Project Communications: More Is Not Necessarily Better, Sometimes It’s Just More

13 February

One of the phrases you often hear bantered about is “communication is the key to success” and when failures occur in a project (or a business), it was in some way due to a “lack of communication” or a “failure to communicate properly” across the business units, departments, entities, and individual participants involved. Then to compound matters further – once a failure has occurred, we often see a knee-jerk type of reaction to insure this does not, and will not, happen again. So communication frequency is stepped up; the amount, type and detail of information being provided increases; and we look to create a level of organizational transparency insuring that everyone knows what is going on at all times. In the worst case examples of this, you begin to see an organizational mind-set to give people everything (data dumping); project teams or business units not making timely, or in some cases any, decisions about anything needed; and a CYA (cover yourself attitude) to insulate yourself, and project teams, no matter what may happen and regardless of the outcome.

Either of these situations (lack of proper or over communicating) is not good for projects, and is something everyone confronts from time to time. Our question and challenge is how to avoid either extreme if possible, and to seek to resolve them quickly if caught up in them on our projects. This requires Project Managers to strike a delicate balance. We need to establish this balance from the start of our projects and continually review and refine it as we move through our projects. Below are some of the steps to help create and enable more effective communication:

  • Poll your audience up front – who needs the information, what information do they need, how often do they need it, how should it be delivered, and what are they expecting to do with the information once delivered? Begin setting up the framework for a communication plan and get feedback on it prior to putting it into action. It is amazing how much better communication can be if you take the time to ask what people need and how best to get it to them.
  • Tailor the communication to the audience – Is the information for executives, a steering committee, or key business stakeholders? If so, they do not do well with loads of minutia or FYI types of information. The information presented here needs to be understandable quickly, it should also be tied to the initiatives they care about, and what the project team may need (resources, funding, decisions, etc.). Less is more here, and this audience needs just enough information to determine if there is something they need to worry about. If the information is for project team members, subject matter experts and support staff they will require a more detailed level of information and communication that will allow them to complete their activities or project requirements. Try to build the communication vehicles for the various groups from the perspective of the user, not the creator, of the communication.
  • Communication enables a call to action (if and when needed) – Some communication by its nature is informational and people need to be aware it exists and that it is available for their use. Other communication is more important, even critical, and needs be optimized in its delivery to allow for quick identification and review by the intended audience including what the expected outcome is upon its receipt e.g. decision or other required action. In trying to decide how to identify each type, ask this simple question. “If X, was to learn this at some future date, would he/she/they be surprised/concerned/annoyed?” The goal of effective communication (and good project management) is to avoid surprises, as much as possible.
  • Determine the best way to deliver the information – There are multiple ways to disseminate and communicate information through an organization e.g. push versus pull delivery that can be employed based upon the information and communication content and stakeholder need being served. Pushing information allows it to be driven to specific stakeholders real-time and would be very appropriate for critical decisions needing to be made, time-sensitive information requirements/requests, and when you are expecting specific actions to be taken. Examples would be through the use of email, face-to-face meetings, scheduled report or automated dashboard delivery. Pulling information allows stakeholders to access information if, and when, they may choose. It allows them to get to additional detail but does not force them to do so. Examples here would be a project archives or shared file structures, a SharePoint site, a content management system or knowledge exchange. This would be the perfect place to store large volumes of detail and a way to avoid “data dumping” on unsuspecting team members.
  • Reevaluate your audience needs periodically – follow-up with key audience and project team members to see if the communication plan is working effectively, they are getting information on a timely basis, and the level of detail needed. Incorporate any feedback received and communicate any changes and the reason for the change. How often you will need to re-evaluate will depend on a number of project factors including: organizational prioritization, importance, visibility, complexity, length and cost. Minimally it should be done at least two more time after the initial polling, halfway through the project and as part of lessons learned wrap-up and client satisfaction and experience survey.

Communication is a key factor in helping with project success. The struggle here is not to continually add more and more communication, although some may truly needed, but in insuring the communication being delivered is relevant to the audience, can be acted upon, is being delivered effectively, and any important information is not filtered out (or biased) by the Project Manager or Project Team. Although this last item may be a concern, by applying the techniques outlined above, it is usually easily avoided, and the overall communication process will be smoother, more effective and there will be one less risk or issue to be managed. Given a choice, I will take better every time, because sometimes more truly is just more.

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