Hello! I’ve been working as a project manager for about a year now. Some projects went smoothly – the product escaped all pitfalls and now it lives on and prospers. Others were plagued by unprofessional conduct and stupid mistakes.
However I like my job and I’m not too lazy to analyze my mistakes to establish the reason behind them. And it is, as a rule, quite simple: someone misunderstood something. The developer misunderstood the task, the client misunderstood the team, the manager misunderstood the idea behind the project, etc. Misunderstandings cause extended deadlines, blown budgets, dissatisfied clients, confused end users and sleep-deprived managers.
The source of the misunderstandings is, in turn, ineffective communication. When communication is at fault there is no way of allocating and completing tasks effectively. I’d like to share some tips that might be helpful to prevent this from happening.
Some time ago as part of an experiment each manager at Live Typing was asked to draw an image which they most closely associated with their job. As far as I’m concerned, an effective manager is Ganesha — the Hindu god of prosperity and wisdom. He has an elephant’s head and quite a lot of hands. With their long trunk a “Ganesha” manager sniffs out the risks, with their big ears listens to both the team and the client, with all their spare hands can defuse any situation.
Achieving spiritual enlightenment is a necessity for each and every manager. Without it the communication is at risk and, consequently, the ultimate goal of completing a project. In this post I’m sharing some advice based on my own experience and I invite you to share yours in the comments.
Rule # 1: Be here and now
The first thing you should do to communicate successfully is to learn how to talk. Talking is what makes up the lion’s share of our work. Irrelevant thoughts and inner monologues stop you from listening to and hearing the other person. They make you lose sight of the reasons you started talking in the first place.
Sometimes being here and now takes some effort. To stay completely focused on the conversation at hand you can try a simple exercise. Psychologists recommend it to people who suffer from recurring flashbacks to traumatic past events. As soon as your thoughts start to wander and you find yourself thinking of tomorrow’s deadline or the iron you have probably left on at home visualize a giant traffic sign reading STOP. And go back to listening. If done regularly, this exercise prevents you from getting distracted and helps you stay focused on the conversation.
Rule # 2: Respect other people’s time
If you’re in a meeting, you’re not available to answer anyone else’s ‘quick questions’. Those, for the time being, should be sent to you via messenger. In this way the questions won’t be overlooked or lost and you will deal with them as soon as you’re free to do so. Let’s be honest, most of these ‘quick questions’ are really not all that urgent. Managers have a prerogative to deal with the issues as soon as they arise and it’s great but not at the expense of effective communication.
Rule # 3: Prepare before meetings
Record conversations using a voice recorder or Monosnap, listen to them after, write down the key points, summarize the results and prepare questions to discuss in the next meeting. Make sure you’re on the same page with the other person about the key points and the results of the meeting. This will guarantee that you talk and think of the same things. Some of the misunderstandings may already come to light at this stage.
Sometimes misunderstandings occur considerable time after the conversation took place and your recordings may come in handy. One such instance happened when a client several days before the release date announced that he ‘expected such and such feature and there wasn’t one’. In truth no such feature had ever been discussed, otherwise a lot would have been done differently in that project. I had all the recordings, though, which helped me deal with the situation with a single phrase: ‘Please, help me remember the date when we discussed this feature and I’ll look through my recordings’. The client had nothing to say to that and just moved on to the next topic.
Vlad Korobov, CEO Live Typing:
‘The fact of each meeting taking place should always be documented. That’s the reason meetings should be recorded – as they happen (e.g. using Monosnap) or after the fact. The easiest option here is to confirm the arrangements made in a letter, or even better if the tasks are created in a management tool. We use tools such as Trello, YouTrack and Basecamp.
Doing my homework before the meeting not once helped me save face and protect other people’s reputations. I often conduct meetings in English and it’s of utmost importance to prepare your pitches and key phrases beforehand. This will make the client feel that you’re sure of your words and the language.’
Even if a manager has mastered the art of improvisation the meeting is bound to be full of awkward moments unless they come prepared beforehand.
‘Once I was in charge of a team developing an app for a device manufactured by the client. At some point the client came by the office and started demonstrating the device. I hadn’t bothered to learn anything about it beforehand even though it was two weeks before the release date. I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life.’
Rule #4: Master the reflective listening
Ask questions, say back the speaker’s idea as you understood it, confirming again and again that you’re both on the same page. Phrases such as “Do you mean that…”, “Do I understand correctly that…” and others are your tools for carving meanings.
Sometimes your clients may be far from spiritual enlightenment themselves. They are angry and on edge for no apparent reason. Or, on the contrary, they are bubbling with excitement about the results you achieved together. On such occasions you should act differently – employ the non-reflective listening. Say things like “I’m excited as well” or “I’m really sorry that happened”, nod in agreement and make encouraging noises. Emphasize, share the moment with your client, feel their emotions as your own – this brings people closer together.
Rule #5: Don’t rely on your memory alone
People generally tend to remember good things about themselves and forget bad ones. This wonderful trait probably makes the burden of being less unbearable. On the same arbitrary principles, our memory functions in regards to commitments, responsibilities and deadlines. Some of them stay with you, some of them don’t. Your brain obviously strives to lighten your burden some, so you just have to keep on record all the important information – be it on paper, in Google Docs, in a task manager app or in voice or video memos.
Rule #6: No toxic emotions
The whole team’s state of mind reflects one of the manager. The manager is the one who determines the team’s attitude to failure and success. And it’s the manager’s conduct that can undermine the team’s integrity. Let everyone know you’re in a bad mood today and don’t forget to mention that everything is transient, we all going to die, life is pointless and so is your project. Treat your team members as walking stereotypes from an American High School movie (‘the nerd’, ‘the scapegoat’, ‘the best buddy’, etc.). And look! You’ve got yourself a toxic working environment where productivity is virtually impossible. And the most important thing – the manager can’t go around making disparaging comments about the client. The manager represents the client’s interests to the team and team’s needs to the client. Your conduct should always be impeccable for you to be a perfect mediator paving a road of mutual trust headed to success.
Rule #7: Keep your team fully informed
Don’t neglect to outline the whole project to every team member (even to the one who is there only to complete a small task). The consequences of someone not being fully informed can be unpredictable. Thus one of my projects turned from a 10-hour piece of cake into a one-month-and-a-half disaster.
The whole thing was absurd. There was a freelancer on my team whose task it was to change texts and images in the app. Normally the images would have been updated from the server, but at the time the client’s server was down. The freelancer being sure that’s how it always was went ahead and deleted the whole of server-related part of the code and simply hard coded the images. I was rather inexperienced then and it didn’t register as strange that he suddenly needed more time. Only when the client wanted to know where the refresh button disappeared to it dawned on me what had happened and the mess we were in.
Rule #8: Same language for all
Let’s say your team and you are in perfect sync and best friends forever. How do you go about introducing a client into this little world of peace and harmony? First and foremost, the client, the manager and the team should all speak the same language. Each item in the technical specification should be understood and referred to in the same way by everyone. Feel like calling some feature differently? Either discuss it with everyone involved in the project (it’s quite possible you’re not alone) or put a stop on it and don’t do it – don’t clog the communication channels with extra garbage.
Rule #9: Don’t assume anything about your client’s needs
You are a professional, but it is your client’s vision that defines the product. The truly great managers do not seek to find out what the client wants (‘I want everything pink, sparkling and shining.’) but what the client needs (‘We need to be different. We need something that people will remember.’). Reflexive listening will help you pry this information from your client and change the project for the better. In my experience managers that complain about their clients very often neglect to really listen to them in the first place. Such negligence ultimately causes the manager to feel indifferent about the project or powerless to influence it in any way.
Daria Abramova, manager at Live Typing
‘Lately I’ve started asking clients why they need this or that feature. Let me give an example. When we were developing an app for schools we were asked to make it possible to leave comments on teacher’s posts. A teacher should be able to tell if their post has been read or not and commenting was the only way to make it happen known to the client. When we talked this through we came to a conclusion that introducing message statuses is a much simpler, more convenient and a cheaper solution to the problem.’
Rule #10: Discuss the project’s merits with the client
A feeling that you’re working on some useless piece of a project – especially if it’s all pink, sparkling and shining – is truly horrible. It sucks the energy out of you and kills your motivation. And the client after the disastrous market release may come back to you and ask: ‘What went wrong?’ Or they may not, which is even sadder. You should work to eliminate all the useless tasks (aimed at increasing pinkness, sparkliness and shininess) before that happens and put into forefront the tasks that are actually worth doing. When the team sees the merit in the project they are involved in they are much more likely to give it their best.
Alexandra Abakumova, manager at Live Typing.
‘One of our projects was shut down three months after the release date. The client’s analysts didn’t bother to draw up a business plan, which would’ve specified a target market, outlined a marketing and monetizing strategies and so on. The client was certain that the app – and it was a mobile app – would attract users simply by being released. Naturally that failed to happen. After that they came back asking for help. But the investor seeing no return on their money decided to drop our client.’
So how can you try and save the project when your client, for instance, is dead set on having a big red button saying “BUY” and thinks nothing could be better? You can push for changes in the project using PNI approach. PNI stands for Positive, Negative and Interesting. You should talk about all three aspects in turn.
Positive: Talk about merits you see in the client’s idea (“Red color is a good choice to attract attention. It can be used for some other elements as well”).
Interesting: Talk about things that could be a merit if improved on (“Animation can be done differently and in this way it won’t be distracting but eye-catching”).
Negative: Talk about something that should be definitely avoided (“Here are some screenshots. As you can see none of the top online-retailers have big red buttons that say “BUY”. The reasons for this are such, such and such. I wouldn’t recommend you doing that as well”.
Draw diagrams, take screenshots, compile lists, offer alternatives, fight for it. There is always time for working on useless crap later.
Rule #11: The task should be clear, specific and comprehensible to both the developer and the client.
The task as given to the developer and presented to the client might look differently. For example, while working on a project I usually split tasks into smaller ones. As a result the client is given the timeframe where one task is in fact a group of subtasks. On the whole, the team are the ones who must see all the tasks and subtasks (however minor) and the client is more interested in the tangible results achieved so far. This divided approach allows the team to be flexible and swap the subtasks as needed and enables the client to clearly see the progress.
It is a good practice to include links to additional information, quotes from the client or QA engineers, deadlines and projected results into task description. Make the task as unambiguous and straightforward as possible.
To sum up
Your project is going to be fine if you
- are willing to communicate with both the team and the client and stay focused during meetings and carefully document them;
- call things by the same names inside the team and while talking to the client;
- do not assume what the client needs or wants;
- formulate all the information available into a clear and coherent tasks;
- have two separate systems to monitor the tasks – one for the team and one for the client.
These rules help me manage and complete my projects on time and on budget with the minimal amount of headache. I hope they can be useful to you as well. If you happen to have some of your own well-tested rules I invite you to share them in the comments.
Thank you for reading.