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Book review: Supercommunicator

Summer of books 2014“Too often, potentially great projects are dismissed by management, investors, and regulators simply because those decision makers can’t understand their value”, writes Frank J. Pietrucha in his book, Supercommunicator. “Opportunities can be missed and bad things can happen when content originators don’t explain their subjects in easy-to-understand language.”
If you have recently put together a business case or project initiation documentation, then you’ll know how important it is to set out the benefits of what you are doing. Getting the information across to those who need to know in a way they can understand it is the main challenge of project communications.

Pietrucha writes: “The digital age is about information. Finding new ways to obtain, analyse, and share data is essential. Providing information to audiences clearly is the essence if what we do as communicators, but shouldn’t we aim higher? Our mandate should be to strive not just to deliver information but also to bring meaning to our audiences through thoughtful explanation.”

Data alone isn’t enough

supercommunicatorProject reports often focus on numbers, statistics and the graphical representation of results. Pietrucha says that we often worry so much about data that we forget to explain why those facts and figures are important. Setting data in context and making it accessible is important if you want people to get the message.

He talks about different types of multimedia and digital communication tools like infographics and video as options for displaying data in meaningful ways. He doesn’t recommend a particular approach, instead saying that you should choose what works for your audience. Of course, you need to know how to work with data before you can present it to others.

Communication guidelines

Part 5 of the book focuses on guidelines for effective communication. One of those is to be culturally aware. For example, there’s no point in me telling you that the title of this book makes me think of the Supercomputer running segment in Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway. Unless you happen to watch the show, which pretty much limits it to UK audiences, it won’t mean anything to you. So, Pietrucha says, don’t use references that your audience won’t understand or you risk alienating them.

The other guideline I found good was about keeping it simple. However, as Pietrucha says, there is such a thing as too simple. “Don’t oversimplify when your audience needs substantial content,” he says. Don’t assume they can’t learn.

In summary, his guidelines are:

  • Simplicity
  • Clarity
  • Relevance to audience
  • Build: start with one idea then add others to allow the audience time to take on new concepts
  • Make it real: use analogies, stories, testimonials and case studies. The book uses a lot of these to illustrate various points (including this one). In fact, this is covered in a lot of detail. He suggests you test your analogies on friends first to make sure you are not introducing ideas that have too many interpretations as this leads to misunderstandings.

“If you can see data, instead of just hear or read about it, naturally you’re going to understand a topic faster and more effectively.”

Getting the message across

“People pay attention when they comprehend there’s something in it for them,” Pietrucha writes. “Do your job and help them get to the ‘aha’ point of realisation.” There’s a lot in the book about communicating effectively including the advice that you should lead with the conclusion.

Pietrucha writes about making difficult subjects accessible by presenting them in a practical, visual way including using:

  • Illustrations
  • Zooms
  • Diagrams
  • Simulations and games
  • Physical models

“If you can see data, instead of just hear or read about it, naturally you’re going to understand a topic faster and more effectively,” he says.

He takes it further than your typical presentation advice. People don’t only learn visually and through hearing information but through experiencing it, he says. As a result, participatory learning is gaining traction. How could you do this on your project? Think about where you could introduce ways of involving users in training and learning.

I thought that the book ended abruptly. I also thought it could be shorter as it does seem to cover the same points several times in different chapters. But overall it has some good advice that can be applied to project communications.

Buy on Amazon.co.uk
Buy on Amazon.com


Book Review: What Happens in Vegas Stays On YouTube


“The explosion of mobile and social technologies means that we have to live as if our mother, boss, coach and enemies are watching us…because they are,” writes Erik Qualman in his book, What Happens in Vegas Stays On YouTube.

Summer of books 2014The book is basically 36 rules for better social interaction and for making the right choices about your digital legacy. It’s a two-pronged approach: first, don’t post anything stupid on social media sites. Second, the book recommends that we all live better lives, as if our mothers are watching (Rule 2). The point of that is that if don’t do anything cringe-worthy, nobody can post embarrassing photos of you. Qualman argues that if you don’t post images of what you did at that drunken party, someone else will. (Or you could just get yourself a better class of trusted friend.) So don’t do anything stupid, online or offline.

Most of the short sections include one or more ‘learning moments’. These are little stories of how social media has caught out people and companies, causing problems. For example, after the Toronto riots police used social sites to share photos of rioters to help catch them. Although it isn’t mentioned in the book, after the London riots police did the same here to identify looters. Then there’s a short takeaway lesson.

Lessons in common sense

Some of the lessons are obvious, like think before you tweet and don’t criticise others online. “If you have to think for more than 3 seconds about whether something is appropriate – it’s not,” Qualman writes. “Our tone in digital messages is misinterpreted 50% of the time.”
What happens in Vegas
Some of the lessons are more thought-provoking, for example, it’s not a question of whether we will make a reputation-damaging mistake but how we handle it. “Often it’s not the crime, but the cover up that gets us in to trouble,” he says.

Other advice he offers includes don’t multi-task as you are more likely to post something you’ll regret when you are distracted. The book includes several examples of people who posted stuff on their corporate Twitter account when they meant to do so on their personal accounts. Unsurprisingly, their companies weren’t that impressed when their personal opinions were presented as company views.

This also goes for comments that are published under personal accounts, but where the individual concerned is so linked to a company, team or other group that they can’t get away with expressing that as an opinion without it reflecting on their colleagues. “Know your professional position and understand that while your friends may post something on a particular topic, you may not have this same luxury based on your job, position, team or company,” he advises.

Be Flawsome

“Admit and own your flaws either as an organization or as an individual and the world will think you are awesome,” Qualman writes. “Flawsome is described as owning your mistakes and taking the necessary steps to correct them.” This, he says, it mainly around being authentic, but he also shows through the stories that you can gain customer loyalty by putting things right.

Section 2 of the book is focused on lessons learned and is basically more stories. It includes one about Chrysler which also appears earlier in the book, so that might be an error. The book is so short that you wouldn’t need to dip and out of it, although as it is not organised to present a structured narrative, you could do that if you wanted.

Section 3 is a list of resources and tips, like digital reputation management tools (Klout, Google Alerts etc), tips for protecting yourself against identity theft and tips for looking good on video (not sure how this ties in with the rest of the book). Finally, the book ends with lots of people’s Twitter ‘digital stamp’ (i.e. motto for what they see themselves as doing online and how they want to be remembered). I found this whole section a bit pointless, especially the pages of mottos from people I don’t know.

Do you need this book?

You don’t have to read a book to find out the stupid things people do online. A quick Google search for people who have lost their jobs because of what they shared on social sites is very enlightening. Then there are sites that catalogue the stupid things people share, like Failbook. The book is mainly a collection of social media stories, so if you are worried about your children or junior colleagues and the way they use social sites without regard for potential consequences, it could be something to buy for them. If you feel that you have no knowledge of what could go wrong from having your own Twitter account and have never considered how your use of social networks could affect your career prospects, then by all means read it. But my view is that if you have a mature, professional approach to what you post online, then the stories will make you realise there are plenty of people in the world who don’t think before they act, and that’s about it.

I think it’s a shame, as Qualman’s other books sound excellent and would be well worth a read. This one doesn’t have much substance and although it is a quick read, it didn’t give me any new insights to managing my digital reputation.

Buy on Amazon.co.uk
Buy on Amazon.com


Book Review: Healthcare Project Management

Summer of books 2014At first glance, Healthcare Project Management by Kathy Schwalbe and Dan Furlong is an ugly book. The cover isn’t up to much. However, open it up and you’ll quickly see how comprehensive this book is. It includes quick quizzes, learning objectives, team projects to carry out (for students), case studies, discussion question, links to videos and additional resources for trainers. And if that wasn’t enough, it has an accompanying website, healthcarepm.com, with more stuff.

Healthcare is a very specific niche when it comes to project management, so a dedicated book for this industry is a great idea. As the authors write:

“The healthcare industry has initiated and completed projects for a long time, but not necessarily using formal project management techniques. New technologies, health reform, evidence-based medicine, health networks, patient-centered care, medical homes, and improved patient experience are some of the many forces that are radically changing the healthcare environment, and where there is change, there are projects!”

Healthcare projects do have specific challenges such as:

  • The legislative landscape
  • The shift to evidence-based medicine
  • Collaboration across entities and practitioners
  • Fluctuating budget conditions i.e. you never know when you’re going to need to kick off a new project based on new regulation or improvements in care
  • A mobile population which increases the need for technology and electronic medical records
  • A cost-controlled environment
  • Difficulty applying metrics to human health.

Cover imageAll of these equal the need for lots of projects. And, as the authors put it, “The successful execution of some healthcare projects can mean the difference between life and death.” So no pressure then!

The book is US-focused but this sentiment is certainly relevant to the UK healthcare industry too, and probably many other countries. However, some of the contextual healthcare information wouldn’t be relevant to project managers based outside the US.

Skills for healthcare project managers

The book says that project managers and their team must have the appropriate knowledge and skills in these areas:

  • All 10 knowledge areas from A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide®) – Fifth Edition
  • The application area e.g. domain, market, industry segment etc
  • The project environment e.g. organisational politics and culture
  • General management e.g. strategic planning, expense management
  • Human resource management e.g. leadership, motivation, negotiation skills etc.

That’s a lot, but having worked in healthcare myself for a fair few years I do agree. I have found in particular that project managers need to know when to defer to clinical colleagues and how to manage the relationships between clinicians and non-clinical staff and Schwalbe and Furlong cover this too: “Skilled project managers working in the healthcare domain know when to hand off control, enlist a champion that a particular group may favour, and negotiate differences among various factions to direct the project towards success.”

A practical guide

“Skilled project managers working in the healthcare domain know when to hand off control”

This book is similar to Project Management for Musicians in that it is a complete manual with domain-specific cases and examples. There is one case study that runs through the book so you can follow the story. There is also lots of relevant detail for certain techniques such as work breakdown structures and plenty of information on financial calculations like NPV and ROI in the context of project selection.

There’s also plenty of general information that will help your project be successful such as stuff on managing teams. One section includes various theories of HR management including Thamhain and Wilemon’s nine influence bases which I had not come across before.

The book is very much, in my opinion, aimed at students (of all ages) as the additional resources point to the book being used in a learning environment. It’s compatible with the PMBOK Guide 5th Edition but also references some software tools and has a substantial appendix on how to use Microsoft Project 2013: these features could date the book quickly as it will be out of date as soon as new versions are issued. However, much of the information in the book will not date and, of course, it is all relevant right now.

I liked the fact it includes cartoons from xkcd.com and I enjoyed the ‘what went wrong/what went right’ case study boxes. There are examples of everything including a business case and it goes through the whole project lifecycle. It is a comprehensive book, so if you are looking to move into project management in the healthcare sector it will certainly speed up your learning curve.

Buy on Amazon.co.uk
Buy on Amazon.com


Book review: Project Workflow Management

Summer of books 2014“Project management is indeed a very exciting and rewarding profession, but at the same time, it is one of the most difficult jobs, often misunderstood by project team members and management alike,” write Dan Epstein and Rich Maltzman in their book, Project Workflow Management: A Business Process Approach. I agree; it can be a challenge to get anything done as a project manager, and Epstein and Maltzman explain why:

“The project manager will never win a popularity contest, because even though he or she is not usually a personnel manager of team members, he or she nevertheless sets work deadlines, demanding status reporting and requests adherence to the project work rules and schedules. These demands – coming from someone who is not technically their supervisor – won’t necessarily win you any favours with team contributors.”

The concept behind this book is that it is a full project management workflow, covering the whole project lifecycle. The authors define ‘workflow’ as ‘a means to identify and diagram procedural steps and logic used to achieve a specific goal.’ They say that this step-by-step sequence is different from the process models in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) and other project standards because it gives you the detail of how to do each step. That’s why the book is so chunky.

Running a project with the workflow

Project Management WorkflowYou can use the book to execute projects with very little formal project management training, but I think you’d find it easier to put the concepts here into practice with some understanding of projects. It’s very detailed and there are numerous tables, templates and diagrams. It would help to have access to the flow diagrams while reading the process descriptions and steps, and that’s hard to do on an iPad. You could print out the diagrams and have them with you if you wanted to get this book on an e-reader.

The explanations are comprehensive and there are worked examples where necessary to help you. For instance, there’s a step-by-step worked example of cost benefit analysis. Getting into this steps you out of the process so it’s a bit of a diversion from the flow of that section but the idea behind it is to ensure that you know how to do each step.

Useful pointers for project processes

The book includes a whole chapter on estimating and has a useful checklist for requirements. There’s a good section on earned value and another good chunk about training. Another thing I particularly liked is that the authors recognise that you don’t just work on projects during a normal day in the office – and even if you do, the chances are that poor planning makes you ineffective some of the time. They write:

“Delivery team members spend around 20% of their time on phone conversations…ad hoc meetings, conversations, coffee breaks etc…The efficiency of resource utilisation depends on the project manager’s planning skills. A skilled PM may reach 90% resource utilisation at best. In other words, 10% or more of resource time is often not productive due to inefficiencies in resource utilisation.”

They also recognise ‘project management time’ as an overhead. In other words, you have to ‘do’ the project management and this takes, they say, between 10% and 20% of the total project effort, so make sure you are adding that on to your task estimates.

A downside of this book is that I found it very technical and difficult to read in parts. There are also lots of acronyms, and if you miss the explanation not all of them are obvious, so you have to go back and check earlier in the text to find out what they mean.

Should you share your plans?

The authors advise project managers not to share their project schedule with the client “to avoid clients’ attempts to micromanage the project or request reporting the completion of every scheduled task.” They go on to write:

“If you admit them into this level of project detail, they may interfere with the project management processes, even asking to remove some quality or risk related tasks in order to save their costs. The second reason is that you cannot show the client some of the project tasks, like internal project reviews and meetings or tasks related to the containment of some negative elements related to the client in the project risk assessment. If the client is aware of those meetings, you cannot stop them from sending their representative.”

I don’t agree with this advice. I don’t think there is any reason not to share the plan with the project customer. If they don’t have the maturity and project management knowledge to know what the tasks are, then it’s your job to explain it. Of course there are discussions you have with your team that you wouldn’t have in front of them (mostly about how awkward they are being changing the requirements or how they are keen to push blame for delays on you when it’s really them causing the hold up). But you can have these discussions outside of the formal risk meetings. And surely if you are having these discussions about them it’s best to find a way to discuss it with them as well.

Overall, Project Management Workflow is a new approach to project execution. The supporting diagrams and tables make it possible for you to adopt this approach on your projects, and it would also be useful at a corporate level, especially for companies looking to formalise project management processes and methods within their teams. It is a comprehensive resource that walks you through the processes with detailed flow diagrams and clear guidance for making your projects a success – although like all project management processes and approaches, you can ultimately decide for yourself which bits to follow to the letter and which to adapt for yourself.

Buy on Amazon.co.uk
Buy on Amazon.com

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