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Project Alignment - Dont understand so others can!

Lets set the scene - you're at school, the teacher has just explained something and you are sure they're talking in a different language. You have no idea what they are talking about or how you are now going to answer any of questions they have just written on the board (for me this was most common in maths!).

"Does everyone understand?" the teacher asks.

You now have two options:

a) You can put your hand up and say, "sorry old squire, I don't quite understand" or...

b) You can look down, keep quiet and copy the person sitting next to you.

I imagine most of you can relate to this situation. Which option did you take? If you are anything like me option b) was far more attractive than declaring your inadequacy to the whole class.

Now fast-forward to professional scenarios you find yourself in today. You are in a large technical workshop, a strategy meeting with your head of department, or a project meeting with your key sponsor and there is something you don't understand.

How many of you still take option b)?

When I first started out as a project manager, I have to admit there were times in these types of scenarios where I opted for option b, particularly when settling into a new role or when with senior leaders. The result, poor efficiency, wasted effort, poor stakeholder perception and project delays resulting in poorer project outcomes.

How can the fact I don't understand something have such a great impact you ask?

The fact you don't understand something is only part of the problem, the chances are there are others in the room or reading a group email etc who also don't understand. They are likely taking option b) too, or worse, each individual may think they understand but all understand differently!

Lack of alignment between project team members is a poison that slowly, quietly destabilised projects and programmes. This lack of alignment generally refers to a lack of clarity in scope, uncertainty around the proposed benefits and different understandings of the approach that will be taken to achieve the required outcomes. Otherwise known as the "what", the "why" and the "how".

Imagine you and your project team are lining up for an egg and spoon race. All participants have a different understanding of what it is they are supposed to do, why they are doing it or how they should do it. Whilst at the same time your stakeholders are waiting at the finish line, expecting apples, not eggs.

As a project manager and as a leader, it is your responsibility to ensure this doesn't happen. It is essential that you ensure alignment between all project team members and sponsors at all times. One of the elements you will need to master in order to do this is to confidently and loudly "not understand"! Ask the questions that nobody else will.

Next time you find yourself in a situation like this, try it. It's amazing how many others who apparently already understood then follow up by throwing their own questions into the mix. They didn't understand quite as much as you may have first thought, but they do now and your project will benefit.

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