Improving Projects by Communicating What's Below the Surface


Technical people often feel uncomfortable sharing their personal feelings toward a project. But there are recognized levels of information beneath the surface of what we hear and see. Here, Eileen Strider explains that even without plumbing the depths of your co-workers' souls, you can conduct a little subsurface exploration to benefit the team and the project.

Project work is all about things, right? It's about requirements and specifications. Selecting the technologies to use. Making sure the technical work fulfills the business needs and product definition. Project schedules and budgets and ship dates and installation plans. But is it possible that project work is also about people connecting and working with people? We commonly use the word project as a noun; however, project is also a verb. As a verb, it means "to present for consideration" or "to communicate or convey vividly." As such, it is an active verb. I suggest that some of the most important project work is communication between people at a level deeper than just passing facts from one brain to another. 

What do I mean? Certainly it is important for the technical staff to comprehend the specifications so they can develop, test, and deliver quality software. But what if we could take our connection farther than this? What if the client sponsor and the project manager could talk frankly about their expectations for the project? What if the developers and testers could not only see their differences but also understand the source of these differences? There is so much more to what we bring to a project than meets the eye or reaches the eardrum.

Understanding the Strata of Information That Motivates Us
What we see and hear from each other is only the tip of the iceberg. Lying underneath the waterline of our words and actions is a much fuller, richer set of information. Our feelings lie just below the waterline. Sometimes just when we think we have our feelings carefully hidden from our project team members, they surface unexpectedly, surprising even ourselves. Below these feelings lie our perceptions: the meanings we make out of what we see and hear. Sometimes our perceptions are a strong match with reality and sometimes they are heavily distorted by our past experiences.

Further below our perceptions lie our expectations. This is a rich source of information when a project is going awry. How many of us go around actually conscious of our own assumptions and expectations, let alone telling anyone else what they are? But when our perceptions don't match our expectations, look out! Suddenly a stream of unexposed expectations spouts above the waterline like a whale. Our feelings, perceptions, and expectations are all information that can further explain the words we hear and actions we see. They can help us understand and appreciate our differences. 

Even further below these expectations, lying in very deep water, are our yearnings. Our yearnings are universal hopes and wishes shared by all human beings such as the yearning to be really seen, heard, and understood and the yearning to be accepted and belong. It is at this level that we are alike. Connecting is about communicating information with each other both above and below our waterline. Can you imagine how much richer and rewarding our projects could be if we revealed even a tiny bit about what we are feeling, perceiving, expecting, and hoping?We all have coping strategies that work very well for keeping this personal information carefully hidden, contained, and under control. We think—and even are taught—that this is good for our projects. I submit that the opposite is actually more helpful. Try having a conversation with yourself about what is going on below your waterline regarding your project. Tough as it may be, you might try connecting with another project person, sharing information with each other about what's going on below your waterlines. It may feel awkward at first. Only go as far as you feel safe going. Sharing even one feeling, perception, or expectation can be enough to clear up a misunderstanding, break a stalemate, or strengthen a connection. This can be a very rewarding experien—and one that improves your project's chances of success.

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