George Bernard Shaw once mused, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Having worked on and managed several high-profile projects in my career, I share his sentiment. IT professionals – and Project Managers in particular – believe that they know how to communicate and to do it well.
But do they really?
This blog post is a “rubber-meets-the-road” article on the practical application of the Communication Management Plan (which should already be in place at this point in the project execution). For background to this blog post, I invite you to read my two previous articles that speak directly to Section 10.1 of the PMBOK: “Plan Communications Management” (Project Management Institute, 2017, pp.366-378).
The first article, “How to Prevent Project Communication Faux Pas”, strongly advocates for the development of a Communication Management Plan as part of the overall Project Management Plan. The second, “Why You Should Focus on Communication Skills”, focuses on the necessity for Project Managers to truly master the art of communication and its nuances for the many situations that occur on projects.
The soundest advice I offer in these articles is to accelerate mastery of the ability to communicate effectively and efficiently by engaging a communications expert who is also an IT professional steeped in project delivery experience.
When project communication is done well, the right information is placed into the right person’s hands at the right time using the right tools and techniques. Not everyone has the right or need to know everything that transpires on the project, so having a plan ahead of time is vital.
So, you have your Communication Management Plan. Now what?
It’s now time to execute to that plan. A well-executed communication strategy avoids many of the problems that occur on projects because of poor communication. The following are some time-worn, “rubber-meets-the-road” tips on managing according to the Communication Management Plan:
- Start with relationship. Communication is much easier when it comes from a place of relationship. The Communication Management Plan lays out the project communication strategy; however, without relationship the communication is sterile, overly formal, subconsciously distrusting, and overall ineffective. Relationship takes time and effort but it is well worth it for ease of communication on the project.
- Review and implement. The Communication Management Plan is not produced to become “shelf-help”. It is created to ensure clarity of communication across all parties and to ultimately satisfy the needs of the key stakeholders. Key communication management actions include:
- At the start of execution, the Project Manager should conduct a kickoff meeting to review the contents of the communication plan with the entire team, including the stakeholders. This meeting should be designed to establish trust and rapport with all those involved in the project, and to provide details of how the plan will be implemented throughout the course of the project. The Project Manager must show flexibility and willingness to change the communication approach as the project progresses.
- Although the Project Manager cannot control all the information, he must put controls in place to manage the flow of information throughout the project. Project staff must be made aware of what they are allowed to communicate, and to whom.
- Communication among the various project roles must be managed from the outset. Often roles and responsibilities are identified using a RACI chart to identify who is responsible, accountable, consulted, and kept informed, and this chart then guides the communication needs across the project participants.
- Project status reporting is established at the outset, following the agreed-upon cadence in the Communication Management Plan. The information in the reports must be concise, clearly articulated, and written to serve a broader audience, especially for those who may not be versed in “project-speak”.
- Check in frequently. The Project Manager’s primary allegiance is to the key stakeholders, and therefore he should be checking in with them to ensure that the communication is to their satisfaction. For example, is the project status reporting conveying the information needed for their decision-making? Are there any areas in which communication can be improved? Is there too much communication? Are there too many meetings and/or emails?
For the project staff, the Project Manager should be checking that they are receiving the necessary information to help complete their tasks efficiently and correctly, and to keep them informed.
For staff loaned to the project by the client, the Project Manager needs to ensure that they are not experiencing overwhelm. They need to be comfortable in their project roles. They need to be receiving appropriate instruction to fulfill their project responsibilities.
- Be judicious in choosing the communication methods. Every project has its own variety of communication styles depending on the individuals and personalities associated with the project. Some individuals prefer written communication; others prefer oral communication; while others still expect both.
Formal communication such as contracts, system specifications, and status reports must always be in written form. Task instructions, quick standup meetings, question-and-answer sessions, or other such normal day-to-day communications are more efficient if conveyed verbally. Instant Messaging (IM) can be used for instantaneous, semi-interruptible conversations that allow for quick answers to short questions without taking the time to seek out the other person face-to-face or await an email response.
Environmental factors also influence communication methods. For example, remote teams often resort to telecommunications or video for cross-team communication. Teams working in shifts can pass information to the incoming team via email or orally during the shift change.
- Use electronic means to house communications. I was working on a project that had inherited office space from a tax accounting practice. The entire floor contained hundreds of beautiful built-in filing cabinets. And every single drawer was empty. Over the years we had weaned ourselves from paper and stored all of our project documentation electronically. Even I, who had started my career using coding pads, yellow legal pads, and pink telephone “while you were out” message pads, did not have a single piece of paper on my desk.
Electronic storage is invaluable in its efficiency to manage contracts, proposals, project plans, cost estimates, policies and procedures, reference documents, project schedules, deliverables, deliverable reviews and approvals, status reports, emails, change requests, issue and risk logs, test results, implementation release notes, and any other artifacts that are created electronically. The full library of information can be made available to the entire project team on a need to know and right to know basis. It provides for easy retrieval and document sharing, and saves substantial project resources.
- Paper the walls. I know, I know. I just said that it’s important to use electronic means rather than paper. However, what I mean is to literally paper the walls with project organization charts and that of the client organization, Gantt charts reflecting the project schedule, the screen flows for the new system, high-level use cases, mementos of individual or team accomplishments, (tasteful) photographs of team celebrations; any such artifacts that will visually convey a roadmap of the entire project and its end result. This helps build constant reminders of project urgency and excitement around teamwork on the project.
- Implement active feedback and evaluation. Besides seeking out professional coaching and mentoring in communication techniques, project team members can be their own best feedback mechanism. Often Project Managers don’t realize that poorly worded emails, conflicting body language, or poor vocal tone can detract from our intended message.
Peer-to-peer feedback following any type of formal communication takes a few extra minutes, but pays off in huge dividends. For example, before sending an email, the sender can request another project team member to review it for tone, grammar, and messaging.
Similarly, an experienced team member can be assigned to evaluate a peer’s presentation. Following the presentation, she would discuss her observations with the presenter: Were the slides effective? Was the presenter’s style engaging? Were complex concepts explained well? Were questions handled well? Did the presenter appear confident or nervous? Was he engaging?
Not only do these evaluative techniques help the communicator, but they help to sharpen the evaluator’s own writing and presentation skills.
- Be aware of interpersonal and team relationship skills. Projects can be long and arduous, and opportunities conflict among team members or with the client are ever present. In the frenzy of day-to-day project activity, the Project Manager’s well-intended communication may in fact create conflict.
Project teams are comprised of individuals of different age groups, different cultures, and different worldviews. Phrasing that is not well thought out, or a gesture that is careless or meaningless, even vocal tone that is misinterpreted can result in conflict.
Like the previous bullet point, peer-to-peer proactive feedback can make the communicator aware of the unintended offense and how it can be avoided in future communication. Project Managers should be trained in conflict resolution to learn how to stave off conflict before it becomes a problem, or how to handle it if it does.
- Be a meeting tyrant. By tyrant I don’t mean someone who is oppressive. I mean a Project Manager must be tyrannical in jealously guarding time that can be wasted in meetings. Actually, the best way to not waste time in meetings is to not have unnecessary meetings in the first place.
I have seen meetings called when a quick email would have sufficed. I have been in meetings that don’t have an agenda, resulting in aimless wandering through a variety of topics with no particular priority; meetings with no time limit that go on longer than necessary; people coming late to meetings knowing that the facilitator would wait for them; and people working on their laptops who are inattentive and unprepared when called upon.
Time is money. Wasted time in meetings is wasted money. The Project Manager should be creative in her approach to manage meeting time effectively. For example, I had a manager who would begin every meeting exactly on time, move all the empty chairs into the hallway, and require latecomers to stand during the entire meeting. Another manager instituted fines for latecomers and used the money for project celebrations. At the very least, laptops should be closed and phones muted.
- Have specific communication criteria when working with virtual or remote project teams. Project Managers do not have the luxury of “popping in on” individuals or teams that work remotely. In these situations, the communication flow must be established, communication methods and tools must be managed consistently, response times for all communication specified and adhered to, and a cadence must be established for scheduled reporting.
- Update the Communication Management Plan as required. As the project progresses, communication needs may change over time. Communication preferences change, new stakeholders may be introduced to the project, or other situations may warrant updates to the communication plan. The Project Manager must be flexible and adaptable to such changes, while remaining true to the agreed upon communication goals for the project.
It’s one thing to create a Communication Management Plan deliverable as part of the contractual deliverables in the contract. It’s quite another thing to pick up that same plan during project execution and implement what was agreed upon. Effective communication on a project is not an easy task; but it is absolutely necessary for successful project delivery.
And it’s an absolute necessity to fostering the people aspects of managing a project.
Project Management Institute. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Sixth Edition. Newton Square, PA: PMI Publications, 2017, Print.
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