Some Basic Elements of Communicating for Effect
Project managers spend significant time communicating with project stakeholders both orally and in writing. Good project communications are essential to a successful project outcome for all stakeholders by aligning the project team on the outcome and the roles of all team members on the journey to the outcome.
As project communications is a large topic, this note will focus on key communication skills, common communication plans, the project schedule and an important communication pitfall to avoid.
DIVERSE BACKGROUND and AUDIENCES
The members of a project team come from diverse backgrounds, with different skills and different interests and expectations of the project. Communications can be for a range of purposes, such as to inform, gain information, set expectations, influence, negotiate and motivate.
I find it helpful to think of both the purpose and the audience for the communication before outlining the specifics of the communication. For example, to discuss a specific challenge with the broader project team to gain ideas and information, I would see the communication as setting the challenge within its project context, providing both high and low-level descriptions of the challenge and its impacts, and teasing out different ideas and viewpoints through various open questions. Best responses to challenges often come from open and free-flowing discussions within the broader project team.
Communication by the sponsor or owner of the drivers behind a project at the outset provides understanding, context and may prompt “buy-in” from some stakeholders. This may inform the delivery team in tweaking a design, a migration plan or a schedule to respond subtly but effectively to the end-users’ drivers.
Setting expectations is a necessary aspect of good communication. An old and well-used, but good guiding principle is, “under-promise and over-deliver”. It is easier to explain early and over delivery than late and under-delivery, and relationships and trust can be undermined by either late or under-delivery on even just a few occasions.
Newspaper style is a good technique to be aware of. This style presents information from the most important to the least important. This allows the reader to decide when his or her information needs have been met, and they may stop reading. This is particularly suited to an Executive audience.
Basic communication plans are often discussed and agreed in a project kick-off. The common elements of communication plans are: meeting cadences, meeting minutes, reports and their distribution; I also like to include a schedule in the communication plan.
A large project may have an Executive Stakeholder or SteerCo Meeting providing project governance; a project manager meeting when there are project teams from different entities (including the end user) responsible for different but inter-dependent elements of the project; and project teams within each entity to deliver the entity’s element of the project. Smaller projects may have one regular meeting comprised of external and end-user project managers and technical staff.
WHAT, WHEN and BY WHOM
All meetings should have agreed attendees and agendas, minutes should be taken and promptly issued to the agreed distribution list. Where a company’s formal minutes template is used, the minutes of the last meeting may serve as the Agenda for the next meeting, during which the minutes are updated and re-issued. Other approaches include taking minutes in the meeting invite and “replying to all” with an e-mail and taking minutes in an e-mail template with appropriate structure to organise information that is issued to all attendees. Action ownership and due date are common to all approaches.
Various reports, such as Project Plan, Design, Test Plan and As Built may be deliverables of the project. A weekly project status report is common for all but the smallest of projects. The usual content of such reports is a RAG status, project overview, past period achievements, upcoming period plans, tracking of key schedule milestones and deliverables, and supporting project registers of actions, risks, issues, decisions, and dependencies.
While the project schedule is not usually considered an element of project communications, it is a favourite of mine and I usually include a schedule, updated with status, in regular formal project reporting. After all, the schedule is a visual representation of the “what, when and by whom” of the project journey from the beginning to the outcome.
The Statement of Work (SOW) can be a source of potentially serious miscommunication. Because of this, the SOW is usually reviewed in most project kick-offs, however, there are circumstances where this review may not avoid a miscommunication. Examples include where stakeholders do not review the SOW before the kick-off; where words in the SOW are understood differently by different stakeholders (e.g. training and instruction); and where there was a miscommunication in pre-sales and a consequent omission from the SOW. The latter is particularly difficult to catch where there are separate sales and delivery teams. These misunderstandings can have commercial consequences and can impact relationships and feelings about the project if they are not caught early. OUR MISSION THIS YEAR
Let’s make good project communications our mission this year, acknowledging that improvement is always possible, both desirable and achievable and that we and the people we work with will benefit as well as our projects.