Yes, in project management one communication slip could cost us our project and even our careers in the most extreme situations and catastrophic failures.
Raise your hand if you were watching that hilarious moment on the TV show "Friends" when Phoebe talks about how much she likes that song that Elton John sings about the guy on the TV show "Who's the Boss." They look at her very oddly and she sings, "Hold me close young Tony Danza." One of the best moments ever from that show. Yes, Phoebe's character was often a bit strange and misguided. But it highlights the issue of good listening and accurate communication.
Of course the song is really called "Tiny Dancer" and it was a hit for Elton John in the early 1970's. But let's think if this in terms of requirements. What if someone specifically asked him to write a song about a Tiny Dancer, but heard "Tony Danza" because of poor listening and/or communication? What if he then went on to record that song about Tony Danza? It's not likely to have been the hit that Tiny Dancer was. In fact, Elton's career may have ended there rather than go on to sell millions of albums.
What can we do to avoid such situations on our projects? Here are three measures - best practices even - that we can use to help ensure we don't end up writing a song about Tony Danza...
A commonly overlooked communication skill is the art of listening. Project managers must be able to lead, direct, delegate, communicate, and make decisions. However, much of the overall communication - and getting it right the first time - involves also being an effective and thoughtful listener. Cutting people off in mid sentence and planning next steps without listening to what is currently being said are both signs of poor listening skills and can easily lead to missed or poorly documented requirements.
Discuss what was discussed
The art of restating thoughts in order to ensure understanding is a critical component to the overall skill of effective and efficient project communication. Basically, ensuring that we "get it right the first time" is key to project success and the way to do that is to ensure you heard it correctly. And you do that by restating the thought or concept back to the communicator. Is what you heard the same as what they said? This will confirm it.
Finally, document important communications. I usually do this during weekly project status meetings by including key points in the status update notes...and then distributing those notes to my team and the client to make sure I heard correctly, they agree with what I stated that I heard, and that everyone is still on the same page after key gatherings and discussions. By documenting key communications we are giving the entire infrastructure of key stakeholders a new baseline to work from going forward including the ability to make informed decisions and plan effectively.
Communication is key. Probably the most critical task the project manager will ever perform on the engagement. Why? Because all accurate information, all understanding, all clear work assignments come from that project manager communication. Watch what you do or you could go from a career breakthrough like “Tiny Dancer” to a career killer like “Hold Me Close Young Tony Danza.” They certainly don’t come through with the same meaning…and one might land you in jail.