I came downstairs this bright Saturday morning to see my teenage son watching Who’s On First on You Tube, and I thought to myself, ‘Where have I heard this before? That sounds so familiar.’
Ah Yes! THE PMO!!
Are your project team meetings like on on-going round of Who’s On First? Is it like an endless cycle of mis-understandings piling up on each other like snowflakes in the blizzard of 2010? Eventually, frustration sets in, and then hurt feelings. If you’ve never see Who’s On First, stop now for a very good demo of escalating mis-communication.
So what does a PM do in this situation? One of the things I relish about being a PM, because the gratification is instant, is the ability to bring clarity to the project team. I say, grab the moment by interrupting to clarify. I like to call this a Clarification Timeout.
The Clarification Timeout
A Clarification Timeout enables you to quickly de-escalate conflicts in situations where you perceive that clarification would move conflicting parties forward. There are three basic steps to the clarification timeout.
- ask for permission
- clearly state your intent
- use extremely neutral, non-judgemental action language
Here’s the format: Permission – Intent – Action using non-judgmental language
“If I may” (permission),
“I’d like to aid in the discussion” (intent)
“by putting some terms on the wipe board” (non-judgement action)
“Could I take a quick moment” (permission)
“to help the team understand” (intent)
“by writing down what has been said to this point” (non-judgement action)
Why this works Asking permission shows respect to the parties in conflict. Chances are they are in conflict because of some perceived lack of respect between each other. So when you come to the discussion, show respect by asking permission.
Stating your intent enables parties in conflict to know where you are coming from. In conflict, they are questioning each other’s motives. So you can be the person whose motives they don’t have to question by clearly stating your intent.
Taking a non-judgemental action means that you aren’t going to explicitly state that you want to de-escalate the conflict through clarification. Rather, you are just going to ‘write something down’ or ‘wipeboard the idea’ or ‘draw a picture’. These are actions that won’t hurt either side. Whereas if you use words like ‘clarify’ or ‘re-phrase’ or ‘re-state’ then parties in conflict may think you’ll get it wrong, or they may feel that are already being extremely clear, in which case they may even be offended if you imply that they are not, through your need to ‘restate the issue’.
However, the irony, and the golden opportunity, is that the very action of getting a breather, so to speak, enables you to jump in clarify. And I’ve found that clarification is usually all that’s needed in many cases.
Just the other day, I watched an escalation in the PMO about the need to produce a security plan. The engineering lead believed that enterprise networking would take care of it, while the PMO contact believed that it was a deliverable the PMO had to produce. They started getting louder, and interupting each other and talking over each other, just like in Who’s on First. I jumped in with a Clarification Timeout. From my own experience, I know that a ‘security plan’ means one thing to requirements folks (usually a document that describes who can do what in a system from the user’s perspective) and another thing to engineering (usually a document that describes how the application will be safe from hackers, attacks and so on). I knew that they were really arguing apples and oranges.
“If I may,” I said (asking permission), “I would like help” (stating my intent), “..understanding what is the substance of each plan.”(non-judgmental action).
The room got quiet, and the engineering lead explained his understanding followed by the requirements lead explaing his understanding; which illuminated, of course, that they were talking about two different things. The funny thing is that I see this kind of escalation happen over and over again, in different environments with different clients. So I know that the clarification timeout is relatively rare.
With Abbot and Costello a clarification timeout would have resulted in a wipe board that looks like this:
Then one could walk through perhaps giving nicknames to the players to help in discussion..but that, of course, wouldn’t be as funny.