Think we’ve all pondered the value of communications in Project Management, that was an area of study for PMP certification and we use it on a daily basis. The question of communications comes up on both sides of a job interview. One of the questions I was asked when being interviewed for Project Manager (PM) positions, and I have asked candidates later as head of a Project Office, is: “What is the most important skill that a Project Manager should have?” That skill is the ability to communicate, and PMs must be able to communicate effectively vertically with management, customers and subordinates, horizontally with peers and team members as well as inside and outside their organization.
Communication skills can go in a lot of directions. At the basic level, you have to be able to communicate with your audience in a language that both parties understand. Some PMs have worked in the international realm, so languages can be barriers at a very basic level. Back in my U.S. Air Force days, I was sent to Warsaw, Poland to work arrangements for a combined military exercise with the Polish armed forces. In one meeting I was negotiating airspace allocation agreements with a Polish Air Force officer who didn’t speak English (or American and the British call it) and I didn’t speak Polish, so we worked through a translator. During a break the Polish officer and I discovered that we both spoke German, so we gave our translator a longer break and completed our negotiations in German. Yes, all the airspace processes that we agreed to did work out as advertised.
Even when there is a common spoken language between parties, there can be barriers to effective communication. A very common example is communication efforts between people with a non-technical background and technicians or engineers. When this situation arises in a project, the PM needs to be the translator and ensure there is a shared understanding and common lexicon between the parties…think we’ve all been there at least once.
Effective communication also requires knowing and abiding by the culture, corporate or otherwise, of those you are working with. During a one-year assignment as a senior advisor and executive mentor to senior leadership in the new Iraqi Military in Baghdad, Iraq, I had to understand and work within Arabic cultural conventions. Many U.S. officers wanted to exercise short and direct communication, often presented more as direction than discussion and collaboration, to get what was considered immediate results from a U.S. perspective. Some Arabic norms for any interaction are to: Establish social and family connections; and enjoy hot tea (chai) and sweets before ever talking business. If these cultural conventions were not followed, effective communication was likely to fail. I quickly learned to chat for 30 minutes and longer to establish networks of common friends and acquaintances over hot chai or Turkish coffee (I am not a coffee drinker) even when the outside air temperature was well over 130 degrees Fahrenheit. These sessions always produced positive results for the projects that I was working on with them and produced long-term professional relationships that continue today. The rapport I built with the Iraqis was reflected in how they addressed me. In my first meetings during the assignment I was addressed as "Colonel Canada", the Iraqis were observing the formal Western custom of using rank and last name. Soon thereafter they began to address me as "Colonel Chris", conforming to the formal Arabic convention of using rank and first name. After a few months I was referred to as "Abu Caleb" or "Father of Caleb", a very respectful and family oriented (tribal) manner of address in traditional Arabic culture.
Picture caption: Worked out a 200,000-liter increase to a training center's monthly fuel allocation, got approval for more Kurdish troops to train in Iraqi facilities and reviewed the floor plan for an English language training center...even brought a U.S. Navy buddy along so he could try out some Iraqi seafood at lunchtime. Just another day of advising my Iraqi generals and drinking hot tea.
Chris Canada, PMP, CSM