On Communication, Dentists, and Project Management

Cartoon by Pablo Helguera

A couple of weeks ago I found myself in a situation that we all fear and try to avoid as much as possible: I was lying in a chair while a complete stranger poked around in my mouth with instruments that seem to have their origin in a medieval torture chamber (and not having had evolved much since). No matter how much reassurance my mom gave me as a child, I still can’t help but think that visits to the dentist should be reserved for one of Dante’s seven circles of hell. But there I was, so in order to distract myself from the scrapping, poking, drilling, and hissing coming from my general mouth region, I tried to figure out why people hate going to the dentist so much. Surprisingly, my conclusion has a lot to do with one of the most important parts of project management – communication.

I’m sure you have all heard tales of projects drifting off due to miscommunication between the stakeholders involved. Every project manager gets drilled on communication from the very first day on the job. However, there’s a difference between knowing and doing. Some might think that communication isn’t such a big deal – emails are being sent, meetings are held, so, therefore, communication is taking place. But that’s what your dentist thinks too.

In my case, the dentist mumbled something of “root canal” and “don’t worry” and “tell me when it hurts,” and merrily started to drill away. I had no clue what was going on, what the plan was (if there was any), what I should be expecting, and what exactly the problem was that the dentist tried to solve. And the tubes coming out of my mouth, combined with a mechanical device that kept my mouth open, kept me from asking questions – all I could do was raise an eyebrow and wait for the pain.

Chances are high that I am committing the same mistakes as a project manager. As I’m primarily responsible for planning and goal setting, the plan is always crystal clear for me (just as the treatment is clear for the dentist, hopefully…). This does not mean it’s clear for the rest of the team however. As a project manager, it is your duty to make sure that all stakeholders have the information they need to make informed decisions. Here are some tricks that are hopefully helpful:

1. Be open

Don’t assume people ask questions when they have questions. I’m sure you know this phenomenon from your High School days: You had no clue what the teacher was saying, but you didn’t raise the question for fear of being considered stupid. The same happens with your team. Make sure to create an environment of trust where people feel free to ask questions when they have them… and are encouraged to speak even when they don’t.

2. Over communicate

In my experience, people will tell you very fast when they know and understood what you tell them. However, they won’t tell you when they don’t (see above). A very basic tool is to just repeat information in different formats, for example via mail and in a 1:1.

3. Focus communication

Not everyone has to know everything. The sponsor, for example, doesn’t need to know about every single line of code that has been written. Make sure to have a communication plan in place that helps you identify the different levels of information required by and from receivers and givers, and validate that all team members are receiving the information they need in an appropriate way.

4. Get personal

Nothing can beat a personal conversation. Try to talk to your team members face-to-face as often as possible. If your team is spread around the globe, have video conferences (emphasis on video). Miscommunications are often more readily identified and clarified in person.

5. Choose the right channel

Not all tools of communication are interchangeable. Distributing meeting minutes via phone makes as much sense as giving someone a performance review in a public meeting. These examples are exaggerations, but chose communication channels carefully. The “Who? What? Why? What priority?” questions are a great help to define the right way to spread information.

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