How to Prevent Project Communication Faux Pas

Photomontage of project communication audience that can span multi locations, cultures, stakeholders, team membersNo doubt you have witnessed the effects of poor communication on your projects. Misunderstanding, miscommunication, damaged relationships, perhaps even a project shutdown (yes, I witnessed one of those). These issues can be largely avoided through the thoughtful development of a Communication Management Plan.

Some examples from my personal experience:

  • Communication faux pas #1: Our Project Manager had had enough of the incompetence of his client counterpart. He wrote a memo to our firm’s senior management outlining a plan to have the client’s Project Manager removed. Unfortunately for us, that memo inadvertently made it into the hands of said client’s Project Manager. Need I say how well the project went from that point on?
  • Communication faux pas #2: The email chain began innocently enough with a request for information. Several people were copied, and every one of them decided that they had to provide input. Soon the email became a ping-pong ball bouncing between the originator and many of the people on the copy line. By the time I became aware of it, the thread was several pages long – a multi-headed Hydra of useless opinions. It had morphed into multi-subject threads, wasting many people’s time, and – worst of all – the originator never received the information that she needed.
  • Communication faux pas #3: The Project Manager assigned a weekly scribe to take meeting minutes; however, she did not provide direction for capturing those minutes. Week after week questions would come up for which we would go back into the minutes to find what had been discussed before, only to have new questions arise because of sketchy minute taking. We would often spend as long trying to decipher what was meant by the prior meeting minutes as we did on the subject at hand. But did the Project Manager ever stop to think that perhaps a little direction regarding meeting minute details would be more effective in the long run?
  • Communication faux pas #ad nauseum: The Project Manager formalized a process for memoranda that would be addressed to the client executive. Yet in those formal memoranda, he often forgot certain members of the executive team, or arranged the executive’s names in the addressee lines in a random manner, or continued to use names of persons who had long since left the client organization. A bit sloppy perhaps; but for this executive team, the arrangement and placement of names was an important indicator of respect and understanding of the position of each individual.

Are any of these situations or ones like them familiar to you? Has your project team been guilty of making similar communication mistakes? Lest you think that I made up the above examples, I assure you they are all true and unexaggerated. I have many, many more. It seems to me that project communication is taken for granted rather than meticulously planned. As a result, time is wasted, protocol is overlooked, or worse yet, irreparable damage is done. Some of the examples above appear extremely trivial, but they may not be trivial to your client. You may not have thought that they can create problems on the project; but they can, and they do.

The project management team begins each project with a refined Project Management Plan, a Risk Management Plan, a Resource Management Plan, a Scope Management Plan, a Quality Management Plan and other such plans. But do they consider creating a formal Communication Management Plan? Most often it is overlooked under the assumption that project staff – especially the Project Managers – know how to communicate well.

In keeping with my premise that it is necessary for Project Managers to go beyond schedules, timelines, charts and reports, and pay focused attention to the people aspects of project management, it is my belief that the management of communication on the project is as important as the management of the overall project plan.

After all, what is more people-centric, people-oriented, people-focused, people-inclusive than communication?

I’ll go one step further. I believe that planning communication management is so important that it deserves its own place in the Project Management Plan and its own operating budget. I understand that as Project Managers we try to eliminate all unnecessary expenses so we can execute the project as “lean and mean” as possible. But after over 40 years of project management experience, and having seen hundreds (if not thousands) of communication faux pas, this is one area that should not be cut. Planned communication strategies, when executed correctly, can save significant project budget dollars.

I like the statement from the previous edition of the PMBOK® Guide: “Effective communication means that the information is provided in the right format, at the right time, to the right audience, and with the right impact. Efficient communication means providing only the information that is needed.” (Project Management Institute, 2013, p.290). It sounds simple enough, but this is so often overlooked. Planning for and executing a communication strategy that is both effective and efficient is a major contributor to overall project success.

Perhaps the reason this is so often overlooked is that when communication is executed flawlessly and project success is attained, we attribute that success to the technical or process aspects of how we managed the project. We think that it must have been our attention to project schedule, risk mitigation, or sound resource estimating techniques.

Similarly, when communication is performed badly and takes away from the overall project success, we look for reasons in areas other than communication management.

Seldom do we praise or blame our project communications.

Time spent planning communications in the initial phase of the project is time saved many times over during project execution. Planning project communication involves the following processes:

  • Communication requirements analysis: We should determine the information needs of internal and external project stakeholders, as well as the project team. What must be stressed is that only information that contributes to the success of the project is to be communicated; anything else is wasted time. Additionally, we should limit who will communicate with whom, and who will receive what type of information.
  • Communication technology: In today’s world, whether the entire project team is at a single site or spread across various locations around the world, there are many available communication technologies. Urgency, frequency, and format of the information to be shared often dictates the technology that we will use. Whatever technology we settle on, it must be available and accessible to our audience, it must be easy to use, and it must support the project communication needs as efficiently and effectively as possible.
  • Communication methods: Much of our project communication happens through interactive meetings, audio or video conferencing, or formal workshop sessions. These types of interactive sessions are designed to capture needed project information face-to-face, whether physically or virtually. To be effective and efficient, such communication must be planned to include prearranged times, places, and agendas. A formalized process of creating the documentation must also be indicated.

    George Bernard Shaw mused, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” This same observation is prevalent on projects simply because we assume that everyone knows how to communicate and communicate well.

    And so we fail to prepare a Communications Plan at the outset of the project.

    And so we fail to communicate effectively.

    It’s time to change Bernard Shaw’s observation to: the single biggest success in project communication is that it has taken place; and that it has taken place effectively and efficiently.

  • Communication training: Client organizations hire me to help them to improve their project management practices, to be able to execute their projects more effectively.

    I rarely find problems in the technology aspects of the project, as mature IT providers know their technological solution strategies very well.

    I seldom find issues in the process aspects of their execution, as their project leads are steeped in PMI or other Project Management methodologies that govern each phase of their project activities.

    I uncover most opportunities for improvement in the people aspects of their project management and delivery. And so often the shortcomings in the people aspects fall under the broad heading of communication failures. As noted earlier, I believe project managers spend less effort in this area because of the underlying assumption that we know how to communicate.

    Once I make this clear to the project executive, I work with the teams in improving their communication methods. Depending on my findings during the assessment, we work on improving communication techniques in the following areas:

      • understanding communication styles – with upper management, team members, peers, as each of these requires a different communication approach,
      • political awareness,
      • cultural awareness,
      • proper grammar and structure in both formal and informal communication (status reports, project deliverables, emails, instant messages, and others),
      • tone and messaging awareness,
      • presentation techniques,
      • meeting conduct,
      • conduct during “off hours,”
      • social media awareness.

The resulting Communication Management Plan must be formalized, preferably as a sub-plan within the overall Project Management Plan. It documents:

  • stakeholder and internal project team communication requirements,
  • the information that must be communicated,
  • timeframes and frequency for distribution,
  • persons responsible for communicating and authorizing the communications,
  • methods and technologies used to distribute information,
  • escalation processes for issues that cannot be resolved the at the project team level, and
  • the process for updating and refining the plan throughout the project.

In my earlier examples of communication faux pas, a formal Communication Management Plan may not have prevented my former Project Manager from writing that memo requesting help to remove the client’s Project Manager – but it would have made him think twice before he did so. A Communication Management Plan may not have prevented that endless email thread, or the sketchiness of meeting minutes, or how to address client executives in formal communications – but it can certainly put the methods and processes in place to curtail poor communication practices.

A Communication Management Plan provides the guidelines for professionalism, effectiveness, and efficiency. The time spent in planning will be recovered many times over in the execution.

Of the many places to ensure that the people aspects of project management are attended to, project communication is paramount.

Footnotes

Project Management Institute. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition. Newton Square, PA: PMI Publications, 2013, Print.


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