Project Managers: When All Else Fails, Speak English

Last Updated Mar 5, 2010 9:48 AM EST

A project manager for a large firm recently asked me, "How are we supposed to work with our customers if they don't speak Project Management"? I looked at her and said, "Try speaking English." Jargon and insider speak become an even bigger liability on projects managed remotely, where team members and customers are scattered around the country or even the globe. Until someone creates a Mortal to Project Manager Dictionary, here are three tips for better project communication across time and distance: 1. Remember: their house, their rules. To be fair, PMs (Project Managers -- because it wouldn't be project management without an acronym or two) are not alone in speaking in terminology that makes perfect sense to those in the know and can leave others completely bewildered and frustrated. This situation is bad enough when you're sitting in the same room, but what about when you can't look your clients in the eyes and see the giant question marks appear over their heads as you speak about "PMBOK standards"? (That' s Project Management Book of Knowledge, for the uninitiated.) If they're the customer, your job is to meet them where they are and educate them on correct terminology and what you mean when you say things like "accurate scope of work." Your sanity might depend on it.

2. Listen -- with all your senses. Project management is like marriage. Imagine you ask your spouse, "How was your day?" and you get a terse, "Fine, just fine" in response. Is anyone reading this foolish enough to believe that their day was fine? Why do we think those we work with are any more rational than our spouses? I know you're trying not to waste time, but keep your ears open for vague assurances of understanding. Be assertive about asking questions until you're comfortable with the answers.

3. Use all the tools available to you. It's what they don't put in the email that kills you. it's very tempting when managing projects from afar to take a "no news is good news" approach. They're professionals -- surely they'll let you know if there's something you need to be aware of, right? But remember: email doesn't let you hear the hesitation in their voice, note the fear in their eyes, or see the crossed fingers when they say they'll make their deadlines. Project management requires a full range of communication tools, from webcams to the telephone to actually meeting face to face. PMs need to be comfortable communicating through all these tools.

Project management is a critical skill as well as a bit of an art. As you work on cross-functional and virtual-project teams with people who don't share your expertise, the ability to listen and understand, as well as transmit information across the ether, will be a core competency -- even for those poor mortals who don't (yet) speak fluent Project Management.