Goal-Driven Communication

by Geof Lory, PMP

We often hear how a project manager's job is 80% communication and as such, communication is the most important skill of successful project managers. I couldn't agree more. Effective communication is a critical skill for any management or leadership position since almost everything we do involves working and communicating with other people. Creating and following a solid communication plan for your projects becomes increasingly important as teams grow larger and projects more complex. Both require greater integration between different functional areas of the organization which may be physically, socially or politically separate.

To this end, more tools are being brought to market that better facilitate effective project communication. These provide pseudo-real-time environments, video conferencing, web-based collaboration, and a host of other great enablers that bring us together with the goal of improving communication. However, just because people have the tools to communicate doesn't mean effective communication occurs. We have probably all experienced this.

So, what is it that makes communication so difficult? If it's a simple process of sending and receiving, how can it go wrong? In the PMBOK® Guide, the communication process is broken down into the sender, the message and the receiver, with reference to the "encoding and decoding" of the message at each end based on personal filters. Clearly, understanding the receiver's filter will allow you to better communicate. The challenge is, how do you do that? How do you get into the head of everyone you are communicating with and fully understand how they will process the message you are intending? The larger the audience, the greater the challenge.

I live in a house with three women. I face this challenge everyday. Not because they are women, but because I am a man. There are clear differences in the way men and women process information, and with all due respect to both sexes, I'll leave it at that - differences. I can do all I want to try to understand their perspective to be a better communicator, but in the end, I can't control how my message is received. What I can control is how I send it, which will strongly influence how it is received. So, once again, the onus is on me.

I can do a lot of different things to prepare my audience to optimally receive my communication, but my favorite is to precondition their filter by infusing it with the goal of the communication. By this I mean I don't just make sure they understand what I am saying, they understand beforehand why I am trying to communicate this particular idea or message to them. It is easy to get caught up in the compelling data we want to share and neglect to state the value to the audience of our message beyond the data. This is especially true in technical communication.

But, in order to precondition the receiver, I have to first be very clear about my goal if I want them to process my message through that goal. This is easier said than done, because we are not usually in the habit of questioning ourselves on our own motivation behind the communication. If we did, we may find that there is often more ego or personal agenda involved than we would care to admit. And this underlying motivation is often subliminally conveyed in the communication process in "non-words" that obscure the words we use to communicate.

Anyone who knows me has heard me say during a conversation, "So, what's your goal?" My wife and daughters find it obnoxious; acknowledging their true internal motivation holds them accountable. Openly admitting that motivation allows others to use it when evaluating their verbal and non-verbal expressions. But as uncomfortable as this is at first, it can be a great tool for creating clarity in the communication process as well as an incredible self-learning experience.

At a project management level, this question - and any clarifying technique you use when answering it - can be used to gain a common understanding of the purpose of a task (deliverable), process (exit criteria), or even a project (vision/scope). However, in team communication, explicitly stating the goal goes deeper by eliminating the fear of hidden agendas, which makes the ear a more generous listener. Ultimately, this trust improves communication for everyone involved: The receivers know you have given them permission to hold you accountable, and the speaker gains a more receptive audience in return.

As parents of two teenagers, my wife and I take a lot of long walks and frequently discuss issues pertaining to our daughters. Occasionally, especially around emotionally charged topics, the "should" word comes out as one of us expresses frustration that our daughters' behavior isn't as we would like it to be. The brief rant is usually put to rest with the simple question: "So, what's your goal?"

What's our goal in wanting their rooms to be clean, their grades to be better or their chores to be done without being hounded? Our goal isn't really a clean room, straight As, or the dishes washed, even though that is how it feels to the girls. To them, it feels like it's all about what we want, the way we think things "should" be. We need to express our true goal explicitly if we expect it to permeate their filter.

So, we ask the girls: "What do you think our goal is in pestering you?" And the conversation starts. Eventually, the message is conveyed that our real goal is to help them develop into responsible and contributing adults. We communicate to the girls that we believe taking responsibility for your space, living to your potential, and contributing to the family team are ways to develop toward that goal.

Just stating the goal may not be the end, but it certainly is a great beginning. When I want to be certain my message is effectively understood, my first assumption is that the audience does not know my goal. So, I need to be deliberately explicit in stating it up front rather than assuming they will understand it through what I say. Doing this holds me accountable to communicating information toward that goal and preconditions their receptors to listen for contributors to that goal.

In the end, we all move toward that which we are focused on. Focusing on a goal helps to establish a common frame of reference, which is one of the key requirements of effective communication.

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