Project managers must learn how to talk using non-technical terms

Successful IT project managers who want to share their methods with others in their organizations often encounter a barrier.

Convincing others that project management methods, which have traditionally been associated with IT, can be a useful resource to other departments can be tough, according to David Paradi, an associate at Business Improvements Architects in Toronto.

Speaking at a Project Management Institute dinner meeting held in Toronto last month, Paradi discussed strategies for selling project management outside of the IT framework. A company-wide adoption of project management methods can help make an organization more successful, Paradi said. And he added that the project manager who is instrumental in helping an organization adopt those methods would also reap the benefits of that success.

The role of a project manager is changing, Paradi said.

“Our project teams are far more multidisciplinary than ever before. They include people from all walks of the organization, every functional area. More and more, project managers are less technical experts [than] they are an orchestra conductor. Orchestra conductors don’t play any instruments, all they do is stand up there and wave their arms – well that’s what it looks like. But they bring together incredibly talented individuals, each uniquely qualified, to make wonderful music,” Paradi said.

But before project managers can bring that music elsewhere, they have to learn how to talk using non-technical terms, Paradi said. They have to be especially leery of much-used three- letter acronyms that litter the IT lexicon.

“It’s very hard for non-IT people to relate to technical things. Because they don’t understand it, they think it doesn’t apply to them,” Paradi said.

Most companies aren’t ready to adopt project management methods until they’ve gone through a really painful experience with a project. That’s why project managers need to find the pain in their organization, he said. It is those departments that have just gone through a tough time that will be ready to listen to what IT project managers have to say.

They have to start by telling their success stories, Paradi said. But he added that success stories about IT projects will mean little to a marketing manager or a CFO, so project managers have to go out searching for relevant stories by reading magazines.

“You have to help them see the benefits for themselves. They won’t and they should not believe you, just because you say it works. But if you help them see a way to solve their most painful problem, they will be willing to listen to you.”

And when they do convince other departments to adopt their methods, project managers need to proceed slowly, Paradi cautioned.

Starting a company-wide project management initiative would be too large a task to undertake all at once. Paradi suggested project managers start out with a small roll out and eventually move their methods out to the rest of the company, one department at a time.

He also suggested they keep the tools simple at first. Initiating people into project management methodologies with a major network, multi-media scheduling tool would be more likely to scare people away than to help them.

“Let them use a Word table (or) an Excel spread sheet – these are the things they’re familiar with. And then you can build them up gradually,” Paradi said.

When a need arises, project managers can introduce new tools.

Managers should also be leery of introducing methodologies all at once.

“It’s sort of like coaching a football team. You don’t try to run every play in the play book. You start with a simple play, and you build up from there,” Paradi said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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