When asked “what are the key elements to a successful project”, I believe “effective communication” would surely be in many people’s answers. Not only is it a fundamental skill to a promising career, but it is also helpful in building interpersonal relationships with friends and family. In this blog, I will talk about what I have learned from my practicum project with CPMC during the past quarter of my MSBA program that helped us achieve effective communication with our business partner. You may find these skills different from what you would read in a general blog about effective communication because they are tailored to project management when working with external partners.
“Communication is your ticket to success, if you pay attention and learn to do it effectively.”
— Theo Gold
Always plan ahead
When communicating with someone, especially someone that you are not familiar with, the most efficient way will always be to talk face to face. Given the circumstances, a virtual meeting is a less ideal alternative. But in reality, the time that you have to actually talk to your clients at work is very limited. In our project, the team only meets with our industry partners once a week for about an hour. Thus, we need to spend our time with them wisely. That is why we learned to have internal discussions before our actual meetings with them to consolidate our progress and problems and send agendas beforehand. This way both the team and our industry partners are prepared and no time is wasted when we can talk directly to each other. You will find that meetings are so much more efficient when you plan ahead and go in with a goal.
Good documentation is worth the time
There is a Chinese saying: “The palest ink is better than the best memory”, which means you should always try to write things down instead of relying solely on your memory. I found this approach particularly useful when trying to track the status of our project. We always send out meeting notes after our meetings, which not only concludes what we talked about during the meeting, but also keeps track of all the actionable items for the following week. Since a lot of the requirements we received are fairly detailed, it also acts as a good reference to make sure we have a solid understanding of the tasks that need to be done.
To streamline the task management process, we also created a project change management template. This template contains detailed information about each task, their current status, the time allocated, our proposed solution, and our progress made to date. It is very straight forward to showcase to our industry partners what we have achieved and what is holding us back with this template. Keeping good documentation will save you the time of going over the same questions and make it much easier to report status on the project when needed.
Be prepared to take initiative
Since our industry partners are scientists conducting research on innovative cancer treatments, the project with us may not be their priority. This means that in order to maintain effective communication with them, we need to take more initiative in our conversations. At the beginning of our project, we barely made any progress due to the lack of access to their system. After a few weeks, we realized we shouldn’t just sit and wait, instead we should try to find ways to start making progress in our 10-month-long project. We soon started setting up our own AWS account and transferring data from last year’s students' team to provide a working environment for all our members. Once we got that done, we were able to actually work on solutions to requested feature improvements and make progress every week. When things are not moving, you should be prepared to take the lead.
Exhaust your resources
Since our business partner conducts research in a very specialized area and none of our team members had any related experiences, it was hard for us to understand the terms and metrics used in this project at the beginning. On top of that, we need to work on a platform that was built by last year’s students' team which means we need to understand how it operates before we could start making changes. Another challenge we had was that scientists from CPMC aren’t familiar with the tools used in this project, so we need to explain everything in a simple and straightforward way to prevent confusion. We had to figure out how to achieve certain functionalities while considering the ease of use for our MIP.
To help us understand the platform in use and the medical background, we met with different people that have some knowledge about this project, including our industry partners, our mentor, members from the previous year’s team, and EDM team from CPMC. We quickly gathered a lot of useful information through this process as well as directions to follow and pitfalls to avoid. Always remember to use your resources and ask for suggestions, especially when in doubt. It is never a bad idea to learn from other people’s experiences and insights.
Obviously, there are many other ways to build effective communication, and improving one’s skills is an ongoing process through practices and experiences. I hope what I have concluded from working on this project for three months gives you some inspiration on how you can enhance your communication with business partners in the future.
Stay home, stay safe!