listen to each of the executive’s questions. Then Dick Billows, PMP will analyze what the executive has said and suggest the appropriate answer the project manager should give the executive.

As Dick points out, each of these executive types is very common in organizations so project managers must become accustomed to handling the sort of questions and challenges each type presents. This approach requires you to try to know as much about your audience as possible before the presentation. And you should prepare answers to the most likely questions so you’re fully prepared. This also lets you avoid having to develop answers to the questions “on the fly.” There’s no way to avoid having to think on your feet, but having prepared answers on the most likely questions will allow you to move through the Q&A session much more easily.

Dick’s introduction and analysis were filmed on snowshoes at 11,000 feet in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. The cast segment was filmed in Kawai, Hawaii. (This guy gets around.) Hope you enjoy it.

How to Handle Q & A Sessions With Managers After a Project Presentation

You can learn how to answer project questions in our online project management basics courses. You work privately with an expert project manager who is your instructor and coach. You control the schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences with them as you wish. Take a look at the course in your specialty.

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Practical Project Methodology

A practical project methodology is a set of instructions and steps for people to follow in doing a project. There is great advantage to the organization from having a methodology which is followed on all projects. This does a couple of things for the organization:
1. Every executive who sponsors projects and everyone who works on projects will have a consistent set of rules to follow. That saves time on every step because you don’t need to figure out how to do it; you don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
2. A methodology allows the organization to control how resources are used on projects. The methodology usually includes a procedure for initiating a project and securing some level of approval for using company personnel and money. Project Methodology Main Page
Those two very important benefits are often not realized because the methodology that is developed in the organization is not practical. A frequent flaw is too many forms, too many meetings and too much wasted time on bureaucratic procedures.  This added level of bureaucracy has project managers asking executives, “Do you want me to do the project or fill out all these damn forms?” The way to avoid this is to have practicing, practical-minded project managers develop the methodology. The goal of the methodology is to standardize things, not make everybody a better project manager.

A practical project methodology and project best practices are a minimum requirement for project success but not the key to success.  The people are the key to success and a practical methodology considers this.  A methodology is most  useful when working on critical projects, or when you need to improve the general health and performance of the organization in running projects.  But too often the methodology does little more than create burdensome paper work.

practical project methodology
Following a project methodology

This practical project methodology is based on my experience and lessons learned from failures.  A  methodology should be simple like “adding eyes and ears to watch your back.”  As trivial as it may sound, it can save the day.

A project is an ad-hoc organization with clear goals and accountability structure. The PM and Sponsor are ultimately accountable and must  leverage the resources the organization has allocated and achieve the specific scope. We have project failure when the accountable individuals don’t have a simple methodology to follow. In many cases it fails from weak scope management which is a result of weak stakeholder management. In other cases it fails from PM’s getting overwhelmed from the tracking activities, managing communication and loosing the big picture (like missing the forest when looking for the tree).

However, I have seen projects where a complex methodology was followed by the book and still failed. It failed because the sponsor and PM failed to gather together a group of high energy, responsible people who could enforce the plan and oversee the daily activities. My experience is that the most important aspect for these people to be effective is the right combination of energy and responsibility. At this task, even someone fresh from university, but with the right biology can be a much better team member than an experienced person. As a closing point, making sure to involve the right persons in regards to the character traits is the first, and maybe most important, step to improve project performance.

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Managing Project Conflicts – Video

Managing project conflicts is a regular and ever-present part of a project manager’s life. For a project
Project conflictsmanager to have a consistently successful track record on his or her projects, they need to be able to resolve project conflicts.

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com
Dick’s Books on Amazon

Some conflicts are project threatening. Those are the conflicts that involve disputes between executives and your project stakeholders over the very scope of the project and the acceptance criteria for deliverables. That level of conflict can yield significant damage to the project scope and budget. The project manager also has to resolve conflicts between team members where the impact of the conflict is less severe. However, conflict between team members can have an adverse effect on the productivity of the team. And it certainly impacts the level of collaboration between team members. On larger projects, the project manager is often dealing with a couple of project conflicts on each of those levels.
Project managers can resolve many conflicts using one of the five intervention techniques we’ll discuss below. The conflicts that are most easily resolved are situations where the project manager can work directly with the team members or stakeholders having the conflict. He or she can then use one of the techniques we will discuss to fix it (or at least reduce the impact on the project). Project Management Skills Main Page

Managing Project Conflicts Video

Watch this video showing two versions of conflict resolution: the wrong way and the right way for a project manager to handle a conflict. The first version has the project manager walking into a meeting with his team in the middle of a roaring conflict. The project manager does a reasonably good job of taking control but then makes a major mistake regarding what he focuses on. The project manager’s conflict resolution should be aimed at minimizing damage to the project, not making friends among everyone on the project team. As a result of his error in the first version, the project manager makes the situation worse. In the second version, the conflict is the same but the project manager uses a much more focused approach to handling the conflict. It is more effective and decreases the damage to the project.

Project Team Conflict

 

Other conflicts can’t be resolved that directly because they have deeper roots in the organization’s politics. This second group of conflicts can have a much more damaging impact on the project. That’s because they involve the organization’s executives rather than being confined to project team members and stakeholders. In this type of conflict the people involved often represent other, usually higher ranking, stakeholders. Too often PMs see these entrenched conflicts as impossible to resolve and simply accept the damage they will have on the project. But rather than give up, project managers should use techniques to manage those difficult conflicts to minimize the damage to the project’s results. The project manager must engage on a political level in the organization.

 

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Project Team From Hell – Video

Watch the Project Team From Hell point fingers at each other just before a big status report meeting with the company president. These people have so many excuses they don’t know which ones they’re going to use or who they will blame for all their screw ups.

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com
Dick’s Books on Amazon

Listen to the hysteria, the deceit and the finger-pointing. Does it sound like what goes on in your organization?

Project Team From Hell – Status Report Video

It’s Friday, the last day of the month, and time for project status reports at Royster Industries. Every project manager will have to stand up and deliver their status report to Mr. Lonnegan, the company president. The project managers at Royster Industries are in a frenzy today and every Friday. Not only are they trying to prepare their own status reports but they’re actively engaged in trying to sabotage other project managers’ status reports. People are starting rumors that make absolutely no sense but people still overreact to them. Some of the folks from the IT department are seeking solace in marijuana edibles while others have taken to hard drink in the morning. The rookie project managers are particularly vulnerable to the lies that older PMs are telling. Several of these rookies are nearing a nervous breakdown by overreacting to the horror stories of what Mr. Lonnegan has done to project managers who don’t make positive status reports.

Still other project managers are busy developing excuses for the poor performance of their project. Some will point fingers at the project team, accusing them of treachery and sabotage. Others are giving erroneous status data to less experienced project managers in the hope that they will use it in their report and fall prey to Mr. Lonnegan’s harsh tongue. It’s a typical status report Friday at Royster industries where they have never completed a successful project (not a surprise). Amid the comedy, see if you can spot some of the mistakes made in your organization.

How to Screw Up Project: Status Reports

You can learn the correct way to work with your team to prepare and present professional status reports in our online project management basics courses. You work privately with an expert project manager who is your instructor and coach. You control the schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences with them as you wish. Take a look at the course in your specialty.

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Project Stakeholder Management

Project stakeholder management includes identifying and dealing with the executives, managers,
Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com
Dick’s Books on Amazon
employees, customers, contractors and users who will be affected by the deliverables your project produces. The list of stakeholders also includes people who will be lending resources to your project team and helping you gather requirements. In the beginning of your project manager career when your projects are for your boss, the only stakeholders you need to be concerned about are the boss and your team members. The boss is playing the role of all the other stakeholders.  Stakeholders Main Page
But as your carer advances and your projects get larger, there are more stakeholders and some may not work in the same organization you do. In fact, you will spend a great deal of time trying to discover all your stakeholders. Then you’ll gather their requirements so you’re not surprised by new stakeholders with new requirements two weeks before your project was going to be finished.

Project Stakeholder Management: First Step

Many project managers start their first day of a job with a new organization uncertain about  the project stakeholder landscape. That landscape is filled with new players and expectations. Enthusiastic with their bag of skills and eage to add value to their new organization, many PM’s find themselves encountering potential land mines that could derail their efforts.  Instead of taking a step back and doing a proper assessment of both the internal and external environments and their role, they rush full speed ahead to affect change. It is at these times that PM’s need to do a proper assessment about the culture and politics of their new home organization.

project stakeholder managementProject Stakeholder Management: Identify the Key Players

The first step toward effective project stakeholder management is to assume the position of a sponge. Soak up as much information as you can to learn and understand how the organization runs and does business. Treat it like a project engagement with a thorough initiation stage. The objective is to understand the key players and their expectations and position those expectations within the organization’s unique culture. You should identify the key stakeholders who will be critical to enabling you to add value to the organization’s efforts.

Project Stakeholder Management: Create a Plan

Then you will develop a project stakeholder management plan to effectively consult and engage all the key project stakeholders. Their support will be critical to your efforts to enhance the organization’s project management processes. Too often new PMs try to affect change too quickly without looking at the bigger picture. You must plan out the steps you will take. It’s important to be acutely aware of the different power dynamics within the organization. You must assess the best way to influence those dynamics to achieve the best project outcomes for your organization.

Project Stakeholder Management: Execute the Plan

Execute the plan and determine how you will enhance your effectiveness by having a feedback loop to make corrections along the way. During this step, it will be important to be agile and adaptable. Things may change constantly, so it’s important to be able to adapt quickly to any changes and/or new information.

Monitor and influence your engagement with all project stakeholders but specifically the key players. They have the power to make or break your efforts. You need to understand their expectations and manage them effectively. This can only be achieved through proper monitoring. The objective is to influence their engagements in your project to achieved the desired outcomes.

To be effective as a project manager, you must understand that you are a critical change agent. That requires you to be aware of the political and cultural dimensions of your role. Ignoring these critical success factors can be costly to your projects and detriment to your career.

 

You can learn proven project stakeholder management tools and techniques in our online project management courses. You’ll work privately and individually with a expert project manager. You control the schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences as you wish.  Take a look at the course in your specialty.

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Constructive Feedback

Constructive Feedback That Changes Behavior

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com
Dick’s Books on Amazon

Project managers and team leaders will always have some poor performing team members. Poor performance can encompass assignments that are not what you expect regarding quality, timeliness or completeness. Constructive feedback is an effective tool for changing the behavior of poor performers. It is also useful to give constructive feedback to team members whose assignments meet all the requirements and your expectations. It can reward great performers and encourage them to keep up (or even improve) their good work.  Leading Teams Main Page

If your feedback is destructive, the team member will repeat their poor performance and your working relationship with that person will be adversely affected.  Even worse, your negative actions could cause other team members to perform less well. You need to know the best way to deal with poor performance. And that requires having a procedure to follow and using constructive feedback.

Constructive Feedback: A Typical Situation

Here is a typical situation you might face:

At the end of a long day, you received a phone call from a very influential stakeholder. She complained that her department did not receive the instructions that Pat (a member of your team) was supposed to give them last week.  She went on to explain that they need those instructions to be able to use the deliverable your team has produced.  As a result, the first phase of the implementation was going to be at least a week late, maybe more.  You wanted to ask why she waited a week to tell you. Instead, you apologized to the stakeholder, verified that you understood the omission, and hung up.   Leadership and Team Assignments

As you dialed Pat’s extension, one hand gripped the phone and you clenched the other into a fist. That idiot Pat had cost you at least a week’s delay by screwing up and not giving the stakeholder the instructions she needed.  This was the last straw with Pat.  All the other team members closed out their tasks the right way.  Pat was lazy and careless and didn’t give a rip about the project. Well, today Pat was going to receive a harsh lesson about doing the job right. Leadership & Team Performance

This project manager is going to have a conversation with a poor performing team member when they have a lot of anger and frustration built up. They’re ready to say things that will make the team member angry. This conversation will probably hurt their working relationship. Effective Feedback

The phone rang and rang until you realized Pat had gone home for the weekend.  

That was actually lucky.  The PM now has time to calm down and handle the situation the right way when they talk to Pat on Monday. Team building

Constructive Feedback: Measuring Success 

Let’s first talk about what successful feedback is. Is it making Pat feel guilty and embarrassed about letting the project team down? Is it making Pat promise to never do this again? Is it making Pat frightened of the punishments you may impose?

Success is none of those things. Success from giving constructive feedback is changing Pat’s behavior so he remembers to deliver instructions to the stakeholders when a task requires it.  Success is also changing Pat’s behavior so he finishes one task before moving on to the next.  Additionally, you’d like your relationship with Pat to be a good one. In a good relationship, Pat feels an obligation to meet your expectations.

With those constructive feedback measures of success in mind, let’s start over and do the advanced preparation necessary to correctly give constructive feedback. First, dealing with a poor performer is never the opportunity to vent your own frustration. You need to be calm and in control.  You must design and execute your plan for the session, not ad lib it.

Constructive Feedback: Timing 

The need to control your anger often conflicts with the need to immediately address the poor performance.  In the situation above, it was lucky Pat had left the office because it allowed the PM time to cool down.  On the other hand, letting too much time pass before the constructive feedback session is bad because it reduces the impact of what you say.

You could wait two more days until Monday or try to meet with the team member over the weekend.  Your organization’s culture should affect your decision on how reasonable it is to ask for a weekend meeting.  A good middle ground is to send the employee an email today, asking for a meeting first thing Monday morning.

Constructive Feedback: The Medium You Useconstructive feedback

One other consideration is what medium you will use for the constructive feedback exchange.  Ideally, you want a face-to-face meeting, in-person and private; just the two of you.  In this day of cubicles and virtual teams, private meetings can be a luxury but you should try to make it happen.

Conducting the constructive feedback session in writing via a memo or email is very stiff and legalistic.  Lawyers like performance warnings to be documented.  But written communication can set the wrong tone for building the kind of relationship you want with the team member. A phone call is less formal but the downside is the difficulty in packaging your message with the correct body language and facial expressions. Also, it’s difficult for you to “read” the team member’s reactions when words and tone of voice are the only feedback you get over the phone.  A video meeting over the internet improves that situation but you need to ensure that both sides of the conversation are private.

In the example situation with Pat, you might ask for the meeting on Monday and specify a place and time that will be private.  You might also add that you won’t be available for email discussions this weekend; you want to talk on Monday.  Hopefully, that decreases the odds of an email exchange.

Constructive Feedback: Content and Sequence 

The last element of constructive feedback is planning the information you’ll deliver and the sequence in which you’ll deliver it.  It’s a mistake to assume you know the truth about what really happened, who was accountable and what behavior Pat exhibited.  Starting off with an incorrect version of what happened can bring the process to a halt.

You have only the stakeholder’s view of the situation. You need to start with an open-minded inquiry into Pat’s side of the story.  You don’t want to assume that Pat made the error. There are many other possible explanations for what the stakeholder told you. So the first step in constructive feedback is to tell Pat about the stakeholder’s phone call. Then ask Pat what happened and get his side of the story.

This allows you to avoid accusing Pat of wrong doing before you know if Pat actually did something wrong. Too many project managers start these sessions with words that assume the guilt of the team member. That makes the PM look judgmental, biased and unfair in the team member’s eyes. PMs do that when they enter the meeting angry.  So always start the conversation without prejudgment and let the team member tell their side of the story.

If Pat says, “I put the instructions on the stakeholder’s desk a week ago,” you can say something like, “I didn’t think you’d make that kind of mistake.” Then you can start a discussion about dealing with the one week delay in the implementation.

But if Pat agrees that he didn’t deliver the instructions to the stakeholder, you go on to step two in the constructive feedback process. That is accountability verification.

Constructive Feedback: Accountability Verification 

The second step in the constructive feedback information flow is to verify that Pat was responsible for creating and delivering the user instructions.  The purpose of this step is to compare Pat’s actual behavior to what it should have been.  So you ask him who was accountable for giving the instructions to the stakeholder.

If Pat agrees that the instructions were his accountability, you can talk about the importance of closing out tasks completely. And discuss the damage that failure to do so caused in this specific situation.  This part of the discussion is limited to Pat’s actual behavior versus his accountability.  Don’t praise other team members who close out tasks completely.  The only reference outside of this current situation might be to mention how well Pat did on the last task he closed out correctly.

Why should you follow all these steps?  If you are going to change the behavior, Pat needs to perceive that the criticism was earned and fair and that his behavior was wrong.  That will bring about the behavior change and build your working relationship.

Constructive Feedback: Reinforcement 

Dealing with Pat’s performance is not over.  You need to complement Pat when he correctly closes out his next task. That will complete the constructive feedback cycle.

Constructive Feedback: Summary

Constructive feedback on a team member’s poor performance can yield big benefits for the project manager and team member. The project manager must control their anger and the impulse to accuse or punish. Constructive feedback includes learning the facts, verifying accountability and reinforcing the team member’s improved behavior.

You can practice using these techniques in our private, online courses with simulations. You will practice dealing with poor performing employees in live, private meetings with your instructor playing the team member role. You will learn how to successfully plan and deliver constructive feedback and think on your feet during these meetings.

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