Today we’re going to talk about a crucial skill for your role as a project that you might not have given much thought: the art of preparing for discussions.
Not just any discussions, though. We’re talking about those high-stakes chats with clients or upper management. Nailing these can do wonders for your career trajectory, while fumbling them…well, let’s just say it’s less than ideal.
Do Your Homework: Review Project Documents and Records
A hallmark of an effective project manager is their thoroughness in reviewing relevant project documents and records. You need to become best friends with project plans, status reports, meeting minutes – you name it.
At the kickoff of the project (or as soon as you’re assigned), you should review each major document at least once. On small projects, there may not be many documents or drawings to look at. But if you’re on a large project, this will be a time-consuming process, so take it in chunks. No one expects you to read thousand page contracts in a single day.
You’re not going to catch every important detail the first time through, but reading each document helps set a baseline. You’ll begin identifying important insights and solidifying your understanding of the project as a whole. As new information arises on the project, you may be reminded of documents you’ve read, and you’ll know where to look for context.
As a clarifying example: my current project has a contract document that outlines our environmental management engagements. The document is over 100 pages long. In discussions of environmental issues, I may not recall every specific details on every environmental obligation, but from reviewing the document initially (and regularly throughout the project), I have a working familiarity with the structure of the document. When needed, I can quickly identify the location of useful and relevant supporting information in the contract.
Throughout the project, make it habit to regularly review documents. Consider a document or drawing you haven’t looked at in a while and give it a quick read or look-over. Sometimes it can take two or three read-throughs of a document or drawing
Doing this homework allows you to spot patterns, anticipate potential roadblocks, and come to discussions with a robust understanding of issues as they arise.
While some phone calls and meetings do arise unexpectedly, many are pre-scheduled. In the latter case, its worth your time to quickly review as much documentation as you find relevant to the subject of your planned conversation.
If you’ve properly setup your document management system and email, getting many of these documents should be easy. Review recent emails, important correspondence, and any pertinent drawings and specifications. You want to solidify your understanding of the current state of the project so you’re ready to address any question.
I know some very knowledgeable project managers who use their understanding of the project to embarrass or challenge stakeholders. This should not be your goal. You’re not trying to weaponize the contract or use anyone’s words against them. However, understanding the nuances of the subject allow you to provide informed responses and ask insightful questions.
It can actually be beneficial to have relevant information with your during the discussion. Not only is it helpful for you to quickly reference on the fly, but the existence of supporting information can help keep people honest.
For a humorous example: I used to have a manager who’d bring a box with the whole contract (3 large binders) to every client meeting. Whenever the client asserted something that felt unfair or biased, my manager would pop open one of the binders to search for the referenced clause. On occasion, this caused the client to restate their assertion in a more neutral way.
Anyway. Review your relevant documents before you go into a meeting or make a phone call. The extra twenty minutes can go a long way.
Tap Into Your Team’s Collective Genius
Now, as much as your contract and project documents are a fantastic resource, they’re not your only source of information.
As a project manager, your team is your secret weapon. They’re on the ground, dealing with the day-to-day challenges, and they’re a treasure trove of insights and knowledge. Before reaching out to your client or your superiors, check in with your team.
As the project progresses, more and more information will be shared informally through casual conversations. Some of the best, most useful information comes from on-site chats with the client representatives while we’re supervising work or completing inspections.
You can’t be everywhere at once, so consider what your foremen, superintendents, project engineers, and other staff might have heard or talked about while you were working on something else.
While you’d like to believe your team would share every piece of information with you, this is an unrealistic expectation. So, take the time to reach out.
Before reaching out to clients, senior management, or other stakeholders, and after you’ve reviewed your project documents, get some insights from your closest allies.
Need to discuss a problem on-site with the client? Talk to your field staff. Got invoicing issues you need to clear up with senior management? Your accountants should be your first port of call.
Your team members are subject matter experts, and they often have the information you need at their fingertips. Plus, they might offer perspectives or propose solutions that you hadn’t considered.
Just remember, it’s not about extracting information like you’re conducting an interrogation. It’s about engaging in a free exchange of ideas, fostering an environment where everyone feels valued, and ensuring that all team members are on the same page.
Approach them from the perspective of needing their help and insight:
“I’m about to have a chat with the client about [insert issue here], anything you think I should bring up?”
Let’s get real for a second. We’ve all had those embarrassing moments in our careers, haven’t we? I had one of my own when I was working with an incredibly competent foreman.
This guy was like a mini-superintendent, and he had an excellent rapport with the client. He would catch issues on-site, discuss them casually with the client, and they’d come up with possible solutions.
Sometimes, these issues were so small that my foreman didn’t even think to bring them to my attention. I trusted him fully to make small adjustments as he saw fit.
However, I’d sometimes stumble upon the same issues while doing document review. Not realizing they’d already been solved, and wanting to be a proactive project manager, I’d immediately contact the client. Imagine my surprise when the client was (understandably) frustrated at having to repeat the same information.
It wasn’t until the client pointedly asked if I ever talked to my own team that I realized I’d been bypassing an essential step in my communication process. Mortifying.
That experience was a wake-up call. It made me realize that my team was my greatest asset, and that failing to consult them not only made me look uninformed but also frustrated our client. It wasn’t a pleasant lesson, but it was a necessary one.
A project manager spends most of their time communicating. But communicating isn’t just sharing information, its also collecting information.
Harmonizing Your Strategies for Full-Spectrum Preparedness
So, you’re tapped into your team’s knowledge and you’ve dug into your project documentation. Now what? Now you bring those two elements together. Diving into the documentation will fill in the details, giving you a comprehensive understanding of the project. Checking in with your team will give you the broad strokes and help you identify potential issues.
You may find what you want in the documentation. The documentation may inform your conversation with your team. Your team may have the insights you need to avoid the conversation with the client or stakeholders.
Note: I’m not suggesting you should avoid speaking to your client or senior management. As a PM, you should be frequently sharing updates on the project. But the goal is to make those conversations purposeful. Reach out to the client with new information, new issues, and good news.
These two strategies combined prepare you to tackle those high-level discussions. You’ll come across as well-informed, capable, and prepared. Trust me, that’s an impression that sticks.
Now, let’s talk about how you can put these strategies into action in the coming week. This is one of those topics you read and thing “why is this an entire post? Of course I should talk to my team.”
But the reality is that we an often be so quick to go straight to the top with issues. I can’t count the number of times that I still, upon discovering an issue, reach straight for my phone and start dialing. If I’m lucky, I catch myself before the ringer starts.
Similarly, as a PM, you’ll probably have a lot of meetings booked by you and for you. I get in the habit of jumping from meeting to meeting without much (or, lets face it, any) preparation. One of our first posts on this blog was about making sure your meetings were purposeful. Part of making them purposeful is coming prepared.
Say you have a meeting with a client or senior management. Don’t wait till the hour before to start preparing. Start a few days in advance. Make some notes about topics you want to discuss and then get the backup you need.
Start by setting aside some time to dive into your project documents and records. Look at past meeting minutes, read over project status reports, and any other relevant documents. Get a comprehensive understanding of the project’s status, any potential issues, and what’s been discussed previously.
Next, check in with your team. Share with them what you plan to discuss in the meeting and your understanding of it. Ask them, “Is there anything else I should know?” or “Is there anything we should bring up?” Be open to their feedback and insights – remember, they’re your secret weapon.
This might sound like a lot of work, but I promise you, it’s worth it (you also get better at it). Walking into a meeting with a solid understanding of the situation at hand will not only boost your confidence, it’ll also demonstrate your competency and dedication to your clients and superiors.
Not every meeting is scheduled. Clients and managers like to drop in or call unannounced with questions or concerns. You’ll never be able to know everything at all times.
So, if you’re caught off guard by a phone call or drop-by meeting, do the best you can to answer any questions but don’t be afraid to say you need to look into it and get back to them.
While you’d ideally have all the answers, the only thing worse than not knowing what to say is saying the wrong thing.
There’s nothing wrong with admitting that you need to get your information in order before you can provide a useful response. When you do this, just make responding a priority. Check your documents, check with your team, and give them a call back.
Effective preparation is a cornerstone of successful project management. It might seem like a time-consuming task, but the rewards it yields are immense. By harnessing the collective knowledge of your team and investing time in understanding your project documents, you’re setting yourself up for success in your discussions with clients or management.
Remember, as a project manager, you’re not just responsible for managing tasks – you’re managing a team, a project, and communication. And the key to managing communication effectively? You guessed it – preparation.
Take the time to prepare thoroughly, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a project manager who leaves a lasting positive impression, makes informed decisions, and leads successful projects.