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Successful IT Project Teams Watch Their Language


"What can we do better?"

"What's going wrong?"

Both these questions were asked by different Project Managers leading IT Projects that were failing this year. Both had identified issues, both were keen to sort those issues out, both held almost identical team meetings to address the challenges.

One was more successful than the other.

The first Project Manager, who framed the question in terms of looking for improvements, was the more successful of the two.


They are both seeking the same outcome, the question is essentially the same - let's identify what isn't working and make it work! So why did they get different results?

I believe that it is down to the wording of the question. Look at how the second question focusses on the failures. Sure, identifying that your issue is scope creep will prompt you to sort out your scope creep, but not before the team has beaten itself up over the fact that you have failed to keep control of your scope. Shining a bright light on the problem rather than what you can do to avoid similar banana skins in the future can limit your potential.

The first question is much more positive. You may have scope creep issues but, by asking the question this way, you immediately open up a solution space. The answer is more likely to be that you'll say 'no' to scope changes or, at least, set up robust mechanisms for reviewing requests and communicating expected consequences to stakeholders.

And yet, the more negative question style is more common in debriefs after failed IT Projects and so teams may not be getting the best out of this time investment.

How you talk to yourself is very important! But where does all this negativity come from? Are we programmed this way?

In his book, What To Say When You Talk To Yourself", Shad Helmstetter talks of the 148,000 "No's" that you will most likely have heard before your 18th birthday. Whether it's your parents trying to protect you or your teacher or community leaders trying to keep you heading in the right direction, you heard "no" a lot as you were growing up. Compare that to the number of times you were told how much you could achieve, what you could accomplish and it's easy to understand how these negative thought and language patterns dominate. Helmstetter claims that "leading behavioural researchers have told us that as much as seventy-five per cent of everything we think is negative, counterproductive, and works against us."

So, it is in our programming! But here's the thing. We work in IT, if anyone should be great at reprogramming, it is US!

You'll have heard of NLP.  

NLP, short for neuro-linguistic programming, can be used for personal development, phobias, and anxiety. NLP uses perceptual, behavioural, and communication techniques to make it easier for you to change your thoughts and actions. Many successful sports coaches, world champions, swear by it! My Project Manager friend Karen does too!

"NLP will help you map out your view of the world, and because they will be different, understand the maps of others. NLP can help you to understand the programming behind your thought processes. It makes you more self-aware," she wrote to me recently.

Self-awareness may be the key.

The author of NLP for Project Managers: Make Things Happen with Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Dr Peter Parkes, carried out a poll and self-awareness was the number one behaviour trait that stakeholders wished that their Project Managers had. Karen says, "If you're not self-aware if you don't understand yourself, what makes you tick, then how can you even hope to understand and motivate your team."

Since finding NLP, Karen believes that communicating with and motivating her team has vastly improved. "NLP taught me that our world view will be dominated by our senses, in an IT Project, we will either see, hear or feel a problem, for example. If you listen to your team, really listen to the language they use and reflect their world view in your communications - you open up a new level of trust and understanding. I have a team member who will say, 'I don't like the look of this.' Another might say 'This doesn't feel right,' and another will express disbelief at what they are ‘hearing’ - but they might all be describing the same issue. In NLP these preferences are referred to as “Visual”, “Auditory”, and “Kinesthetic”. If you choose the wrong language your communication might not be as effective. Saying 'let's see what our best options are' to a team member with auditory preference might not hit the target as well as 'which of these options sounds best' - it sounds daft, but it works!"     

Another of my Project Manager friends, Stefan has a team driven by feelings, they are all “kinesthetic”. Stefan has a "How It Will Feel When It's Done" list. Now, you may have a "To-Do Today" schedule or a "Task List" - how inspiring are they? Stefan identified that a cold list of "stuff" that needed doing didn't excite him or his team, tasks were met with little enthusiasm and often milestones would either be completed only just on time or late.

"The problem was how we were presenting our own workload to ourselves; it was dull and left us flat. So we started to think how we would feel when each task had been completed. Attaching a positive feeling to even the most mundane task suddenly made it a worthy mission. We'd be excited! If another team was depending our task delivering on time, we'd imagine their gratitude, we'd visualise the business change that our work was about to facilitate, imagine the end user experience that we were enhancing."

Another project team I worked with last year has banned 'need to', 'have to' and 'must do' from their language. Carl, the PM, told me, "Expressing tasks in this way makes them chores! You need to clean the bathroom, or you must do the hoovering! Doesn't get you revved up, does it? When approaching our tasks 'we want to' do them. Especially in the more grey performance/monitoring stage of a project and the more difficult project close phase, it's amazing the difference that 'wanting to' rather than 'having to' makes!"  

How you talk to yourself is so important! That little voice is running a commentary on your life all the time. It is influencing your thinking and creating outcomes for your IT Project, usually without you even knowing. It's like having a coach in your ear all the time. Try to catch and correct yourself when negative language patterns dominate your communications.

So, in conclusion, mind your language!

AND get in touch! How can we make things better in your IT Project World?


Find out more about Project Management as a Service from Stoneseed


What To Say When You Talk To Yourself – Shad Helmsetter, Grindle Press 1986
NLP for Project Managers: Make Things Happen with Neuro-Linguistic Programming  - Peter Parkes, BCS (11 Mar. 2011) -


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