I was travelling South to deliver an MSP course one early Spring morning on the train, enjoying a cup of East Midlands Trains tea, as I had done the previous week. It was unusual for me to have two consecutive weeks in the same geographical area; delivering the same training assignment for different ATO’s. However, I sat gazing out at the passing countryside and squinting against the glare of the bright sunshine _ the sun is low in early Spring time and seems far brighter than in the Summer months.

As the sun shone through the windows and I squinted, my eyes began to feel heavy _ for any of you who have travelled on East Midlands trains, I’m sure you’ll remember that their rolling stock is probably the oldest on the entire rail network and the chance of finding a window blind that worked is marginally better than winning the lottery.

It wouldn’t have made any difference if I could have pulled down a blind; to help me fall into a gentle sleep as the young woman (not much more than a girl really) a couple of tables down the carriage was on her mobile _ oh how I’d wished I’d moved to the quiet coach _ but you don’t expect someone to talk for an entire 2 hour train journey, or do you!

Her accent was indeterminable, her voice was high pitched, squeaky and whilst she droned on and on about trivia, her annoyingly constant use of the phrase ‘yeah, like it was …’ reminded me how I used to find listening to one of my wife’s favourite television programmes (Housewives of Atlanta, Beverley Hills, etc.) so annoying.

My mind drifted to one of the MSP topics I’d been delivering the previous day, Leadership and Stakeholder Engagement; and how critical appropriate, timely and meaningful communications with stakeholders needed to be.

Now she clearly didn’t see me as a Stakeholder (‘any individual, group or organization that can affect, be affected by, or perceive itself to be affected by, a programme’ _ page 59, 2011 Edition) but I certainly was ‘being affected’.

Yes, OK I admit that it possibly was relevant and at the right level to whoever it was that she was talking to _ she hardly stopped to breath for the entire 2 hours so I can’t imagine that the person at the other end did anything other than listen (or fall asleep) to her. But as a Programme Manager and always never having had enough time to do all the things I needed to do, it did make me wonder what other use she could have put her time to … especially as she got off at the same station as me later on and I saw she met up with the person she was talking to on the platform _ they only ended the phone conversation when they were within 5 yards of each other.

Yes, OK; communication is critical to P3M success, many research findings have been published on such _ circa 28% of failure is directly attributed to poor / inadequate communication.

Although stakeholder engagement needs to active and embracing, surely communication needs to be meaningful and not just for communications sake!

Communication within the programme needs to be matched against the degree of change so as to maintain awareness and commitment and to keep everyone focused on what we are trying to achieve. The clarity and consistency of our messages as well as their appropriateness should not be forgotten and I do think that this is an area of programme management where we should be aware that previous solutions are not necessarily suitable to current needs.

I don’t know about you but I always use lessons learned as my starting point in just about every programme and project I delivered _ but having been made aware of the behavior experiment carried out by a group of scientists, I excluded stakeholder engagement and communication from that approach. The experiment to which I refer, involved a bunch of bananas and a cage with monkeys in it _ http://www.mannkal.org/downloads/rspt/monkies.pdf

We should remember that messages should be appropriate in number, simple brief and derived from the programme objectives. And that even though stakeholders may have low influence and interest, we shouldn’t just send them a newsletter every so often just because ‘it worked in our previous programme’ _ stakeholders are not monkeys

We should not become complacent about any of our stakeholders or think that we know what they want because it was what others wanted before them … they are all individuals. We may sit in our office ‘feeling warm’ with our engagement strategy and communications but whenever I got that ‘warm feeling’ I remember the ‘management lesson of the little bird’.

A Little bird was flying south for the winter. It was so cold that the bird froze and fell to the ground in a large field. While it was lying there a cow came by and dropped some dung on it. As the frozen bird lay there in the pile of cow dung, it began to realize how warm it was. The dung was actually thawing him out! He lay there all warm and happy and soon began to sing for joy.

A passing cat heard the bird singing and came to investigate. Following the sound, the cat discovered the bird under the pile of cow dung and promptly dug him out and ate him!

Yes, I know that the relevant lessons are …

1) Not everyone who drops shit on you is your enemy.
2) Not everyone who gets you out of shit is your friend.
3) And when you’re in deep shit, keep your mouth shut!

Perhaps a better example within stakeholder engagement and communications would be Dale Carnegie … You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.

So remember that people are generally positive towards change, and if they are not, they soon will be when they see the benefits being realized.

One final point to make here is that _ to become good at communicating, you first need to learn how to listen. That is to ‘listen to understand’ NOT ‘listen to respond’.

How many meetings have you sat in and simply waited for someone to stop speaking so that you could speak? And what were you doing whilst you were waiting for them to stop speaking … concentrating and practicing what you are getting ready to talk about, and not ‘listening to understand’ what they are saying.