Project managers, effective communication and the art of the analogy

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Efficient communication is a primary function and necessary skill for a project manager.​ Without it, they cannot manage expectations between the development team and project stakeholders.

Development teams and project stakeholders need a flawless communicator because these two groups tend to speak different languages. They share the same concerns and goals – a successful project – but use different words and draw on different experiences to express their wants, needs and concerns.

To bridge these different backgrounds and experiences, a project manager must be skilled in the use of one of the most powerful literary and poetic tools available: the analogy.

Analogies can help a project manager communicate ideas and gain alignment between two groups with different backgrounds. Connecting a developer’s idea to a stakeholder’s point of reference gets the point across. And it puts the stakeholder in a more accepting state of mind because they hear a foreign concept in terms they already understand. This helps to eliminate the uneasiness most people feel when presented with a new/unfamiliar concept.

The tricky part of using analogies is finding comparable ideas familiar to everyone involved. The analogy does not work if only one side understands it.

The project manager must be comfortable explaining all parts of the analogy so both sides accept its ideas by associating them with familiar reference points. A favorite framework of mine for analogies is to compare computer software and hardware to automobiles.

For instance, when asked why I cannot fix broken hardware even though I “work with computers,” I use the analogy of a computer being like a car. In my job, I am the person who changes the oil and checks the fluids. What your computer/car needs is the person who fixes the windshield when a rock hits it on the highway.

This is usually effective for many reasons. First, most people have had some experience with cars and have at least heard stories about typical car maintenance. Second, by using a common or shared experience to highlight the different types of car repair skills, the person with the broken hardware is more comfortable with the idea of me not being the right person to fix their problem. Lastly, they feel better about themselves because they have learned something new about a topic which they did not understand before I used the analogy.

The analogy is not the only tool used in effective communication, but it is a powerful one. A lot of miscommunication occurs because, as humans with different lives and personal experiences, we use different points of reference to describe and understand problems. Analogies use a shared reference point to align each other’s understanding of an idea. In the end, this leads to happier stakeholders, happier development teams and more successful projects.

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