It is widely accepted in project management circles that communication and information play an important role in the successful execution of projects. Some even claim that poor communication is a major factor in most projects that fail. When communication is poor it often means that people aren’t clear on what their roles and responsibilities are, what the project is meant to achieve, what the current risks and issues are, why individual tasks are important and how recent decisions affect the work they are doing. Team members and stakeholders feel frustrated because they don’t know what is going on and how their actions contribute to the success of the project.
Become a deliberate communicator
The opposite of poor communication is deliberate communication. When project managers communicate deliberately they purposefully influence the perception and behaviour of the team and don’t leave anything to chance. They communicate openly, honestly and frequently and ensure that information is circulated to all relevant parties. The aim is to create transparency around project plans, goals and decisions so that people can work more effectively and continue to feel positive and motivated about the project. There is nothing worse than being involved in a project and not knowing what is going on or having a feeling that information is being withheld.
To set your project up for success, you have to engage your team members and show them that they matter by disseminating information and project news as soon as you can. If appropriate, copy them on steering committee presentations, and right after the meetings, talk them through what was discussed and decided. Many team members may not have the opportunity to interface directly with the sponsor and senior decision-makers. They rely on you to provide them with timely and accurate updates about the direction of the project.
Keep it simple and avoid using jargon
In addition to keeping team members updated, you also have to keep your stakeholders informed and promote the team’s achievements and successes. When you communicate all of the good work that your team is doing, you become an ambassador for the project and put it in the positive light it deserves.
To capture the attention of your stakeholders, it’s important that you communicate in a simple and clear manner without the use of jargon. Many stakeholders feel alienated when we use project management speak such as benefit analysis, milestone report, risk assessment and deliverables. Instead, use plain English and say things they way they are. Use simple words that give meaning to your clients so that they feel you’re at their level and that you understand their world. This is a powerful catalyst for effective communication.
Tailor your message and communication style
Before you enter into a dialogue with a stakeholder or team member, make it a habit to ask yourself what you want to convey and what you want to gain from the communication. How do you want people to feel when they hear or read your message, and what do you want them to do as a result? Knowing what you want to achieve means that you can compose your message in a much clearer and direct manner. Try it now. Think of your next steering committee meeting or one-2-one with a key team member. How would you like them to feel after the meeting, and what do you want them to do as a result?
Effective communication means that the message you convey is being understood in the way you intended it. This is your responsibility and not the receiver’s! In order for that to happen you have to adapt the content and communication style to the individual you are communicating with. Your job is to tune into people and tailor your message to their individual filters and learning styles instead of defaulting to your own. Unfortunately many project managers make basic mistakes when it comes to “tuning in” because they are not sufficiently mindful of the person in front of them. They speak more than they listen and are generally too concerned with their own situation and with what they want to say.
The best way to find out what information your stakeholders want, and how they want it, is to ask them. Some stakeholders may want you to alert them on the phone if a major issue occurs. Others are contented with a weekly status report. When producing a regular status report, keep it to one or two pages, and make sure all of the information is precise and accurate. Summarise the overall status of the project and what has been achieved since the last report. Mention the most important risks and issues, and provide updates on budget and key milestones. Big achievements deserve special mention. The more you emphasise them and value them, the more others will, too.
Try to also include some visual elements to make the status report more appealing. Most people connect well with pictures as they transmit a lot of information in an appealing and memorable way. You could, for instance, insert a time line with key milestone dates and charts or graphs illustrating how far through scope, time, and budget you are. Executives love graphs, but keep them simple so that they are easy to read and understand. If you convey too much detail or complexity you may lose people.
The power of face-2-face communication
Unfortunately many project managers rely too heavily on written communication and status reports and overlook the importance of face-2-face communication. Many misunderstandings and disagreements come about because we don’t take the time to properly speak with people, understand their motives and identify common ground.
Written communication is great for short messages without complexity, but should not be used because it’s more convenient or because it saves us having a difficult conversation. In general, face-to-face interaction is a must in situations where:
- The stakes are high, for instance regarding an issue or a significant risk
- You sense disagreement or conflict
- You want to build trust and make sure you’re on the same page
- You want to ask for advice or feedback
- You want to win your client’s support for an important matter, or
- You want to understand your client’s point of view and how to best communicate with them
Meet regularly with the team and steering committee
In addition to one-to-one meetings, you can become a deliberate communicator by setting up regular and reoccurring team meetings. Have at least one central forum where the team can get together to exchange ideas and get updates about what is going on. If you have to cancel or reschedule, give people as much notice as possible – and respect them by arriving at meetings on time.
You should also set up monthly steering committee meetings to update the project sponsor and senior decision-makers. Put together an appealing presentation, that highlights the project’s key achievements and the main risks and issues that you need your stakeholders to understand and decide on. This is your opportunity to ask for help and direction, so make it clear what you need them to do. Also include a financial status update and a road map that shows how far the project has progressed compared to the original plan. Remember to include some graphs, diagrams and illustrations, and to keep it simple.
After an important meeting, take minutes so that people who are unable to attend can easily stay informed. Taking minutes helps you to reinforce what was decided, what actions were agreed upon, and by whom. You don’t have to write up everything that was said, but make sure that you at least document actions and decisions.
Provide a portal and document repository
To ensure that all the project’s information is readily available to everyone on the team, build a simple and easy-to-maintain webpage or portal focused solely on the project. Include information about the project’s goals and objectives, time frames, milestones, team members, and project news. Make it easy to read and navigate, as it will be the first point of call for new starters and many of the project’s stakeholders.
Link the webpage to a central document repository that contains all key documents such as the business case, project charter, project plans, design documents, risk registers and steering committee presentations. Make the repository accessible to everyone who might need it, and structure the information so that your stakeholders and team members can easily find what they are looking for. When new documents get uploaded make sure you notify people via email so that they don’t have to look for changes themselves.
All of the above tips will help you become a deliberate communicator. When that happens you are naturally considering who needs what information and how you can tailor your messages to the person or group in front of you. The benefit is that people will know what is going on, what their role is and in which ways they can contribute to the projects on-going success.