Improving project communications is more than technology and tools. It's about understanding the underlying parts of the communications process and ways to leverage those parts to the benefit of your teams and projects.
The art and science of project communication is more than the exchange of emails and weekly status meetings. For communications to be successful, the project manager needs an understanding as to the what, why, and how of the communication to all parties involved.
Based on the stats of PMI itself, one out of five projects fail due to poor communications. How many projects have you been on that have suffered from poor communications? Who&apos;s fault was it? Could it have been avoided?
When planning for project communications, success is more than just how and how often. Taking into consideration who is part of the communication, how will it be used, and the purpose of the communication beyond the information can make or break the communication cycle.
When you send a communication, what are you expecting from it and from the recipient. Are they expecting the same things? Is the expectation of the communication to educate and inform or is it for affirmation and accountability?
When composing your communications always take into consideration who you are engaging, why you or they need the communication, when will it be needed, and how will it continue to be useful. Don&apos;t send information just for the sole purpose of being able to say it was sent.
With every communication there is more than one audience. Message are shared, summarized, parsed, and relayed. Make sure you are considering what kinds of legs your message will have once it leaves your hands. Anticipating the people who will be viewing your communication, more than one step removed, will help in crafting effective and efficient messages.
Why is the communication needed? How will it help move the project forward. Be specific. If you can&apos;t be specific as to what the communication will achieve, does it need to be sent? So often we are trapped in the cycle of sending communications because it has been decreed they need to be sent. The original reasoning and rationale behind them has been lost and we are left with, &quot;we&apos;ve always sent it.&quot;
What can your recipient do with the information as soon as they receive it? What will you do with the information you receive? Almost all communications have an expectation around the information being put to immediate use. Are your recipients in agreement with you as to what that use will be and how they can share with you how effective that communication was for that use?
Every communication has a lifespan. What will yours do as it grows older? Who will see it, learn from it, and react to it? If you take the time to talk to your message recipients and learn with whom they will be sharing the information and for what purpose you can tailor the message to benefit not only you, your recipient, but their extended audience as well. How do you find out what the extended audience needs? Ask your recipient.
The method of communication should match the recipient&apos;s most effective way of consuming, not the sender&apos;s preferred way of delivering. If you can strike a balance even better, but err to the side of the recipient. Make sure you understand why they prefer a method and what the will do with the information received that way. Technology has grown by leaps and bounds and project management is always struggling to keep up. Gathering information about the preferred methods of communication for your team will smooth the process of getting them to receive, acknowledge, and understand your messages.
Inventory the tools you have at hand and compare them to the preferred methods shared by your team. Don&apos;t assume you can dictate to them the method without missing the target and strangling the communication. Also don&apos;t define the communication to the benefit of one team member over the rest. Some team members may be &quot;email people,&quot; some may be &quot;IM&apos;ers,&quot; and others may be &quot;printed page proponents.&quot; No one method is necessarily better than the others. Your systems need to be adaptable enough to support the expectations of your team without increasing your own workload as a project manager.
Email can be retained and referenced, but just as easily lost and difficult to follow. Discussions can be challenging here but notifications can be useful. Look carefully at how your team uses email for how it can be effectively applied. Consider this: how many emails during a day does your recipient receive? If there is a large number, is this the right medium for them? They may want information sent in email, but then make sure there are reasonable expectations set around what they will do with the information and how quickly.
Using automated notifications to track reminders and events can be your virtual assistant, allowing you to focus on more critical aspects without details sliding through the cracks. Event driven and schedule driven both have their uses. Remember notifications hold no accountability so they are easy to ignore unless followed up. Don&apos;t abuse the power of notifications. Too many of too little importance will result in &quot;notification blindness.&quot;
Are your status reports driving success or are they just status quo? Are they empowering decisions or just accountability? Status reports should be more than just where you stand now. They should reflect your progress, your challenges, and where you plan to head in the near future. Is the amount of time you put into creating the status report commensurate with the value it brings to the project? Are you creating a status report just to check off a box? Would more than one report targeted around specific needs be more effective? Does the status report creation need to fall solely on the back of the project manager?
Some projects benefit from having real time measures around progress and bottlenecks. Others have dashboards that while providing interesting views are not relevant to the success of the project. Make sure your dashboards are both relevant and current. Consider this: when driving a dashboard helps the driver make immediate decisions to keep the passengers safe and to arrive at the destination without incident. Rarely does a driver use their dashboard to plan out their entire trip. Tech solutions provide many different types of dashboards based on defined and proven standards. The only problem is there is no way of knowing if those dashboards are actually what you need. Make sure your tech allows for change and adaptation as your information needs grow and mature.
Don&apos;t limit your communications to just the tools you have always used. Investigate your options and see if there are more effective alternatives you can put in place. Remember, even the tried and true was new once.
Every communication needs content, and in the words of the Internet, “Content is King.” When sharing communications with other team members there are several guidelines you can apply as yardsticks for your content. By applying these rules to each message you send, you will find your communications more effective and better received. In content management circles you will hear about &quot;repurposable content.&quot; Apply that idea to your project communications. Can you generate a piece of information that is relevant to more than one audience? Can that content be shared in multiple mediums?
When you go out to dinner, does everyone order the same thing on the menu? Better yet, do you not order but just wait for the waiter to bring you all the same thing and hope you like it? Targeting your communications with content specific to the needs of the recipient makes all the difference when it comes to getting people to read, acknowledge, and act on your message. There is a balance point you need to reach between effort and the value of the information. Grouping your communications around roles rather than individuals can be that balance point.
Information is the sustenance of a project, and as any foodstuff it has a shelf life and “best by” date. Information shared too soon is not “ripe” and ready to be put to effective use nurturing the project’s health. Information shared too late is unhealthy to the project and can almost be toxic. How do you determine when your information is in it’s prime? The timely delivery of information can be a consuming effort unless you leverage tools to your advantage. Scheduled communications, automated notifications, and a defined communication plan can make the difference when it comes to feeding the information need of your project team.
Have you ever been the recipient of an email that goes on for paragraphs and when you’re done, the only thing you can say is, “What was I supposed to do with this?” Ensuring your communications contain actionable updates for your team all but guarantees they will derive some value from each one, assisting the project in moving forward. Punch lists, specific questions, confirmable responses all come together in helping your team know what to do with each communication. Some executives have a section at the bottom of all memorandum that crosses their desk. To paraphrase: Yes, No, Let’s Discuss. Simple and direct it assists them with the decision making process and you can use the same concepts for your own.
Every message needs a purpose. Something specific. Don’t just send communications because it’s 3:00pm on Thursday or because the project management office says you should. Make sure every communication has a purpose and meets that purpose before it’s sent. Remember, every message sent to your team burns their time. Is it going to fan the project flames or just sit and smoulder in the ashes?
There are two main purposes for project communications. The first is to inform your project team of information necessary to the success of the project. The downside to this is the infamous &quot;FYI&quot; message. Going back to take into consideration the firehose of information that most people deal with on a daily basis, the FYI email does not hold a position of importance for most. Set expectations with your team as to how you will be sharing important, but not urgent, information. Look into less interrupt driven tech such as collaborative sites and private social media to share this information
The second main purpose is to generate a response or dialog among the parties involved. When your communications are sent, are they crafted in a way that encourages open dialog or are they targeted for direct yes or no
Many communications are sent for the sole reason of holding someone else accountable. Take a close look at your communication plan. Is there messaging in the plan that serves no other purpose than to use against someone should they not meet expectations? Can those communications be better served as proactive tools to help your team succeed? More carrots, less stick, and a greater likelihood of success is ahead.
Give yourself permission to take time to change the rules if necessary. If there was only one correct way to communicate about projects, we would all be doing it. Giving yourself the chance to apply methods not only to execute project communications but to improve them can make all the difference for future and current successes.
Use or procure the technology to make the process of project communications second-nature. Let your tech set the expectation of “no surprises” and allow you to focus on the content rather than the mechanisms.
Collaboration tools such as SharePoint based solutions, Yammer, or other collaborative spaces can assist in defusing the email bomb and put your teams back on track to working with rather than against each other. While these tools are not for everyone, they may be successful for you, but unless you try you will never know.
Often our existing processes for communicating can be highly effective given the chance to adapt to changes in our needs. As our teams evolve from paper to email to instant messaging, our communications messages need to adapt in the same manner.
“Because that’s the way we’ve always done it,” isn’t an acceptable answer any more. Evaluate. Examine. Determine if maintaining the status quo is the best choice for keeping your project communications on target. If the status quo passes your evaluation, then congratulations. If not, be ready to start adapting and in some cases, innovating.
Every new method, technique, and process came from an idea. The back of a cocktail napkin or a corporate whiteboard are fertile ground for the innovations that could make the difference when it comes to your project communications. New ideas, given their moment in the sun, could be just what you need to turn the corner. Use what you understand about your systems and technology, combine that with experts and insights, and shake well with some effort to get that magic elixir we all search for in project communications: common understanding.
Common message, common understanding, common action. If we focus on the message, the delivery, and the expectation, we can make project communications a linchpin instead of a necessary evil.
Improving your Project Communications
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