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Project Management

PM Matters Interview: Elizabeth Harrin Talks Communication

Brett Harned
September 17, 2015
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Good project managers are great communicators

It must be said: to be a great project manager, you've got to be a good communicator. Whether you're finding ways to facilitate great project collaboration, following up on tasks with your team, or explaining a not-so-great situation to your stakeholders, you've got to do it with a level of grace that will exude confidence. No one said it's easy, especially in a world where there are several channels or ways to communicate. A high level of effort and organization is required to be a good communicator these days, so a good PM has to be up for the challenge.

Project managers and social media

Elizabeth Harrin is a project and program manager and Director of The Otobos Group, a project communications consultancy that helps people tell the story of their projects more effectively. She is also the author of Social Media for Project Managers, Customer-Centric Project Management and Shortcuts To Success: Project Management in the Real World (now in its second edition). Elizabeth also publishes a wealth of useful project management content on her website A Girl’s Guide to Project Management, which she started when she realized that there weren’t enough women writing and speaking about project management.

To say the least, Elizabeth is a project management powerhouse. Her point of view is fresh, unique, and authoritative. Listen to this interview to hear more about how Elizabeth got it in to PM, her point of view on training and certification, communications, and of course, what matters to her as a project manager.

Read the Transcript

Brett: Hi. This is Brett Harned. Welcome to PM Matters, a TeamGantt interview series that raises the voice of the community and explores what matters to us.

Hi. This is Brett Harned back for another episode of PM Matters. Today I'm joined by Elizabeth Harrin, who is the author of A Girl's Guide to Project Management and a few other books, as well. Hi, Elizabeth. How are you?

Elizabeth: Hello. I'm fine, thank you. Thanks for having me today.

Brett: Thanks so much for joining me. I appreciate it. So you're over in the U.K., correct?

Elizabeth: I am, yes.

Brett: Whereabouts?

Elizabeth: Just south of London.

Brett: Okay, great. There's a huge PM community in England, from what I can tell.

Elizabeth: Yes. It's quite an active group of people. We get together. There's events in London that happen. Not so much now because it's summer, so people are taking some holidays, but it's a unique community, I'd say.

Brett: That's great. Can you tell me how you got into project management?

Elizabeth: I chose it, really. I don't know, a lot of people come into project management today as a sort of "accidental" project manager. But I did a graduate training scheme at American Express where I went through various different departments. One of those was the business-reengineering department, which I didn't know existed as a job. I fell in love with the work I did there. It was great.

At the end of that graduate training scheme, I thought I need to seek out a job in project management because it plays to my strengths. I enjoy it. The whole point of doing a program with lots of different rotations in different departments was to find out what the business world was all about. So I went and looked and applied for job in that field.

Brett: What kind of exercises did you do in that program? Was it something where you shadowed people in departments or you got a view into different departments and the type of work that they did, and you kind of found project management?

Elizabeth: It was a three-month placement in four departments. There was a degree of choice but also a degree of luck in that the HR team placed people with managers who had vacancies that would be suitable to be filled by basically someone straight out of university, with zero skills.

I did four placements of three months each and one of them was working as a project admin or project coordinator role within a team. I can't remember the details of the project now but it was a European project. My role was really organizing who needs to be where, doing lots of spreadsheets, and generally helping them out.

Brett: What a great way to learn.

Elizabeth: It's nice to see it in real life.

Brett: I think a lot of people would kill for that kind of on-the-job experience as training. What are you doing now?

Elizabeth: Now I have two jobs. I work for a healthcare company in the U.K., managing projects related to clinical IT, so it's an IT position. There's a number of different projects. Healthcare and IT is really interesting because it changes so quickly and because you can see exactly what impact your projects have on the end users. You're if putting in new technology that helps patients get better faster, that's got to be a good thing, right? You can see exactly how your project work relates back to helping people out. That's good.

And I also run my own business which is project management copywriting, so I write my blog, I write for other people as well, other blogs, magazines, project management templates, everything like that.

Brett: I love your site. I mentioned that I visit your site often. We put it on Every Day DPM every once in a while. What's inspired you to start your blog?

Elizabeth: Honestly, it was because I was writing a book and when I was doing research about how to get people to read it, one of the things that came up time and time again was you need to have a presence online. The blog's been going now for nine-and-a-half years, so it's a long time. But really, I was looking for how do I reach out to people and tell them about the book I'm working on.

I took the angle I did because I was speaking at conferences and going out to events and not seeing very many women. This was ten years ago. Things have changed a bit but not that much.

Yet, in the department I was working in, it was 50/50. It still is. It's a very mixed team I work in and I know a lot of female project managers. I was surprised at the time that magazine articles seemed to be written by men, journal articles seemed to be written by men. I'd go to conferences and it would be men on the podium, men chairing the events.

They're very good at what they do. I'm not dissing the male contribution to project management. But I just thought there was a group of people like me, who were young women, who were not really represented. Ten years on, I don't really count myself as a young woman anymore, but at the time, that was  I can't pretend I speak for all female project managers, but that was the voice I was trying to get out there, and reflect my experiences working as a project manager, being female.

Brett: That's great. I'm sure there are a lot of relevant topics to talk about and that would kind of really get people inspired to sort of build around a little community you're kind of creating for women in project management. I think that's really cool.

Elizabeth: Lots of the professional bodies have women in project management, special-interest groups as well. So it is kind of a thing, but they've been around a lot longer than I have.

Brett: One of the things you and I talked about, leading up to this, was PMP or certification and training. We touched on your training which I find really interesting. I'm wondering if you could share with the audience if you are a PMP and what it kind of means to the role of a project manager.

Elizabeth: I'm not a PMP. I have other qualifications. I'm a fellow of the Association for Project Managers in the U.K. and I'm PRINCE2 certified. I've got some other accreditations as well.

But PMP is a question I'm asked quite a lot, actually, and I'm always honest. No, I'm not, and it's never been something that has made a difference to my career. So I think the qualifications  because there's such a lot of time and money involved in getting them, you have to be certain you're going to get a return in terms of career terms. In the U.K., working in the sector I do, PRINCE2 is more relevant.

I know people who've got PMP and it works great for what they do in their jobs, and the people that they're working with. I know many people need it in order to be able to operate effectively with American companies. But for me it's never really been necessary so I haven't been motivated enough to go ahead and sort it out.

Brett: I admit I'm the same here. I also think it's less relevant for people in digital, particularly in agencies working with clients at a different pace of projects.

Elizabeth: Aren't you judged more on your experience?

Brett: I think we are judged more on our experience. There are industries though, that I understand in the states, where if you have a PMP they'd be more inclined to at least interview you. Or some companies require you be PMP, so I think my take on that is always that education never hurts. If you've got the time and dollars to dedicate to that certification, then you absolutely should do it. But I'm with you; if you're not going to find a return, and even if it's not going to make you feel much better about your own career path, then maybe it's not the right thing for you. I think we all kind of find what we're best at, and where we most fit in. Whether that's through a certification or not is completely up to each individual.

Elizabeth: I'm a member of PMI and I reference the PMBOK. I have a copy of it. I've got some other books about PMP. I've just never done the last bit.

Brett: Right. You'd probably pass the test with flying colors.

Elizabeth: It scares me a bit, that test.

Brett: I really dislike tests. You wrote Social Media for Project Managers. I've heard quite a bit about project management and social media. I'm wondering if you could tell us about that book and your general approach to communications.

Elizabeth: At the time that book came out I was quite concerned that actually the tools we were using in project management  it's probably different in the digital space, but a lot of the things I was being taught in classroom courses or hearing about were tools we'd been using for 50 years. You think the world of work, at the time we're going through a huge economic crisis. Offshoring to all kinds of places because it's cheaper. Companies downsizing everywhere. And the way that we were still expected to work was here's once a month I'll write you a project stages report, give it to you, and that's good enough.

Whereas, stakeholders can get share prices for the company on Google in a fraction of a second. The way other departments were working and the way society was picking up on digital, online communications, and the Internet, just didn't seem to be reflected in any of the project management methodologies or tools that we were using, which were really heavily document based. Felt a bit old fashioned to me.

So I thought we really should keep up. My idea behind that book was to talk about how can you use Wikis, blogs, and tap into collaboration tools to try and do something better for your stakeholders, because they deserve it. That books been out quite a long time now, and I'm working on a second edition, which is not massively different but different in outlook. The last five years, again, things have changed hugely.

The idea of having to explain to somebody what a wiki is, I wouldn't consider that now. I'm sure there still are people who don't know what wikis are, but the majority of people are a bit more technically literate than they perhaps were five or six years ago.

We've all got smartphones now and that perhaps wasn't the case back then. So I'm having to revise it a lot. There's a lot more that has changed. Not so much about the benefits of using collaboration tools and online technology, but the tone of it. The fact that it's the way the world is working, and it's not going to stop, so we need to get on board the train and make sure our project management approaches match how people are working in other areas. Do you see that?

Brett: Absolutely. You mentioned smartphones. I think they have changed the way we work as individuals, let along organizations. It's almost like we're always working at this point, because everyone has one.

But I've seen in the past year or so a couple of tools come onto the market that have changed the ways internal teams are collaborating. Slack is one of those tools. I don't know if you're familiar with that.

Elizabeth: Yes.

Brett: That has absolutely changed the way that I have communicated not only with team members and clients but also contacts within the industry. Setting up Slack channels to talk about issues and best practices and how to fix those things has been immensely empowering, I think, as a small community to kind of have a network of people at your fingertips, in a way that we never have.

Also blogs and Twitter and Facebook have changed that a bit too. Rapid sharing information with people around the globe is pretty amazing, if you really take a minute to stop and think about it. So I'm excited to check out the next version of the book.

Elizabeth: I don't hand the manuscript in until January so we're a good few months of having anything to show for it.

Brett: In that time another tool will come out.

Elizabeth: I know. It's changing so fast. I'm trying not to mention names of tools because I can't guarantee they're still going to be there in a year's time.

Brett: That's a smart approach, for sure. We're just about at time, but I'm wondering if you have any parting advice for project managers out there?

Elizabeth: The communication thing is a good point, actually, and I would say you have to communicate a lot more than you expect, and the communication burden on the project manager is really increasing because for everybody who wants to use Slack there will be somebody who still wants to see the issue log as an Excel document. While we've got such a multigenerational workforce, that probably isn't going to change. So the burden on the project manager to be able to communicate in lots of different channels is higher than it used to be, but the results are much better. If you want to collaborate on your team you've got to put the effort in.

Brett: Absolutely. Communication is always a two-way street and PMs have to adapt to the way others want to communicate and work.

Elizabeth: Absolutely because we have to get the work done. Our job is to facilitate other people to do the best job they can do. Unfortunately, that sometimes is quite hard for us, but that's what we're paid for.

Brett: Absolutely. Elizabeth, thank you so much for joining me today. I appreciate it so much.

Check out Elizabeth's website and Elizabeth is @pm4girls on Twitter.

I hope to talk to you again soon.

Elizabeth: Thanks very much for having me today.

Brett: Thank you.