Project management and the power of listening

Projects are a recurrent part of the digital practitioner’s remit. Whatever your role in the project, you’ll know they involve concerted planning and input that usually affects you, your colleagues and your end users well beyond the life of the project.

Achieving success in project management requires a number of skills and the skills themselves bear occasional re-tuning. Recently, while doing this, I was struck by points made in Richard Newton’s ‘The Project Manager: Mastering The Art of Delivery’.

These came in the chapter he stressed was the most important in the book: ‘Listening and Talking’. I was transported back to past projects as I recognised their relevance...

Set your listening radar to always-on

We talk about PMs having oversight and being the eyes and ears of the project but it’s the listening part we most often take for granted. If they’re communicating often and in the correct way to the right people, surely they must also be listening?

On the contrary, Newton says, this is often what's lacking.

“The misunderstanding of what is wanted and what is happening, and the incomplete explanation of what you want and what should be happening, is at the core of most project failures.”

The trap lies in the assumption that – simply by gathering the requirements and managing the project delivery in line with good practice – it logically follows that the project manager knows what the customer wants. This belief tends to be held as self-evident.

But who is "the customer"? Newton pinpoints five people and groups who can be included though not all may be, and especially in the digital sphere there may be overlap.

• the sponsor
• the financer
• the beneficiary
• the end user
• the end customer

Newton lists five reasons why “in practice it often happens that a project starts without fully understanding the customer needs.”

•  The customer does not know what they want
•  The customer cannot define what they want
•  The customer thinks that you understand what they want
•  The customer's thinking about what they want is not stable
•  The customer is impatient for results

None of these mean that the customer is at fault as it falls to the project manager to make sure, at all stages, that needs are understood, pre-empting these scenarios.

He gives seven “listening lessons” for the project manager when it comes to understanding customer needs. I want to highlight two of them.

(1) Make assumptions explicit

“In every conversation and communication there are lots of embedded ideas and implicit information. However, there is absolutely no guarantee that what is clearly implied within the words of one person is also clearly implied in the understanding or interpretation of those words by the person listening.”

Because of this reality, managing assumptions is a core project management activity that’s often overlooked, or limited to the requirements scoping phase.

Instead, with their listening radar on, project managers must be open to detecting assumptions at all stages, and at a very minimum make them clear to the customer and the project team. Assumptions should also be tested, as if they’re untrue they’ll undermine the project.

What factors fuel assumptions? Entrenched organisational culture about “ways of doing things” is one common cause. Another is the disconnect in understanding between specialisations; for example between operations, marketing, and IT departments in mid to large sized organisations.

Poor understanding of assumptions is a major source of risk in a project, but it’s within the project manager’s power to overcome this by identifying them, understanding the culture, and bridging the ‘meaning gaps’ between the specialisms of those involved. 

(2) Keep checking and enhancing your understanding

“Once you have documented the requirements and agreed them with the customer, assuming they will never change is a poor assumption.”

The danger here is that changes to requirements may occur during the project without actually being pinpointed and, in turn, factored in and agreed on. A change control process may be in place, but this alone won’t help if the changes and their impacts on the rest of the project aren’t identified in the first place.

The way to tackle this is simply to keep checking for implicit alterations to requirements (and assumptions) as they arise, and flag any detected changes with your customer. By doing this, you can see if requirements must be indeed be changed and you can work out the implications of the changes for the project’s delivery.

Compared to some other professions, working in digital involves being attuned to change as a constant due to the rapid software, hardware, design and consumer usage adaptations that define our area of practice.

This means that primarily digital projects can be subject to more changes than those outside the digital arena. But it also sets another invisible trap to be wary of – the impact of changes can be under-appreciated as we conflate managing changes in the project with the way we handle constant change in our non-project pursuits.

Listening and the digital perspective

The required attention to ‘keep checking’, and its application in the digital context, lends extra weight to Newton’s observation that:

“A project that successfully delivers yesterday’s needs cannot be guaranteed to be a success today. Make sure it is controlled, but be open to change.”

These were my two big takeaways from the chapter. Having worked on digital projects with and without a project manager, with and without methodologies, and variously as the (de facto) project manager, as a core project team member, and as the customer – I can see why listening matters from a number of viewpoints.

Newton's nuggets of advice suggest that  above and beyond any project methodology  planning for listening and the benefits this brings both strengthens the backbone of successful projects and gives them added flexibility, a bonus in the digital arena.

If you’ve been involved in a digital project, from whatever angle, do you think the power of listening is critical or is it being overstated? 


The Project Manager: Mastering The Art of Delivery (Second Edition, 2009) by Richard Newton is published by Financial Times / Prentice Hall, an imprint of Pearson Education.

Our free DigitalFWD meetup in London on Thurs 23rd April will touch on project management as we explore the world of Agile Workingmore info & bookings here.

Deirdre Molloy is Head of Content at DigitalFWD and a digital media consultant to media, education and cultural industries. You can find her on Twitter @deirdrenotes

Header image credit: Denise Curran. In line image credit: Ky Olsen. Both via Flickr, Creative Commons By 2.0