Lesson learned from a crash course in Project Management: the crucial role of communication

Poster showcasing my takeaway message from a crash course in Project Management: Communication at the heart of Project Management

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I took a crash course in Project Management earlier in the fall. Although it was a very short course spanning over only three weeks, I found it very helpful. What I most appreciated about the set-up of the class was that one of the two mandatory assignments was to interview a practiced project manager at Uppsala University. (My team partner and I had the chance of talking to Titti Ekegren, a project coordinator within the strategic innovation program EIT Health, involved in setting up courses to help students bring their research out into the industry.) The combination of compact, to-the-point lectures with this hour-long exchange with an experienced practitioner was, from my perspective, a nice way to “connect the dots”. Now, what dots are we talking about? Let me tell you.

A few weeks ago, the final session of the course approaching, I found myself trying to formulate the key messages I would be taking away from the course. On the one side, I had my notes from the few lectures we had had, and on the other, my notes from the interview we had conducted with Titti. I was expected to create a poster showcasing my lessons learned from the course, but found myself strangely at a loss for ideas – despite the strong feeling that there was something really important – or at least, something I felt was really important for me – I had learnt from the class. I started writing down the central project management concepts that were recurring in my notes – stakeholders, value, goals, plan(ning), assessment. Then, I tried to connect those different concepts in a way that made sense to me, drawing arrows going in different directions between them. This made me realize that I had forgotten to include the project manager in my diagram, so I added her, and then the project team. After drawing a few more arrows here and there, connecting the different key project management concepts I had included to the project manager and the project team, it finally struck me: project management is all about communication.

It is about building, maintaining and developing a common understanding of the project among all parties involved, and maybe more particularly between project manager and project team members. A continuous, constructive dialogue must take place between the project manager and the project team, starting from the definition of the project value and goals over the elaboration of the project plan and the identification of the risks associated with the project to the assessment of its progress. From this perspective, the formal project documents and milestones recommended in project management books merely provide support for this fundamental project component, but do not have any significant value in itself. Having created a state-of-the-art project plan without having taken into consideration the perspective of the (other) project team members is meaningless, and such an approach is doomed to failure.

If this realization of the crucial role of good communication in project management was such an epiphany for me, it is, of course, because I have been extremely bad at it so far. Suddenly, I understood the cause of the small-scale, but nonetheless frustrating and hindering frictions I had experienced with some of my colleagues – not only had I not told them all there was to know about my vision for the projects, but I had not actually listened to their perspective either. I had not asked them what they wanted to get out of the project, what they felt made it valuable or how much they were able to get involved in it. As such, the projects had remained mine, instead of becoming ours.

But let’s now think a little bit further. If (effective) communication is at the heart of project management, it means that a good project manager needs to be, above all, a skilled communicator. One that not only shares her perspective with her team members, but also one that explicitly invites them to share their own vision and ideas for the project, and actively listens to what they tell her in order to (re-)shape the project components. Lesson learned.