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Picking the Right Topics

March 24, 2016

As project managers it is helpful to focus conversations on the right topics. Talking about the right topics with the right people at the right time increases our value in the eyes of the team members or stakeholders with whom we communicate. Further, it helps strengthen bonds with the people we talk to, which comes in handy during the ups and downs of a project lifecycle.

On the other side of the coin, talking about the wrong topics wastes time, decreases our perceived value and can negatively impact relationships with critical team members or stakeholders –magnifying the impact of risks which surface over the lifecycle of a project.

Selecting the right topic for every conversation is a complex decision. There are many factors which go into selecting the right topic to discuss. It entails matching content, phrasing/syntax, audience and timing, each of which has multiple dimensions to it. In this post, we’ll discuss the match between content and audience using a particular dimension –their hierarchical order.

Topics, like scope, can be thought of as existing at different hierarchical levels. Topics can be discussed in a broad, general way or in excruciating detail.

For example, a new inventory management system can be discussed at a general level such as its role in achieving a long term, corporate strategic goals. Let’s say the goal is to deleverage the balance sheet by increasing cash on hand. This topic can be decomposed into a list of business benefits that contribute to achieving that goal, such as reducing days in inventory. It can be further decomposed into high level features which a system could have to deliver that business benefit, such as order management. The topic can be reduced even further down to the specific requirements of each feature such as the way the order management feature integrates with particular point of sales systems.

This hierarchy and decomposition can be represented using a Work Breakdown Structure type representation. Let’s call it the Topic Breakdown Structure (TBS).

Here is a generic model of the above example.

TBS Topic Name
1 Strategic Goals
1.1 Business Benefits
1.1.1      Features
1.1.1.1          System Requirements

 

Here is that same model filled in with the specifics of the example discussed.

TBS Topic Name
1 Deleverage Balance Sheet by Increasing Cash
1.1    Reduce Days in Inventory
1.1.1      Improved Order Management
1.1.1.1          Integration with Particular Point of Sales Systems

 

Understanding the TBS level of a particular topic becomes valuable when matching content to audience. Different audiences are interested in different TBS levels of a topic.

One can imagine a senior executive is likely far more interested in discussing how to achieve corporate goals than the benefits of as specific software feature. When speaking to a senior executive in the example above you’re likely better off talking about how to deleverage the corporation’s balance sheet than how the order management feature of a piece of software could integrate with a particular point of sales system.

On the other hand, developers working on implementing the order management features are likely much more interested in understanding how it should integrate with particular point of sales systems than discussing the corporation’s balance sheet.

We can represent this audience hierarchy using an Organizational Breakdown Structure.

OBS Organizational Title
1 Senior Executive -SVP Operations
1.1    VP Operations
1.1.1      Software Development Manager
1.1.1.1          Development Team Members

 

We can cross-reference the TBS and the OBS to help guide which topics to discuss and with whom.

Picking the Right Topics

Matching the topic level with the audience can determine whether your conversation is considered valuable or a waste of time. Thinking about the hierarchical dimension to matching topics and audience can help us pick out the right topics for the right people and improve our communication. This can lead to better project management and better project performance.

Thinking of the hierarchical dimension of the topic/audience match has an added benefit for how we all spend our time. It can help guide whether you’re involved in conversations that are truly worth your time or whether they are better suited for someone at a different level of the organization.

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