Projects introduce uncertainty. Once a project has commenced, change is often also the norm, brought about by a dynamic environment and the fact that we didn’t come to this world equipped with a crystal ball. Yet, it is generally true that people resist change. We humans have a strong preference for predictability and routine. Any surprise, other than one that elicits pleasure, like that birthday party or call from a long lost friend, is likely to result in emotions running high.  This blinds stakeholders from the end goal. Their decisions and actions, poorly managed, can severely jeopardise a project’s outcomes.

It is no surprise then that exceptional project managers are distinguished by excellent communication skills to create certainty through turmoil.

Here are seven tips for communicating to create assurance in times of uncertainty:

  1. Make anticipating and identifying problems part of the culture of your project team. Problems are an opportunity to grow. They are part and parcel of every project. They test the true capabilities of your team to adapt. Recognize that in the eyes of many, problems are to be avoided. It is common for project staff to cast a blind eye on issues or get so caught up with the “weeds” that they lose sight of environmental factors that could derail your project. At every meeting, make it a point to ask “what has or could happen that will have a detrimental impact on our ability to meet our project’s ideal outcomes?” Powerful questions are part of the great listener’s toolkit and exceptional communicators are wonderful listeners. Encouraging such issues to be brought up to the open enables you assess and manage expectations around them. Express your expectation of all stakeholders from different disciplines to scour their environment for potential issues and bring them to your attention early.
  2. Establish dialogue early. It is important that stakeholders hear about an issue from you and not the rumour mill. Reassuring them that things are under control starts with them knowing that the person in charge has got a finger on the pulse. If you feel a potential issue is significant and could destabilise stakeholders if they hear about it first from other sources, be proactive about letting them know. Start with a whisper. Assure them that it’s being investigated and that you will keep them informed. As the likelihood of a risk turning into an issue becomes higher, raise the crescendo of your communications.
  3. Communicate the plan for the plan. Once a risk or issue has been identified, if it will take time for a plan of attack to be formulated, let them know the timetable and steps you are taking to produce the plan. Open-ness and honesty fosters trust. Conversely, silence in times of uncertainty is deafening and breeds suspicion. Heed the words of Churchill – “when the eagles are silent, the sparrows are chattering”.
  4. Communicate in person. This is particularly important with key stakeholders – those from which you seek a high degree of active engagement and who are influential to the course of your project. For the most senior stakeholders, conduct briefings one-on-one either face-to-face or minimally via the phone. Resist the temptation to rely solely on e-mail. Remember that as much as 93% of communication is non-verbal. It’s not just what you say – how you say it determines how effective your communication is. Your stakeholders draw confidence from your presence, sincerity and energy. Project compassion and yet confidence and optimism through your posture, gestures and eye contact.
  5. Communicate to align and create a sense of urgency. Make sure the issue or risk is spelt out objectively and clearly. Resist any temptation to pass the buck or find fault. Instead of dwelling on who caused it, focus on an objective analysis of the processes and systems contributing to the issue. Use problem solving tools like the “5 Whys”, Ishikawa or fish-bone diagrams to engage your team and to analyse and document the root cause.  Once a problem is clearly understood, spend time with your team agreeing why the issue needs to be resolved and by when.
  6. Direct focus to solutions. Use effective questions such as “what options do we have to resolve this?” and “what resources can we draw from to overcome this?” Resist the temptation to judge and discard solutions that might be unpalatable. Instead, table all potential solutions – this process strengthens confidence at a time when it’s most needed.
  7. Generate optimism and project your unwavering belief that the team will succeed. It may seem like a contradiction but exceptional project managers have the ability to create a sense of urgency without the team losing confidence or dwelling on failure. In the book “Good to Great” by Jim Collins, he talks about how the leaders at extraordinary organizations practise the “Stockdale paradox”. This reflects the philosophies of Admiral James Stockdale, the highest-ranked American military officer who survived the war camps of Vietnam, inspiring his troops to believe that they would prevail.  “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

In conclusion, in times of uncertainty, create certainty through regular and effective dialogue with your stakeholders and your team. Be open and honest about what you know to be real and generate optimism and faith in the your team’s ability to overcome challenges and deliver exceptional outcomes.

To your continued success and fulfilment,