Communications with Elizabeth Harrin

“The role of PM has changed, because we are no longer managing tasks and people, but creating collaborative environments.”

On this episode of Time Limit, Brett talks to Elizabeth Harrin, founder of GirlsGuidetoPM.com, and author of 5 PM books, including Collaboration Tools for Project Managers. Not only did Elizabeth write the book on how PMs can implement tools and overcome obstacles, she showed up to the podcast with really valuable, practical advice and ideas. Topics covered in this episode include:

  • Common communication issues and how to address them
  • The qualities of a solid collaborative environment
  • How technology is impacting project management, and what the future may hold
  • Practical tips for being a good communicator in the face of limited time

Links and resources mentioned in this episode:

About our guest


Elizabeth Harrin, MA, FAPM, MBCS
Director of Otobos Consultants Ltd, Author, and Founder of A Girl's Guide to Project Management

Elizabeth Harrin, MA, FAPM, MBCS is Director of Otobos Consultants Ltd, a project communications consultancy specialising in copywriting for project management firms. She has over fifteen years’ experience in projects. Elizabeth has led a variety of IT and process improvement projects including ERP and communications developments. She is also experienced in managing business change, having spent eight years working in financial services (including two based in Paris, France). Elizabeth is the author of 5 books: Communicating Change, Shortcuts to Success: Project Management in the Real World, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers, Project Manager, and Customer-Centric Project Management.

She also writes the award-winning blog, A Girl’s Guide to Project Management. You can find Elizabeth online at GirlsGuideToPM.com or on Twitter @girlsguidetopm.

Episode Transcript


Brett Harned:       Hey, and welcome back to Time Limit. I'm really excited for you to hear this week's interview with Elizabeth Harrin. If you don't know Elizabeth, you definitely should. She runs girlsguidetopm.com, which is an amazing resource for project management content, templates, and so much more.
                   She started the site in 2006 when she realized that not enough women were writing about project management. That alone is really cool to me, but there's more. Elizabeth started a mentorship program at projectmanagementrebels.com and has written several books including Collaboration Tools for Project Managers, which is our focus of the interview today.
                   Our conversation focused on communication challenges and practices, how much managers can foster collaboration, how technology can help and sometimes hinder project communications. And then we veered off into kind of an exciting area where we talked about AI and how that might be able to help project managers. So check it out. I hope you enjoy the interview.
                   Okay. Today I've got Elizabeth Harrin with me. Welcome to the show, Elizabeth.

ElizabethHarrin:    Thank you for having me. It's lovely to be here.

Brett Harned:       Great. Thank you so much for being here. I want to jump right into a conversation about collaboration and communication. I read your book, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers, and I was also honored to have a little spot in the book. Thank you so much for letting me contribute.

ElizabethHarrin:    No, thank you.

Brett Harned:       In the book, you talk about everything from how to communicate and collaborate as a project manager to how to find and onboard the right tools. I feel like it's a really important book for PMs, especially for those people who are kind of being dragged into the more digital age. Do you feel that way as well?

ElizabethHarrin:    Yes, I do. I think that we have a situation in project management where we teach a lot about techniques, around how to do the harder skills. But there's so much communication that we need to do as project managers, and it's tough. It's not easy to get people on-site. Everybody's busy.
                   So knowing the best ways to collaborate as a team, even if you've just got a handful of tricks, and sometimes they work and sometimes you need to tweak them a bit for a different group of people. But it's definitely something I think project managers need to spend time on working out what they can have in their tool kit so they can use techniques that help make the projects easier.

Brett Harned:       Yeah, absolutely. It seems to me that communication in general is really difficult, let alone collaboration. Take that a step further, kind of what you're calling the new normal of collaboration tools online. It's just really difficult for project managers to overcome. I'm wondering why you think that is.

ElizabethHarrin:    Well, I think it's an issue for humans at work in general, really. But I think for project managers, we have a lot of people to interface with and a lot of people to talk to in lots of different areas of a business, sometimes external people, and at different levels in the organization as well, and people who have different levels of understanding about what it is we're trying to do.
                   If you compare the role of the project manager to somebody who is in a more operational role, who works regularly with a team of people, and they all speak the same jargon, and they have common understanding of what it is that they're supposed to do in a department or a particular team, then I think the project manager has a slightly harder job of communicating because there's that situation.
                   We're using language other people are less familiar with. We're talking to executives. We're talking to people who are going to be using the products that we're creating, who have a different need for level of detail to an executive who just wants the bigger picture.
                   There's a massive spectrum of communication that we have to do. I think it's very different to being a subject matter expert, talking to other subject matter experts within a single department. Does that make any sense?

Brett Harned:       Absolutely. I completely agree with you. We're humans, and when you get into a situation where people are using jargon and you're trying to catch up, as the PM, and keep track of the details ... Whether you're the PM or not, if someone's not speaking your language, it's really difficult to follow up or even follow along.
                   Sometimes you're a little nervous to even ask a question about what something means. I know I've certainly been in that situation. What would your advice be for someone who is in that situation where there are subject matter experts using language and acronyms that they don't understand necessarily?

ElizabethHarrin:    That happens all the time to me because I work in a quite technical field and there is a lot of jargon. I just ask. It's never a problem. I think, actually, project managers have an advantage for being able to ask as well because we're not necessarily domain experts.
                   Somebody used an acronym just yesterday. It was WBT, or something, work-based training. And once she had explained what it meant ... I understand the concept of work-based training. It's easy. But just using WBT in a conversation, I thought, "I have no clue what you're talking about."
                   But she didn't mind explaining, and I didn't mind feeling stupid for about 30 seconds, and then you're both on the same level. I'd say put aside that worry because if it's something that you don't understand, it's probably other people in the room who don't get it either.

Brett Harned:       That's a really good point. Plus, I think, like you said earlier, if you're a project manager, you shouldn't be expected to know everything. So you also shouldn't be bashful to ask questions when you don't know something because you're just going to learn and look better to the people who are at the table with you.
                   What other kind of common challenges do you find project managers having in the realm of communications or collaboration?

ElizabethHarrin:    Well, that's a big question. Can I pick three?

Brett Harned:       Sure.

ElizabethHarrin:    I think more communication is electronic. I think that causes multitudes of problems for people. I think there's a lot of miscommunication because people are too busy to listen properly. I think there's another issue that we're facing with project sponsors and clients, in particular, which is just not getting enough time with the people who you need to be communicating with.
                   I suppose they're all kind of linked, but those are the three things that probably ... well, come to mind straight away as big problems that project managers are having time after time, regardless of what field or industry you work in.

Brett Harned:       Yeah. I think by you saying they're linked, it's that they're kind of linked through digital. Is that right? Through communicating digitally?

ElizabethHarrin:    Yes, that certainly makes things worse, I think. I'm a big fan of digital tools. I wrote the book about collaboration tools, so I'm certainly not anti-technology. But I do think you need to use it cleverly in order to get the best out of it.
                   Because electronic communication, that kind of reliance on email or, "I'll just Skype message my colleagues," takes away a level of conversation that you'd get when you're talking face to face with somebody. I think that contributes to misunderstandings, that miscommunication I said as the second one, because you miss the context element that you would hear if you were listening to somebody's voice.
                   Sometimes that kind of electronic communication, or just dropping somebody a quick email, is fine, if it's not a challenging situation and you know they're going to interpret it effectively. But sometimes it's just worth picking up the phone.

Brett Harned:       Yeah. I think people tend to get lazy with digital communication and sometimes don't think about the medium and how a message could come across to someone. I know that I've, unfortunately, been that person who sent a quick email and then realized afterwards, "Ooh, that might've sounded a little terse or a little harsh, and I didn't mean it to."
                   I think it's really easy to do that.

ElizabethHarrin:    It is. I mean, we're all busy. There is a huge ... I have a huge reliance on email, partly because I don't really like the phone. I don't like talking to people. There's some conversations I've had ... I don't know whether I should admit this, but I will ring people when I know they're not going to be able to answer so I can just leave a voicemail and hang up. In a way, that's worse because then they ring me back at a time that's not convenient for me.
                   But I think your personal style contributes massively to how you choose to communicate. That's where you get this clash. But people like me who prefer to communicate digitally, I have to go out of my comfort zone to make the effort to walk around the office, check in with my colleagues, ring people up.
                   If they prefer to receive communication in a way that I choose not to give it, that's where you get those miscommunications coming again or you get your message not being interpreted effectively because you sent it in the wrong way.
                   As project managers, I think it is our responsibility to flex our style to make it easy for the people that we're working with because, basically, we need them. We need them to do their tasks. And if they don't know what they are, or we're making it harder for them because we're not communicating in a great way, then it's very easy for people to choose not to do their tasks. That then causes all manner of problems for [crosstalk].

Brett Harned:       A whole other set of problems, right?

ElizabethHarrin:    Yes.

Brett Harned:       I want to switch gears a little bit. I want to focus in on collaboration. In your book, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers, you say that the role of PM has changed because we're no longer managing tasks and people, but creating collaborative environments. I find this really interesting. Can you talk a little bit about how you've seen that shift happen in the workplace?

ElizabethHarrin:    Well, I've been working ... Well, [inaudible], almost more than 15 years, I suppose, so I have seen a little bit of change in the way that projects are managed. I think I've been very lucky in the cultures, the office cultures, that I have worked in because I've never worked in somewhere that has been purely command and control, but I do know people who do and who have. Even in this day and age, their role as a project manager is very much to tick off boxes, to say tasks have been completed.
                   I think that's becoming more and more uncommon because, project managers, we're in matrix positions now. We tend to manage in a matrix environment, and we're managing knowledge workers or the work of knowledge workers.
                   That's a very different situation to be in for some of the more traditional project management techniques, like estimating work. How long do you need to come up with the solution to a problem? The estimating, when you're dealing with knowledge work, is, I think, really difficult. I think it's harder to predict how long unique tasks will take. We have to create an environment where we make that easier for people.
                   We're trying to create a collaborative environment where everyone can do their best work. They need to understand the complexities of the whole of the project, which means they need to talk to each other, because you might have somebody in one department making a change to a system that has a knock-on implication for another department, but that some other department then needs their documentation updated or a process.
                   The way the organizations interrelate and the complexities of our organizations these days is huge. No one can work in a vacuum, business is just so complicated. I think business is getting more complicated. The whole idea of the managers having all the good ideas and just giving you a fully thought-out business case where all you have to do is deliver the work is totally alien nowadays. I don't think that's the case, especially in the fields where we work. We have to adapt to that.

Brett Harned:       Absolutely. What in your opinion makes for a really good, successful collaborative environment?

ElizabethHarrin:    I think trust is the biggest thing. I think it's a way of working together, really. I suppose that sums up, trust, mutual respect ... Much of it's culture, so much to do with culture. Colleagues who like each other, a place where it's just nice, where you want to go into work, and you're sharing, where it's integral to the organization to talk about what you know.
                   I hear from project managers, I mentor project managers, and they tell me that subject matter experts aren't keen to give up their knowledge because they see knowledge as power, and the more they share, the less power they have in the organization because they lose their status. I think a successful collaborative culture takes that away. You should not be in a situation where people want to hang onto their knowledge because that means that other people can't do their jobs effectively and you're just creating silos and barriers.
                   A lot of it, I think, to be successful, is around breaking those barriers down and making it possible for people to have status in an organization, but that comes from the ability to know their subject matter intimately and share it.

Brett Harned:       Yeah. I would assume that part of that comes from the top down as well, right? I mean, creating a collaborative environment has to be an organizational-wide kind of mandate.

ElizabethHarrin:    Yes, I think so. I think you could probably influence it within your department to a certain extent or within your project team, but, ultimately, it coming from top down makes a big difference.
                   Having managers who get out of the way. You set the culture, as a senior executive. You set the culture about what do you need to do and how to get there, but then you just get out of the way and let people get on and do their job, and give people the tools that they need to do the job.
                   Going back to what you just asked about how do you make a environment successfully collaborative, it's really hard to do if you don't have any tools to help. Even if the tool is just the telephone, you need something to be able to talk to each other and get on and work.

Brett Harned:       Absolutely. I kind of mentioned the organizational level, but then there's also the team level where a PM might have a little bit more influence over collaboration with a team. I'm wondering if you have any kind of tips or advice on how a project manager can work with their team to really foster an environment of collaboration.

ElizabethHarrin:    Okay. I think, drawing on my experience and the experience of the people I mentor, the expectation of everybody coming together harmoniously and just getting on lovely at the beginning is not correct. You do need to put a bit of effort in, put a bit of effort into creating that culture of sharing. Don't expect people to work together when they haven't before, I think, is really the key message that I'm trying to get across there.
                   You need to create opportunities for them to get to know each other early on in the project because that's how you build trust. That's how you build their respect. That's how you get confidence in each other that they won't let you down, and that if someone says they'll do a task, that they actually will follow through.
                   So how do you do that? It's harder to do with virtual teams, I think, because if you're in a face-to-face environment, you can get everyone together and give them the first 10 minutes of the meeting just to chat about their weekend. You can still do that on conference calls and in virtual team environments, but it's a bit more stilted, I think.
                   You can check in with them about the tools they're using because I think if you haven't worked on a project before, or you haven't worked with this particular project manager, or with this particular technology before, people find that tools and processes hamper their ability to get things done.
                   And then they assume that you, as the project manager, can't change it. But actually, I think, if you listen to feedback, as a project manager, you've got quite a lot of influence to be able to change how things are done on the project. You might need to talk to your PMO. You might need to tweak the configuration of your tool, or change the Slack channel, or something. But there might be ways that you could, if you are listening, make it easier for people to do their jobs. That helps with the collaboration.
                   Just have a talk to people. You guys need to work together to get this task done. Is there anything I can do to make it easier for you to do that? Do you need a dedicated Slack channel for yourselves? Do you need me to organize a virtual conference room that you can use? Whatever it is. And then at least you know, or they've had the opportunity to say. Monitor it, check again in a few weeks, and see if there's anything you can do to make it even better.

Brett Harned:       Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. I think what I really liked about what you said is you have to listen, right? You have to listen to what people are doing, just like you said about communications. Everyone communicates differently. That doesn't change when it comes to collaboration and especially when using tools. So listening to people and making adjustments and really trying to get the most out of folks is kind of what the job of the PM is, right?

ElizabethHarrin:    Yes.

Brett Harned:       In the book, you also mention communication and collaboration tools along with social media. Can you talk a little bit about how you've seen project managers using these tools to help manage projects? I'm really interested in the social media aspect, too, because I've never really used social media for my tools or for my projects.

ElizabethHarrin:    That's interesting, because in the first edition of the book, we talked a lot about using social media and the group functions of things like Facebook and sharing, having a public Twitter channel where you could update your public customers, so for government projects and things like that, that had a publicly facing element.
                   But I think what I've seen is more and more project management tools are embracing the social features that you were seeing only in tools that were outside of our scheduling tools. The technology landscape has changed massively in the last five or six years because now you've got things like communication channels inside of enterprise project management tools and you've got the ability to chat with your colleagues, to flag discussions. You've got Slack integrations that we didn't have before.
                   I think, actually, project managers using social media in the way that we would determine social media as things like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, tools that you would use for social activities, that that's a lot less now than it used to be.
                   I think the way that people use it would be for that public-facing communication around a particular project. So if you're doing something that was building a new supermarket and you wanted to keep the local community informed, or you're working with a school, or something that affects large groups of the public, then I think social media still is a great channel to build into your project communication plans, but it's not necessarily a tool I would use directly for managing, not now.
                   But before, when I wrote the first edition of that book, I met people who were using Twitter to tweet updates to their project manager about the work that was happening on the construction site, and then that tweet was integrated into the project management schedule, and she could update the schedule and things.
                   You can still use them if they work for you, but I think confidentiality and data sharing means that a lot of companies would not choose to do it in that way.

Brett Harned:       Yeah. Okay. Yeah. That makes sense. I love the idea of, and I've done this, using social media for community projects, things that are not corporate or specifically work related. I think that makes a ton of sense. That's where people would tend to use social media.
                   But, like you said, tools like TeamGantt actually have communication built into them and there are integrations for Slack. That's changed how we communicate, as well. It makes things really specific about what's happening on tasks. It can be minute-by-minute updates using Slack with integrations, which is really cool, too.
                   But kind of on that note, it definitely feels like the introduction of tools and technology, sort of combined with an increase in the project manager's responsibility, has changed how some individuals and organizations view the role of the PM and how PMs actually do their jobs.
                   I think the role is going to continue to evolve. I think what we've done in the digital project management community has kind of set us apart from the way that we work from some of more traditional project managers. But I'm curious if you have any thoughts or predictions for what might be next when it comes to collaboration and communications, even just generally in project management? It's a big question, Elizabeth.

ElizabethHarrin:    Nothing like putting me on the spot. Trends for communication and collaboration ... We'll end up doing more of that kind of thing. I think we'll end up doing more stakeholder engagement. I think we'll end up doing more customization.
                   I talked about this recently, actually, to another group about perceived customization where there's a shift in the way consumers ... I think what we see in project management technology is stuff happens in the consumer technology marketplace, so things like you have chat ability through Facebook Messenger. And then, suddenly, a couple of years later, project management tools get wise to the idea that, actually, that's a pretty good feature, and they integrate it.
                   When I'm looking for technology trends, I look a lot about what's happening in the sort of consumer media space, what's happening when you're on other people's websites, what brands are doing when they are marketing to people, because I think that affects how we will end up running our projects in a few years' time.
                   The thing that I'm seeing at the moment is this thing around perceived customization, so where you'd go to a website ... And it's on Microsoft Office 365 website, for example. Lots of places do it ... where you have to select what kind of bucket you fall into. So, are you an enterprise? Are you a educational establishment? Are you a small business? Are you an individual customer wanting a Microsoft product for your home?
                   You click through, and the end result is that you buy the same stuff at the end of the day, but you've been guided down a channel that gives you a more personalized experience of purchasing. I think what we do with stakeholder engagement is we bundle everybody into a big bucket called stakeholders and then we just send them all the same information.
                   I think because of the way we can segment audiences, and because of the way marketing people segment audiences, audiences, our stakeholder groups, are getting wiser at filtering out information that they don't want. I don't give my stakeholders the opportunity to self-select what bucket they should be in to receive certain types of project communications. But I think technology will help us do that more easily because we should be able to set up tailored reports for this group or that group.
                   And so, the fundamental information about the project is still the truth. There's one version of the truth, but the way that you interact with that would be different through personalized reporting, tailored dashboards. And when I say personalized, I don't mean that you'd have 50 stakeholders and they each get 50 different dashboards, but there might be groups that you could tailor the information to. So you're giving different stakeholder communities different information.
                   I'm playing with ideas around that kind of thing, at the moment, for where better communication is going. It's more tailored and more personal, but without having to add a massive overhead for project managers because no one wants to sit around designing 50 dashboards once a month, do they?

Brett Harned:       No, I don't think so. I love this idea though. I can think of so many situations and projects I've worked on where there are large groups of stakeholders, let's say 50, 60 people, where maybe 10 of them, at most, are really active on the project. But those other 50 people just want to be involved because of the politics of an organization, and there's concerns that people will make a wrong decision.
                   So the idea of having a source of truth, of what is actually happening on a project, what is the status of a project, and then being able to customize views for specific people to see, to serve them the information that they really need, but also giving them the option to maybe check in for more if they're feeling a little bit nosy.

ElizabethHarrin:    Exactly.

Brett Harned:       It's a really good idea. I really love that idea.

ElizabethHarrin:    I think technology can offer so much. I'm really interested, as well, in how we get information out of our project management tools so that we can predict things better. Because we've got now ... I mean, the market exists for advanced AI bots, data processing, big data. All this stuff is out there.
                   I think, over time, we'll see that will be built into project management tools, because it would be so great if we could pull out data that said, "Oh, Elizabeth put in an estimate to say this task will take 10 hours, but the last 60 estimates she's produced have always been under and she always estimates too conservatively. So, do you trust this estimate? Click yes or click no."
                   You could use the data, the historical data, so much more intelligently than we do now in many project management tools to really help project managers plan better, make better decisions, and do things faster, instead of having to [inaudible].
                   At the moment, a lot of this lessons learned information about how people work together and how good they are at their jobs, to put it bluntly, is in our heads. So we would know, "Oh, Elizabeth's always a bit rubbish at estimating. I'll add on an extra two days before I put it into their schedule."
                   But if we had some kind of data-driven insights into that, it would help me get better at estimating, and also the planning would have more accurate schedules. This technology has got some wonderful things that it could do, not least freeing up our time to do the people stuff because we'll be spending less time crunching numbers, building schedules, all of the things that could be made easier by having better tools to give us more time to do the collaboration and the engagement and the communication with people.

Brett Harned:       Yeah. It's kind of funny because ... I don't know if you've seen any articles that talk about AI in project management, but they always tend to go the route of AI's going to kill project management. I always think there's no way that that's possible.

ElizabethHarrin:    No, that's not going to happen.

Brett Harned:       It's because of the human aspect of what we do, right?

ElizabethHarrin:    Yes.

Brett Harned:       It's about using AI smartly to help you get the data that you need to remind you of the things about, what about these 10 estimates that you did that you can look back on data on that you just don't have cataloged in your brain because you don't have that brain capacity. That's where AI is going to help us. I think that's so exciting. Thanks for bringing that up.

ElizabethHarrin:    I think there's so much we can do with that. And you're right. It's humans who make the decisions. So the data is fine, but at the end of the day, somebody needs to combine all of that data into actual information, to turn it into wisdom that people can use to make decisions for the good of the organization. That's what we're paid for. We paid to assimilate lots of information and make things when there's lots of moving parts.

Brett Harned:       Absolutely. All right, last question. As you know, our podcast is called Time Limit because we recognize that people in all different fields have a limited time, sometimes, a limited amount of time to get their work done. So, kind of going with the theme of what our conversation's been, are there any communications tools or advice you can offer to our listeners who are constantly feeling the constraints of time?

ElizabethHarrin:    The biggest thing that has helped me manage my time, and it's something I discovered quite recently, actually, which is setting fake deadlines for myself and working to that deadline.
                   I was doing some videos the other day, and I said I was going to record three months worth of video by 10:30 AM, and I did it. I made seven videos. I had them edited and uploaded to YouTube by lunch time.
                   If you've got tasks to do, procrastination ... I can only speak for my own personal experience, but I'm sure other people suffer from procrastination, too. Procrastination is the biggest killer for me. If I could set myself a deadline and say it will be done by that point, because at that point, the task is ... I am moving on from this task. It really helps me focus and get things done.
                   That's a tool. And also doing a weekly review. Every Friday, I'll sit down and work out what's coming up the following week, what I need to have ready for each day, and what meetings I've got so that I can just go into the next week feeling as if at least I'm ahead of the curve.

Brett Harned:       Nice. I do the exact same things. You know what else I do on top of the fake deadlines, is I block time out on my calendar. On my calendar, it says "work on X," whatever that project is. I'm actually making time in my calendar, and it corresponds with my to-do list. We're on the same page on that one.
                   Well, Elizabeth, thank you so much for joining me today on Time Limit. I really appreciate you making the time. I hope that we can talk again soon. This has been a lot of fun.

ElizabethHarrin:    It's been a pleasure. Thanks so much for having me on the show.

Brett Harned:       Thank you.
                   I loved that conversation with Elizabeth. I hope you found it as interesting and full of really solid advice as I did. Thanks so much for listening, and please be sure to check out the links to Elizabeth's sites, and even her Facebook group, in the show notes.
                   Of course, if you're looking for more resources on project management, check out teamgantt.com where we offer free classes, templates, and resources in addition to our popular, and really easy to use, project planning and management tool.
                   Lastly, please subscribe and rate the show, or share it with your friends. Our next episode is going to focus on agile with a true expert. We'll talk about why it's become such a buzzword, how agile works, where it breaks, and even cover some recommendations on how to smoothly transition into agile practices. So come back and give us a listen. Thanks.

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