Project managers often get a rep for being locked into their own perspectives and silos – and that’s just not true.
Here’s how that story started: In classic MBA theory from the 90s, project managers and leaders were treated as two halves of a whole. Both useful, but distinct. The idea was that leaders had some magical alchemy that could bend teams to their will.
Project managers, meanwhile, were wonks who’d clawed their way up the ranks through hard work and technical knowledge.
Leaders were ethereal and charismatic; project managers a necessary next step.
Anyone remember the Peter Principle?
First formulated by the eponymous Laurence J. Peter and published in 1969, it states:
“Everyone is promoted to their level of incompetence”.
And that basically means that in hierarchical organisations, every teacher, scholar, architect, engineer and inventor will be promoted to a management role they’re not good at. Basically, it’s also shorthand for the idea that technical folks aren’t great at communicating and inspiring.
Luckily, we’ve had bunches of entrepreneurs – Richard Branson, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk come to mind – that have blurred these arbitrary boundaries.
Basically, you can be an anorak, a work, a nerd, and still have the vision to change the course of millions of life.
But why then are project managers often short-changed? One of the answers: they’re not communicating effectively.
Projects are never a linear progression from start to end. They are a playing field of motivations, politics, jockeying, unrealistic expectations and satisficing that eventually lead somewhere. Good projects get closer to the ideal end-goal than bad projects. But no project gets 100%.
Management is a battle of ideas – and those spoken eloquently gain better traction. That means a more willing and motivated team, and better project success.
Now that we’ve set the field, I hope we’re getting to the link we want to make: Effective project management is about communicating effectively. And that means avoiding certain easy mistakes. Here’s a list of mistakes to avoid:
Not preparing: Make no mistake - project managers are prepared. They have Gantt charts, critical path analyses, loads of heuristics, and PowerPoints 50 slides deep to make their case. But often, the communication falls by the wayside. Public speaking, or speaking to a public – even if that public is just your team, requires preparation. Professional speakers spend hours, days and even years in training. Don’t think you can wing the communication part. Figure out the spiel, and then look at polishing it – just as you would your pie charts.
Disorganisation: Here’s a key benefit of preparing your spiel and communicating it well – you learn to abstract, nutshell and hit the points that matter. Being asked to speak in public about something is an extraordinarily clear way of bringing organisation to your ideas. If the ideas aren’t flowing logically in your presentation to a crowd, they may not flow in organised fashion during project implementation. Speaking in public about your ideas and plans is the very best way of sorting them out in your head.
Not connecting with your audience: Silos. Blinkers. Perspectives. Call them what you will, but we all have them. We approach topics in a way that interests us. But the cardinal sin here is that we fail to address them in a way that interests our audiences. As a project manager, your team will have motivations that might differ from yours. Their loyalties and interests mightn’t also be 100% aligned to yours, or your project. The one simple trick of becoming a better communicator practically overnight is to try and ask what different audiences want - what their interests and motivations are, and how you can convince them that a successful project will help them get there.
Getting into the nuts and bolts too early: The nuts and bolts are exceptionally important. They are what make project managers successful. The trouble is that nuts and bolts alone are not what inspire people – not what get them waking up early in the morning to get to work. That’s bigger picture stuff. Now, you might think, and perhaps be right, that not all projects are as inspiring as AI or autonomous self-driving cars. But every project has a reason for existing. Find that reason, and then find a way of communicating that effectively.
Thinking you can’t do it, so why bother: Some project managers are a bit disdainful of speaking skills – because they think good ideas always win out regardless. Fact check: They don’t. Other managers feel there’s no point in leading from the front because they’ve never had elusive quality of “charisma.”
But charisma is just a code word for building rapport, relationships and acting out the body language cues that make you seem approachable and interested. Charisma is a rather complicated term for bodily cues and conversational mannerisms that get people interested. They’re a skill; not something you’re born with. Think of speaking effectively as learning a new coding language – or designing a new project. There might be learning curve, but it’s not an innate skill – one that is very beneficial to learn.
So there you have it. Project management requires specialised skills acquired over years. But great project managers, who are incidentally good leaders, also know how communication and public speaking works. And that makes all the difference.