Why Communicating Understanding Is Vital to Project Managers

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As a practicing project manager, I knew that just merely telling my team, stakeholders, and executive sponsor information did not mean I was communicating effectively. Yes, I was technically communicating but just giving information didn’t mean I was an effective communicator. What was needed is another component to transferring information – understanding.

Understanding is a topic in epistemology which is the study of knowledge. Don’t worry; I will keep the philosophy brief and to the point. Even though the study of knowledge is ancient, the study of understanding is relatively new (just like the study of project management communication). According to philosophers, there three main ways of understanding.

There is know-what in which I have an understanding of some concept, physical object, or process. For example, I know what a work-breakdown-structure (WBS) is in the sense of it being a tool in project management. I may have a simple understanding of what a WBS is because I recognize a WBS when I see it. Or my know-what may be that I know WBS exist but, that is all I know. In contrast, I may thoroughly understand WBS including the history of the concept. Know-what is often the first step in creating understanding.

When I can construct a WBS, I have know-how. As you can see, know-how is more involved than know-what. For me to have know-how, I must possess these six attributes:

1. Ability to follow the explanation of the concept, physical object, or process.

2. Ability to explain the concept, physical object, or process.

3. Ability to draw conclusions from the concept, physical object, or process.

4. Ability to conclude opposing conclusions from the opposite of the concept, physical object, or process.

5. Ability to conclude the correct ideas when given the concept, physical object, or process.

6. Ability to conclude the correct opposite ideas when given the opposite of the concept, physical object, or process.

The third way of understanding is know-why. You may know what a WBS is and how to construct the WBS. However, your understanding is incomplete if you don’t know why you need to use a WBS. Know-why may seem the same as know-what, but there is a significant difference. For example, I may be an expert on Monte Carlo simulations in risk management. I can explain the concept and even create a spreadsheet that uses Monte Carlo simulations for risk management. However, I may not be able to explain why you need a Monte Carlo simulation in your project. I just want to use a Monte Carlo simulation in your simple weekend project to build a deck just because I like building Monte Carlo simulations. I know-what and I know-how but I don’t know-why we shouldn’t use the Monte Carlo simulation in your particular project.

It is unnecessary to have three ways of understanding to be effective. For example, your senior sponsor may only need to know why your project needs a risk register but, has only a partial understanding of what a risk register is. The senior sponsor doesn’t need to understand how to create a risk register. And the senior sponsor needs only a cursory understanding of why a risk register is needed. Just enough know-what and know-why to reassure the sponsor that the project’s chances for success will increase if you use a risk register.

An important decision for a communicator is to determine the level of understanding that his or her audience needs for successful communication. That is why communication is more than information transfer. The communicator and the receiver must use feedback to determine how the message was received and if the communicator created the intended level of understanding in the receiver for the communication to succeed.

[This is an excerpt from my recently published book, The Persuasive Project Manager: Communicating for Understanding.]

Training the Next Generation of Federal Government Program and Project Managers

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In a recent Government Executive column, John Kamensky writes about the second anniversary of the passage of the Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act (PMIAA). “Two years after its passage, slow but steady progress is being made to implement not only the law’s requirements but also its underlying intent—to improve the government’s ability to manage large and complex programs,” Kamensky writes:

The Office of Management and Budget has a five-year plan to implement the PMIAA. The first phase of the five-year plan was to create governance networks in the 24 major federal agencies. The second phase is conducted portfolio reviews for major acquisition programs. However, it is the third phase that most interest me – building the leadership and technical capacity to manage complex programs.

“OMB is working with the Office of Personnel Management to define the strategic talent management needs of agencies and the training needed by the current workforce. They are also working on defining potential job series, career paths, and mentoring programs, with an initial focus on acquisition staffs. OPM has announced that it will be conducting assessments next year of program and project managers across federal agencies to determine the competencies of the management workforce. According to Federal Times, this will be done in a phased approach across four groups of agencies beginning in May 2019.”

I agree with Kamensky’s reasons on why implementing the PMIAA is more difficult than originally thought. The first and second reasons revolve around defining what a government program is and how to manage a government program. The first two reasons probably lead to the third reason which is that many program managers do not see themselves as program managers. “They see themselves in the context of their professional communities (e.g., social worker) or their career’s policy domain (e.g., managing foster care).”

I especially agree with this point.

“Furthermore, program management has traditionally been treated as an acquisition function, when in fact it is much broader role, involving human resources, IT, financial management, mission-delivery functions, potentially other agencies, contractors, the media, and even Congress.”

It is the third phase that will be the real challenge. The first reason is that program management and project management, although closely related, have enough significant differences that only training for program management will not address the shortage of trained project managers. The second reason is there are 15 types of government programs with wildly different characteristics and purposes (pp. 7 to 8 of A Framework for Improving Federal Program Management, 2018). Each type of program will require a different variety of management techniques along with a common set of project management skills.

“Even the most inclusive list of discrete skills struggles to cap­ture the complex, imaginative, and dynamic experience of leading a federal program. Successful leaders require discrete skills, and the capacity to deploy those skills skillfully and strategically, to meet changing circumstances. Program managers themselves have a wide range of views about the skills that they need, given the demands of their programs.” (p. 40 of the Framework).

There are promising initiatives in meeting the project management and program management training challenge as PMIAA enters the next three years of implementation. Individual agencies are working hard to meet the training challenges as Kamensky recounts in his article. I will be looking forward to seeing what will happen in the next three years of PMIAA’s implementation.

Project Management, Strategic Communication, and Training Author and Consultant

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