I’ve suggested you follow James Whittaker before, and he has a new book that blends perfectly with this site’s theme. You can buy a copy from Amazon.

I like to have signed copies of things, so I attended one of James’ talks today. James was demonstrating how a single word can evoke the person who spoke it. It went something like this:

James: “I say DREAM, you think…”

Me (thinking): NEIL GAIMAN! No, that can’t be right. Well, hold on. Is that Tengwar in Quenya mode that James has tattoo’ed there? I mean, he must know about Magic the Gathering based on these slides. Probably AD&D, too, since he’s referred to verbal, somatic and material components in other talks. That’s all pretty geeky. Maybe he does mean Neil?  But that doesn’t…

James: “… that’s right! Dr. Martin Luther King!”

Me (thinking): Oh. Yes, of course. That makes more sense in context. Obvious even. <Pause> How does my brain even work?

Communication, Part Three

Okay, we left off with the idea that communication planning is the process of determining the information and communication needs of project stakeholders. Information needs to be available to them in a timely fashion. Projects don’t have problems, people do – communication allows you to manage stakeholders and resolve their issues. Project performance information which is accurate and predictably timed (“this report goes out every Monday morning!”) is what allows the project to be managed.

The best communicators use the appropriate medium for their message. If a matter is urgent, a text, phone call or office visit may be better than email. If a matter is long and complicated, a short paper with follow up meeting might be best. If an official document, certified mail, return receipt requested, might be the best choice.

Here are some notes on topics I think are important:


  • The best emails are:
    • Precise – clear, unambiguous
    • Concise – no one is paid by the word
    • Direct – what do you want?
    • Easy to understand – simple is good
  • Noise and misunderstandings arise from:
    • Cultural differences
    • Technical vs. non-technical
    • “Tone and voice” of writing
    • Dashing off email replies too quickly

See what I did there? 🙂


Do you want to give awe inspiring presentations? How about a perfect interview? Look no further than Dr. James Whittaker’s presentations on stage presence and other topics.  Follow all the links on his site, watch his videos.  Here’s one of my favorites, the power of story.   Fair warning: Judicious use of bad language to make sure you’re awake.

Have Better Conversations

Crucial Conversations is a book that has been recommended for ages, and I’m doing it here. Behavior gets pathological when the pressure is too high. Stress shuts down cognitive process and starts a fight-or-flight response. This book goes through some tools to account for that. If you, or your listener, is amped to eleven, it can be very difficult to get your message across.

Put Stakeholders on a RACI Chart

RACI charts can important tools to segment the audience for communications. You can read more about them here. A RACI chart expresses roles for producing deliverables at any level of a work breakdown structure. I don’t use them a lot, but find them pretty handy when dealing with matrix organizations.

  • Responsible – Role responsible for performing the task. There may be multiple “Rs”
  • Accountable – Role with overall management responsibility for a task; accountable for “showing up with the deliverable”. Only one “A” per line
  • Consulted – People who provide input to help perform a task
  • Informed – People with a vested interest who should be kept informed

Status/Performance Reports

Reports help manage the project. The best status reports clearly direct the reader to action. Like email, they should be precise, concise, direct and easy to understand. It’s important to be consistent report to report. The reports should contain information, not just a collection of data.

Status reports are meant to answer questions and direct action. Where are we on schedule, budget, and deliverables? What was planned for and what changed? What corrective action do we need to take? Consider, if your features are getting completed, but your bug counts are skyrocketing, *maybe* you want to a) review your code quality validation procedures and b) pause to remediate those bugs. “Testing in quality” is almost always more expensive than producing better code in the first place. And are we “done” if we’ve produced all the features, but the product isn’t good enough to ship?


Meetings are expensive gatherings of resources, yet frequently are neither well organized nor well facilitated. I’ve also seen meetings go the other way, rigid and formulaic rituals devoid of any actual information. The first type of meeting is usually junior personnel, the second type of meeting usually executive level.

Before holding a meeting, ask some questions:

  • What do I hope to accomplish?
  • Who would need to attend?
  • Do we really need this meeting? Can it be done some other way?

There are two great resources I’m going to direct you to. The first is a book, Death by Meeting. The second is an entertaining video by John Cleese, Meetings, Bloody Meetings.  Meetings, Bloody Meetings has been used as instruction for over forty years. It is an absolute classic for structuring meetings. The video can be can be summarized as:

  • Goal: Have a clearly defined goal
  • Agenda: Publish and follow an agenda
  • Participants: Include necessary people and only necessary people
  • Structure and Control:
    • Start/end on time
    • Make introductions when needed
    • Structure logically, discuss in order of importance not urgency
    • Keep moving forward, drive toward making decisions
    • Recap
    • Listen and communicate collaboratively
  • Document: Document discussions/decisions and action items/owners
  • Summary: Send out summary and meeting notes

So that’s some tips and tricks.  Go forth, and communicate better.

Communication, Part Two

In June 2013, Australian Chief of Army Lieutenant General David Morrison released a powerful message about demeaning conduct and harassment. This video has nearly 1.8 million views. Take a moment to look at it. What makes this video so powerful?

Watch the General’s body language. “Earlier today, I addressed the media, and through them the Australian public…” he starts out flat, but his frown starts to deepen the more he speaks. When he says, “By now I assume you know my attitude to this type of conduct,” he raises his chin in a sign of his authority and distain for the conduct he’s speaking about. “If that does not suit you, then get out!”, his eyes widening and head moving, indicating strong emotion. “I will be ruthless in ridding the army of people who cannot live up to its values.” Eyes narrow, fury and determination. Finally, an expression that can only be described as serious, “If we are a great national institution, if we care about the legacy left to us by those who have served before us, if we care about the legacy we leave to those who, in turn, will protect and secure Australia, then it is up to us to make a difference. If you’re not up to it, find something else to do with your life. There is no place for you amongst this band of brothers and sisters.”

Wow. Did you get the message? Was it loud and clear? When working with verbal communication, non-verbal cues account for 55% of the message content. What makes the video resonate is the clear and palpable, yet completely contained, fury he feels at this event. Paralanguage, use of pitch, tone, pauses, etc. further enhance his message. That phrase, “I will be ruthless” is particularly powerful in emphasis. His belief in his words shine through. His demand that his personnel live up to better standards couldn’t be more clear.

To analyze it further on written/verbal and formal/informal axis, this communication was verbal, but was it formal or informal? It was an official statement, released by the Australian Army. He was dressed in uniform. This was a formal communication, but lacking in some most formal trappings. How might this appeared differently if he was in formal dress uniform, as if giving a report to Parliament? Might that have provided the wrong image? The every-day barracks uniform was more appropriate when addressing the rank-and-file members of the military, yet still provides distinction to the civilian audience.  He did wear a more formal uniform in speaking with the press.

Let’s review this communication on the five elements I spoke of in my first article:

  • Goal – Make a clear statement about repugnant activity and demand change
  • Message – Women are service valued members; demeaning and harassing conduct will not be tolerated
  • Audience – The public and members of the Australian military
  • Medium – A video posted on a web site (we’re looking at it four years later!)
  • Metric – No further incidents of this kind take place

You can look up more of Lieutenant General David Morrison, retired, comments at women’s conferences. He’s a powerful speaker. A lot of that power comes from his commitment to his message and the way that commitment shows in his delivery. The video is inspiring, and I have often used it when speaking about communication, not only for its instructional value, but to emphasize my own commitment to an inclusive environment.

For the second half of this article, let’s look at a project situation and talk through how we might use communication to coordinate activity.  Some version of this situation has been used by development teams for ages, and different version control systems use different methods to manage source code.

  • Situation: Let’s say we have a sizable company producing an on-prem product. Code flows up from many development branches to one of eight group branches to the aggregation branch to the main branch. The aggregation branch moves to main whenever it builds cleanly and passes build verification tests. When the aggregation branch goes to main, those changes are pushed down into group branches by the build team. The code is tightly coupled, meaning that changes in one group branch may break code in another group branch. Thus, the aggregation branch is often broken and requires fixes after group branch merges. Sad-face.  🙁
  • Stakeholders: The company contains 320 individual contributor developers (with a quarter of them formally dedicated to test) and 80 individual contributor technical PMs. The development team is divided into forty teams headed each headed by a lead, five leads report to a group manager, eight group managers report to the VP of Engineering. The technical PMs are dedicated to a development team, with 10 TPMs reporting to a TPM lead who reports to a group manager. A build team, part of an engineering tooling team reporting to a group manager, is responsible for producing all of group branch builds, the aggregation branch builds and the main branch builds. The project manager reports to the VP of Engineering. Marketing, finance, etc. are interested in the project, but not in code movement aspects.
  • Goal: Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to move code from group branches to the aggregation branch – while minimizing conflicts and maintaining the high-level project schedule. Refactoring code to reduce dependencies is not in scope.

How might you organize this?

One way to do this would be to create a calendar for aggregation branch integrations with the goal of reducing conflicts through intelligent scheduling. If you know one branch always breaks other branches, isolate its integration.  With a web based calendar (pull communication), groups could put their chosen integration dates on the calendar ad-hoc, or could be scheduled specific days for predictability. The build team could produce daily mails (push communication) indicating progress and resolutions for integrations, build results and build verification test results. The build team could also hold a daily integration meeting (interactive communication) for build, reviewing incoming payload, possible conflicts, possible delays, reviewing build breaks, assigning engineers to integration failures, etc.  The project manager could hold weekly project hot issues meeting (interactive communication) for the Engineering VP and group managers (along with emailed meeting notes with action items, emphasizing verbal communication with written).  The project manager could also send  a weekly status and direction mail for the whole team (more push communication). Graphically, it would look like this:


What if the company had more than one product division? This situation could be more complicated if a third of code and functionality came from outside this division. It would be necessary to add some communication to ensure those groups were on track and their code products could be integrated properly. This division’s project manager’s discussions with that divisions’ project manager (and review of their status communications), along with a bi-weekly meeting of all contributing group managers, might suffice – or it might not. What if this project is only part of a larger integrated project, and there are ten more divisions just like yours? The complication increases exponentially.

Consider that this example is merely one part of a project, code flow.  There are many ways to structure code production (business analysis) and equally as many ways to manage communications on the process (project management). There’s also managing what you are producing, is that production happening according to plan, is that product meeting expectations, and many other aspects of managing the project.  We spent no time talking about marketing teams, finance requirements, or other project matters. A communication plan must account for all stakeholders and all activities, and is vital to monitoring and controlling an overall project.


Communication, Part One

“Communication is 90% of what a project manager’s job.” That thought has been a part of my professional DNA for so long that that I don’t remember if it was from the PMBOK® or one of RMC’s PM courses. Project management, at its root, is methodology for social organization to accomplish a time bound goal – and communication is absolutely key.

Communication is a huge topic. I’m constantly learning new things about it, and you should as well. The larger the organization, the bigger the project, the greater the need for strategic communication planning.

How can we break down types of communication? Well, communication can be formal or informal. Formal items are like corporate filings, presentations to management, annual reviews and court summons. Informal is like phoning a friend, hallway conversations, email or texting. Formal/informal communication is mostly a distinction of how “official” the message is. Addressing a court summons vs. returning the call of a friend have very different failure consequences, and therefore different priority and urgency.

Communication can also be written or verbal. Written is like a billboard, newsletter, pamphlet or email. Verbal is a speech, radio or TV news. Written/verbal can be mixed to maximize impact. If I give a presentation, and then also give you handouts to take home, you’re much more likely to remember and retain the information I’ve presented.

Formal and informal, written and verbal — those are the types of communication you’ll be using in a project.

Let’s break down communication into its simplest form in order to better understand it. The model used in most communication theory is the Shannon-Weaver Model. (Side note: Do you know how hard it is to get professional, culturally sensitive, graphics at a reasonable license price? Hard. Please enjoy my meant-to-be-inoffensive-and-inclusive doodles!)

Let’s explain our simple 1:1 interaction. There’s an idea the sender has. The sender encodes that idea, transmits a message over a channel, the receiver decodes it, and hopefully winds up with the same idea as the sender. That can be validated by the receiver taking their concept of the idea, encoding it, sending a message which the original sender decodes and compares to their idea. If the sender agrees it sounds correct, we can confidently say “communication has happened!”

As you can see, communication is a complex activity. What happens when we have more participants? How many different channels with four people?

The more people, the more complex this gets. The formula is x = n * (n-1)/2.  So the number of possible channels are:

  • 4  people:  6
  • 10  people: 45
  • 20  people: 190
  • 50  people:  1,225
  • 500 people: 124,750
  • 5,000 people: 12,497,500

So, if your project involves 5,000 people, there’s nearly 12.5 MILLION possible communication channels. That’s a lot. Maybe it would be good to strategically plan how you’re going to communicate in that project?

A communication plan answers who needs to know what, when. It’s essential to address communication needs from the beginning of the project through its closing. To determine the “who, what, when and where” of project communications, a stakeholder analysis must be performed. What information do stakeholders need, how will it be distributed, how often using what methods, how will it be stored and archived to be available as needed?  These are all questions that the communication plan should address.

Every individual communication should involve consideration of five elements:

  • Goal – what is trying to be accomplished
  • Message – what needs to be said and its timeliness
  • Audience – who needs to know and why, segmented
  • Medium – how the message gets out, meeting, web site, email, RSS
  • Metric – measurement of whether the goal was accomplished

The first and second elements are goals and metrics, which go hand-in-hand. The goal is what is trying to be accomplished, and should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound (SMART). Goals in communication could be action, informing, persuasion, motivation, decision making support or education. The metric is a measurement of whether the goal was accomplished. Example metrics for the goals listed are:

  • Action metric – did the desired action happen on time and by specification?
  • Information metric – did the audience receive the information, understand it
  • Persuasion metric – audience mind changed?
  • Motivation metric – is output measurably increased?
  • Decision making support metric – do follow-up questions indicate understanding?
  • Education metric – do class scores on tests demonstrate absorption of material?

The third element is message. The message is what needs to be said and its timelines. In its simplest form, it’s an object of information. The formation of the message is based on its goal. There are other things that influence a message. If you consider, communication patterns change depending on the relative positions of the participants; a person speaks differently to their boss than their children. Here are some items that influence the way that a message is both encoded and decoded:

  • Social context (professional, informal, etc.)
  • Assumptions (underlying framework of the interaction)
  • Perception (different people see the same event differently; a coach vs. a player vs. a spectator)
  • Attitudes (towards self, receiver, subject)
  • Past Experiences (how prior interactions have gone; see my post on ethics)
  • Culture (different countries, different age groups, different genders)

Noise is a result of these influences.  This is a reason why it is critically important to check that the message was received appropriately. The best way to do so is for a receiver to decode and repeat back the understanding to the original sender in a feedback loop.

The fourth element is the audience. What I mean by segmentation is consider the different groups of people. You’ll have individual contributors, leads, group managers, directors, executives etc. You could have software developers, technical PMs, marketing, engineering support, etc. You could have multiple companies involved. You could have multiple geographic locations and time zone considerations. A message may have a primary audience and a secondary audience. The message might need to be different depending on the audience. Different stakeholders will have different information needs. If you have too many messages, or untargeted messages, audience “numbness” results.

The fifth element is the medium. The medium is how the message gets out, for example, a meeting, web site, email, RSS feed, and so on. The choice of medium is based on timeliness, cost effectiveness and reach. A medium can be interactive (a meeting, social network), push (newsletters, status reports, email) or pull (web sites, posters, billboards). Choice of medium is important. Meetings are good for back-and-forth idea generation or for decision making, but they shouldn’t be used to disseminate information that can be given in email. A fire alarm, noise and blinking lights, is a very particular type of push message, its timeliness is immediate and meaning well socialized in fire drills. Web sites, a pull medium, are good for collaboration and for reference; they aren’t very good for immediate information. You wouldn’t want a web site to say “FIRE! GET OUT OF THE BUILDING NOW!”

So that’s the essentials of communication, part one of three.  In part two, I will share and analyze my favorite communication of all time and provide a high level example of communication planning. In part three, I will share thoughts and tricks that I’ve collected over the years.