From Telling to Asking

April 30, 2010 by
Filed under: Leadership, People, Project management, Teamwork 

There are a number of flavours of project management workshops I’m involved with these days, online and face to face, running the whole show or facilitating with wider participation. One thing that they all have in common is that many of the issues have to do with team dynamics, and the many ways in which this manifests itself. Here’s another example.

In one flavour, I have been running one-day workshops to graduate students – none of them project managers by title, but all of them running some form of research projects. They’re generally not interested in jargon or advanced skills or professional designations (oh my!), and certainly interested in getting their work done effectively and efficiently.

In other words, the project managers I am growing quite an affinity for.

In this workshop setting, the entire group is set up as a team, and there is a small project for them to complete at the beginning of the day (they invariably fail miserably). From that point, we layer on different practices, apply them to that particular project, and give them another kick at the can. By day’s end (most of the time), they succeed admirably. By traditional measures of scope, schedule and cost, their project completes nicely.

More importantly, though, I see an important behaviour that I believe contributes immeasurably to that success.

In the first round, people that have been designated as management will often assert their authority, and tell others what needs to get done. This might take the form of assigning resources (which isn’t necessarily all that bad), to telling people how long they have to get their component of the project completed (which isn’t too good). This ‘telling’ happens with most of the others as well, often in the form of some people asserting themselves while others are trying to get their words in as well.

Lots of talking, very little hearing going on.

I’m not sure that this is any indication of self-confidence or a lack thereof, I think it is more a reflection of the emphasis and interest in each person’s own space, where their head is at, what they need to do. It happens all the time on projects, and exposes a relative lack of interest in the opinions, interests, or feelings of others on the team. Lots of “I’m talking at you”, and “you’re not listening to me” (as you are busy talking at me).

Over the course of the day, through a variety of approaches, we get the people relating to one another in an entirely different way. Part if it definitely happens as we sit together over a shared lunch to get to know each other better, part of it happens as we use project management structures as a means of driving discussion in the right direction.

By the end of the day (whether they are officially successful with their project or not), the dynamics of conversation are totally reversed. With a greater interest and respect for the opinions and perspectives of others on the team, most dialog is inquiring in nature. “What do you think about this?” or “Do you think that’s a reasonable option”, or even “Could you give me your opinion on that?”.

A very closely knit group has evolved, and every person is deeply invested in the results of the project. At the end of the day, I’ll often ask if they have ever been involved in a team that is so completely engaged in the success of the project. I’ve yet to get an affirmative response.

To my mind, that has all to do with a learned appreciation of the contribution of everyone else on the team, and some techniques to actively draw out that contribution. Two ears, one mouth. – JB


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