Project excellence requires your whole project community to have a common understanding of what you are doing. Without it, team members and stakeholders will all be pulling in opposite directions. And in a large, complex project, there’s a lot of scope for confusion. So, what can you do to build shared understanding among your team – and your wider stakeholder group?
This is what we will look at in this article, and we will break it into six sections:
The idea for this article came from PMI’s inclusion of this topic in the 2021 Examination Content Outline (ECO) for its Project Management Practitioner (PMP) exam. However, I see the specification in the ECO as missing a lot of important aspects.
As a result, I’ll be taking a much wider view of the topic. I hope it will be of much more practical value to practicing Project Managers than just an exam preparation resource.
My first big critique of the PMP ECO is the implication that building a shared understanding is all about fixing a problem. The four enablers they list in Task 10 assume there is already a misunderstanding!
But, if you want to build shared understanding, start as you mean to go on. This work needs to happen right from the launch of your project. And the perfect place to begin is in your project kick-off meeting.
The place to start building a shared understanding is at your Project Kick-off. This is where you and your team get to meet one-another – often for the first time, for many people in the team.
There are many things that can come from a good kick-off, such as:
We have some great results to help you design and manage your Project Kick-off meeting:
Your Team Charter is likely to document your team’s shared understanding of things like:
Within your team charter, you may decide you want to set Ground Rules for behaviors within your team. Ground rules document a shared code of conduct for a team. They explain the behaviors that everyone needs to follow. In this way, they determine what is acceptable or not, within your team.
With a good set of ground rules, everyone has a shared understanding of what you and their colleagues expect of them. This not only creates a basis for consistent performance. It also establishes a baseline for fair treatment of your team members.
We have a detailed article on Team Ground Rules: Creating the Right Framework for Team Success and also a short video, How to Define Team Ground Rules.
One aspect that is very important here is ensuring everyone has a common understanding of how you will prioritize diversity and inclusion in your project. Please do take a look at our video, How to Support Diversity and Inclusion in Your Team. And, for a deeper dive into this topic, you may like my discussion with Anita Phagura: Building Inclusive Teams: A Conversation with Anita Phagura of Fierce Project Management.
Perhaps most fundamental of all is a shared understanding of what your project is, and is not. You need to work together with your team and your stakeholders to create a strong project definition. This will normally include:
But it may also include other things like:
This is such an important topic that we have a whole raft of resources for you. Start with: What is a Project Definition? | Video. And, if you want more, there is also:
Also, take a look at our…
Take a jumble of ideas, needs, and requests and turn it into a well-defined project brief. 3.5 hours of structured learning.
One thing that you will certainly want to be sure everyone has a shared understanding of, is why you are doing your project: sometimes described as the mission and vision for your team. If you are not familiar with how to articulate these, do review our video: How to Set a Clear Vision and Mission for your Team.
We all have our own perspective from which we view our world. So, shared understanding is far from a trivial requirement! Let’s look at some of the tools we have open to us. I have split this up into:
Just sending a pack to read or getting your team together can be enough. But there are plenty of other approaches you can also take.
Yes, we will start with briefings. You can do these:
But you can supplement these approaches…
People love to play. And nothing creates a stronger understanding than a demonstration. This is why prototypes and pilot stages are so powerful. They create a shared experience.
Why settle for words, when you can use pictures. Not just simple pictures, but also:
People love poring over these things and they can be better than words alone at conveying a clear understanding in many circumstances.
From static images to… moving images. Can you find or make a video that better creates a shared understanding?
Finally, field trips, reference visits, or trips to vendors’ facilities are a powerful way to build understanding among either team members or stakeholder groups.
You have chosen one or a combination of media. But, how will you craft a message that powerfully conveys the understanding you want to craft? Here are some ideas…
People love a good story and it is a fantastic way to wrap complicated ideas into an easy-to-understand package.
Stories sometimes work by encapsulating a well-chosen analogy or metaphor. These represent the real, complex issue as something simpler or more familiar. The new sales process represented as making a sandwich, for example.
Surveying stakeholders about their understanding can both measure the consistency of shared understanding and also plant the seeds of clarity in people’s minds. It can be a simple as the breadth of questions you ask alerting people to a common understanding of the breadth of the issue at hand.
Another set of tools for both measuring understanding and moving people towards alignment are consensus tools. Examples include:
As your project progresses, each member of your team will have different experiences. Inevitably, these will not just create differences in understanding of those experiences, but the experiences will color the team member’s perceptions of wider project issues.
Therefore, it is vital to keep your shared understanding current. So, how can you do that?
There are many reasons or creating formal project reports. These include communication, audit trail, or decision-making. Yet, for all that, we often forget that an important prpose is to create a shared understanding of status.
Between reports, how does your team know the status of the project and any activities that are part of it? A great way is with team boards. These can hold things like:
I am a huge fan of this approach. Everyone can see the same data – and often you’ll allow anyone to update it. These visualizations can be either:
Getting your team together for regular and ad hoc meetings is the best way to ensure everyone has a shared understanding of what”
Your team meetings can take many formats, from daily stand-ups to big set-piece meetings. And there is much in between.
Do take a look at these great resources:
A specific time when you will need to build shared understanding – and build it quickly – is when a problem arises. You’ll need to gather a team and rapidly ensure they all share the same understanding of:
Here are a few of my favorite techniques.
Waigaya is a made-up word, which best translates as hubbub. When you want to solve a problem (at the gemba!), get a team together to discuss it. In a brilliant article about how Honda developed this technique, we learn that a Waigaya has four rules:
There are many ways to try to build a shared understanding of the root causes of a problem. Some of my favorites are:
For further information on Problem Solving, we have a feature article, Problem Solving: A Systematic Approach. We also have some great supplementary resources:
In this section, I want to draw upon two important ideas from my book, How to Speak so People Listen. These are:
We will look at each in turn, and then look at my favorite method for narrowing down a misunderstanding.
The first model explains why we can have a very different understanding of the same situation or event, from someone else. It is because we understand things at a range of different levels. Each level informs how the levels close to it operate. And our cumulative experiences gradually inform how each level operates.
A second model illustrates how we build our own understanding (or story) from what we hear or experience. And the story or understanding we form, determines the choices we will make and therefore, the actions we will take. This is, fundamentally, why building a shared understanding among your project community is so important.
It is easier to move from agreement to agreement than from disagreement to an agreement. So, you need to find the source of any misunderstanding. One way to do this is to look at all the parts of the topic and assess which you agree or disagree about.
Abe: “Your conclusions are all wrong; I completely disagree”
Bea: “You don’t agree with my conclusions: is it the findings you disagree with or the way I interpreted them?”
Abe: “The findings are fine. Your analysis is wrong.”
Bea: “Okay, so we’re agreed on the findings. Now, you don’t like my analysis: is it my methodology you disagree with, or the way I carried it out?”
Abe: “You worked through it fine, but you should never have taken that approach.”
Bea: “Good, so let’s discuss what other approaches I could take.”
Notice how you are both in agreement on a couple of important issues and the scope of your disagreement is now much narrower. You are no longer about to argue about whether the work is rubbish; instead, you can discuss approaches in a rational way. And, chances are, there is a misunderstanding somewhere in the details. So, continue to cut up the pie until you find the slices you need to build agreement about.
The ultimate failure to build shared understanding is conflict. Conflict most often arises from one of two things:
However, we need to keep this article to a reasonable length. And I do have a huge wealth of resources on the topic of conflict already:
So, I will list them all for you to review at your leisure.
But to go into it in-depth, we have our full course:
A Practical Introduction to Conflict Management for Project Managers.
Please do ask questions or share your experiences and opinions in the comments below. I’ll be delighted to respond to all contributions.
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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