Monday, April 27, 2009

The Power of Perception - How Project Managers Get The Real Story

Good project managers have a sixth sense. This is the ability to walk into a high-pressure situation and get a quick read on your surroundings. A PM that is new to any project needs fast answers and instant credibility. To get the job done, you need to know who to talk to, who will listen to you, and who can actually do the work. Solid powers of perception help a project manager get the real story.

Body Language

Meetings are one of the first places that you will start to see the real picture. As PM, you will lead to set the tone and define the agenda. Meeting management skills are vital to ensure that you can read your audience, and adjust your approach in real time. You should postion yourself in the best area of the room to properly observe body language. The key is not just look for what people are saying, but how they are saying it. When individuals speak, take note of who is paying attention, who is grimacing, who is slouching, and who is making eye contact. All the non-verbal cues displayed in a meeting will give you some good behind-the-scenes information about who really has influence on the group.

Observing how different people react to the same messages may give some indication of general buy-in to the project objectives. For example, telling good news such as ‘this project has the support of all Directors, and a sizable budget sufficient for the next two years’ may elicit non-verbal cheers, or jeers, depending on the individual. Similarly, bad news such as ‘the project has has lost the support of our public stakeholders and we have to pick a new administrator’ may even cause a team member to crack a smile. Depending upon the reactions, you may need to change your purpose/focus/delivery on the fly.

Metrics – Get The Facts

Sometimes it really takes some hard numbers to back up the soft facts. It may call for some snooping to get at the real story, but you have to think like an analyst to really make sense of the conflicting information. It always important to first get into the weeds and assess the details, then summarize. The ‘one-pager’ is every good PM’s secret to success. If you can’t summarize all your details into a good one-page document, you are probably not providing a useful big picture view to your stakeholders. If you really need to prove a point, prove it quickly, and back it up with real numbers. The one-pager is the only way to go.

Influence the Influential

Some times you have to get the facts across, and get them across directly. The use of a Steering Committee is the most formal way to communicate vital project information to individuals that can actually influence the organization. A Steering Committee that acts as an effective ‘clearing house’ for issues will help to get real results when you need them. It is vital to stick to really important details, and come prepared with options. A PM that communicates in a direct manner, and respects a Steering Committee’s time, will build greater trust and wield increased influence.

Other times, it is necessary to use informal methods of influencing the most influential members of the project team. The single best way to do this is the ‘pre-meeting’. The pre-meeting refers to a type of informal project communication that occurs prior to a standard decision-making meeting, via phone call, hallway discussion, etc. The goal of the pre-meeting is to warm up the meeting participant to the desired flow of the upcoming event. This gives you an opportunity to solicit feedback and engage your key decision makers about issues that will affect the meeting direction. Ultimately, the goal is to ensure that the meeting is about validation, not confrontation. Taking an indirect approach facilitates face-saving and promotes ownership.

The Water Cooler

If all else fails, there is always the water cooler. This short informal conversation is one of the best ways to get the true pulse of the team. The water cooler is the opportunity to ask the same questions, in a different way. This age-old technique is one to the best ways to develop the skills of perception, and find innovative ways of getting the real story. Additional context helps the project manager to make more effective decisions, and more quickly influence the organization.

This article was originally published in 2005.

Dave Ullrich, B.Comm, PMP specializes in IT project management consulting and strategy with his company Cilantra Solutions. He has based this approach on the results of several successful IT project implementations with teams distributed across Canada, US, and the UK. He can be reached at

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