PM: Own The Narrative!

We’ve all likely played the telephone game.

That is, a group of people get in line. The first person whispers a phrase to the second. The second person in turn whispers the phrase to the next person and so on down the line. Invariably, the phrase shared by the last person is no longer conveying what was stated by the first.

This is a playful (even painful) demonstration of what happens in everyday life. And, know that the more people involved in relaying a message, the more diluted, slanted and/or erroneous it becomes.

Project Managers – Make no mistake, this is what is happening on our projects EVERY single day.

Given the fact that perception is reality, it is absolutely crucial for Project Managers to own the narrative relative to the project(s) we are driving. Not doing so can result in what may have been a harmless or misinformed comment by a team member turning into a fire that catches the attention of the executive sponsor, or worse yet an external client!

The result, we find ourselves wasting time addressing miscommunications in an attempt to bring people back in sync. In a worst case scenario this can result in damage to the project and/or our reputation.

There is a MUCH better way…

To prevent this we must be absolutely vigilant with regards to project-related communications (official and otherwise).

How does one go about doing this?

First, PMs must acknowledge we are the aggregation point and curator of information (status, issues, risks, etc.) related to the projects we are driving. As a result, the PM is naturally the ONLY person on the planet who has a complete, holistic, and up-to-the-minute overview of the entire project and where it stands. As such, the most important step a PM can take is simply communicate and communicate often.

To start, the PM can publish a full project status on a weekly basis, to ALL stakeholders. This includes sharing, at a minimum:

  • Overall project health / status – This includes a simple: green, yellow, red indicator (for the audience to quickly ascertain the general health) as well as a brief summary as to the nature of the project’s status and where we are relative to the overall timeline.
  • Progress from last week vs. goals
  • Goals for the coming week
  • Key issues and risks being addressed, and by whom

The above is one of the most important steps we can take to ensure the full project status (a.k.a. narrative) is shared as broadly as possible, on a weekly basis. Once we’ve published this it then serves as air cover. That is, as the various conversations unfold among stakeholders, they now have a recently published reference point to check their facts before they fall prey to the telephone game…

From here we need to conduct surveillance to ensure we remain up-to-date on the status as well as perceptions of the project. To do so we must:

  • Constantly seek input from team members and stakeholders (How do you feel the project is going? Is there any confusion or concern out there about what we are doing, why and/or how we are doing it?).
  • Ask team members to be our eyes and ears in the various meetings they attend to let us know of any new developments (accomplishments, issues, risks) and/or perceptions being formed and shared.
  • Pay attention to hallway and water cooler conversations as we walk around the building, since we will often (quite serendipitously) learn of a fact (good or bad) that may have a direct and significant impact on our project.
  • Observe email dialogue to identify any communications that are off track with the direction and/or reality of the project.

As we learn of things needing attention, from our surveillance activities, we must promptly determine the appropriate steps to take, which could include:

  • Contacting the individual(s) involved to confirm the observation, obtain additional insight and/or correct any misunderstandings or misperceptions.
  • Communicating with stakeholders who need to be aware of what has transpired and/or the misperception that has developed, sharing what they can do to clarify things within their own network.

In summary, to own the project narrative the PM must diligently PUSH information to ALL stakeholders on a frequent basis. For example, it is NOT good enough to simply post information on the project’s Sharepoint site as MANY people simply don’t go there. We must also PUSH it via email to our intended audience. And, we must be absolutely on top of ALL communications associated with our projects to ensure the narrative remains in tact amongst team members and with others in the organization.

Owning the narrative ensures, to the greatest extent possible, that project stakeholders are hearing the complete, holistic and up-to-date information directly from the source: the PM! The result is far fewer, unnecessary fires resulting from “the telephone game”.

A key reality: If the PM isn’t frequently “pushing” information, it can safely be assumed stakeholders are misinformed.

If you are looking to improve PM competencies in yourself, or organization, please reach out so that we can chat about how I can help you.

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