How To Handle Your Project Team Communication

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project team communication
project team communication

This is the first part of a series of articles on controlling a project. If you found this article through search engines I would encourage you to take a look at the whole series here. Now lets move to the subject at hand. Project team communication within members has these four major needs:

  • Responsibility. Each team member needs to know exactly what part of the project he or she is responsible for.
  • Coordination. As team members carry out their work, they rely on each other. Coordination information enables them to work together efficiently.
  • Status. Meeting the goal requires tracking progress along the way to identify problems and take corrective action. The team members must be kept up to speed on the status of the project.
  • Authorization. Team members need to know about all the decisions made by customers, sponsors, and
    management that relate to the project and its business environment. Team members need to know
    these decisions to keep all project decisions synchronized.

Project Team Communication Techniques

Each technique below addresses two or more of these project team communication needs.

Making Task Assignments Clear

Projects and project managers need clear direction if they are to succeed; this is why developing the statement of work is so worthwhile. Team members also need clear direction. Fortunately, all the work that’s gone into project planning tells them just what they need to know. Every work package is like a mini-project, with time lines, dependencies, and deliverables. Whether you are assigning work to an individual performer or to a vendor, these basic rules should be observed:

  • Explain the deliverables. Be sure they know exactly what they are supposed to deliver, including any completion criteria that will be used to judge it.
  • Be clear about the level of effort expected and the due dates. The network diagram is a good tool to explain how their pieces fit into the whole project.
  • Set them up for success. If you know of any obstacles they can expect or special information they’ll need, make sure they know it, too.
  • Hand out work assignments personally, allowing plenty of time for questions and discussion. These meetings should be considered an investment in team performance: The better you prepare them, the better they’ll perform.

Individual Status Meetings

Project team communication will be better if you plan on spending time with every member of the team on a regular basis. Remember, your job is to make them more productive, and you can’t do that if you don’t understand what they’re working on—and what problems they’re struggling with.

The project status meeting just doesn’t allow for this level of interaction. The project manager must take responsibility for setting up these meetings.

Even though a manager might say, “I have an open-door policy; my team doesn’t have to wait for a special meeting; they can find me any time they want,” this would only be true if the manager was always at his or her desk.

In reality, project managers spend a lot of time in meetings and can be difficult to find. If you make team members seek you out, they may wait until their problems have grown too big to solve easily; the same problems might have been nipped early on if a meeting had been held sooner.

Put the Meetings on the Calendar

Many project managers intend to spend a lot of time with team members, but as the project goes on they are just too busy. The best bet is to put time for every team member on your weekly calendar. That way you’ve planned in advance to be available.

The Kick-off Meeting: Start the Project with a Bang

In football, the kick-off represents a clear, decisive start. Everyone knows the game is under way. Projects can start the same way. The kick-off meeting brings all the stakeholders together to look each other in the eye and commit to reaching the goals.

A kick-off meeting usually marks the beginning of the execution phase of a project. By this time, the statement of work and project plan have been approved and the team is assembled. It’s an opportunity to celebrate initiation of the project.

Here’s a format for a kick-off meeting:

  1. The sponsor leads the meeting and takes the opportunity to explain the project’s purpose and connection to the overall business.
  2. The customers are introduced; they offer an explanation of the project’s importance to their business.
  3. The project manager is introduced and enthusiastically endorsed by the sponsor.
  4. Project team members are introduced, if there are not too many. Vendors and contractors also need to be introduced.
  5. The coffee mugs, T-shirts, or other project memorabilia are passed out. This is a good time to do this, rather than at the end of the project, because they can help in creating a sense of unity and team spirit.
  6. Celebrate. Everyone needs to get to know each other and communicate their enthusiasm for the project.

On big projects there are usually too many team members to introduce at the kick-off meeting. So have kick-off meetings for teams within the project, too. The hour or two spent on each of these meetings is an investment in project team communication, cohesion and performance. It will pay off.

Project Status Meetings

Keeping a project on track requires regularly scheduled meetings to both share information and make decisions. A good project status meeting meets a lot of needs in terms of project team communication. Status meetings give the project manager an opportunity to:

  • Increase team cohesion; status meetings are often the only time the entire team gets together.
  • Keep the team informed about project developments from sources external to the team, such as from the sponsor, the customer, or management.
  • Identify potential problems or share solutions to common problems.
  • Ensure that the team understands the progress of the project and works together to determine any necessary changes to the project plan.

Make sure that the entire team shares the responsibility of meeting all the project objectives!

Project status meetings rely on a participative management style. They build on the team’s involvement in planning the project; the manager should encourage the same kind of involvement to keep it on track. This attitude is based on the philosophy that involvement leads to ownership, and ownership leads to greater commitment and accountability.

FIVE RULES FOR EFFECTIVE MEETINGS

  1. Pass out an agenda in advance. The minimum is at least one full working day. Encourage people to odd new items ‘to the agenda prior to the meeting rather then bringing them UP during the meeting.

  2. Begin and end on time.

  3. Every agenda topic hos one of three goals: to pass on information, to come to a decision, or to gather information. Stick with the agenda. Allow time for discussion, but stay on the topic.

  4. Draw people out, Don’t assume silence is consent.

  5. Record decisions and action assignments. Check the action list for completion at the next meeting.

In addition to the basic rules for running an effective meeting (see it above), the following are useful guidelines for running a project status meeting:

Be prepared. In addition to your agenda, everyone attending the meeting needs to have an open task report (OTR) before the meeting begins. An OTR is a subset of the project plan listing any tasks that should have been completed but weren’t, and the tasks scheduled for the next two reporting periods. (A reporting period is defined as the period between status meetings. If you have a status meeting every week, then a reporting period is one week.)

  • Include the part-time team members who have been working on project tasks or who will be working on them during the next two reporting periods.
  • Use the meeting to disseminate decisions made by management or customers. Be sure to pass on any positive feedback from these stakeholders.
  • Using the open task report, get the status of every task that should have been started or completed since the last status meeting. The person responsible for each task will report on its completion status (not started: 0 percent; started: 50 percent; completed: 100 percent) and the amount of labor spent on the task. Using only these three completion states assumes that you are breaking down the work packages to tasks that won’t span more than two reporting periods. Small work packages both simplify progress reporting and make it more accurate.
  • Take advantage of the fact that the entire team is available to consider what action needs to be taken on any problems. If special action needs to be taken, be sure that you write it down. Either add a task to the project plan, or an action to the issues log. Every action should have a due date and a person responsible for its completion.
  • Don’t try to solve problems that are too big for the meeting or that don’t include everyone present. If a problem takes more than five minutes to resolve, assign it as an action item.
  • Review the readiness for future tasks on the OTR. Are the right people assigned? Are there any known
    obstacles to performing the tasks as planned?
  • Review project logs including issues logs and the risk log. Are the issues and risks being resolved, or do they need to be escalated to higher management?

When team members participate in managing the project, they are more likely to take responsibility for its success, This participation changes the project manager from an enforcer to an enabler, and the team from individual performers to team members. If a member is behind on his or her work, peer pressure is more effective at boosting this individual’s output than management pressure.

A project manager at one software company takes it one step further: “We rotate leadership of the weekly status meeting. Everyone has a sense of ownership over the project.”

With voice mail, faxes, e-mail and Internet communication available, it may seem old-fashioned to bring people together around a conference table every week. Struggling with a busy schedule might tempt us to replace project status meetings with “virtual meetings” via e-mail or voice mail. But don’t be fooled: Humans are complex animals, and project team communication happens in many ways.

For example, reluctant bearers of bad news may first use their body language to report their feelings; a discouraged demeanor should signal the project manager to probe deepen.

In addition, problem solving and team building become more natural when people can look each other in the eye or slap each other on the back.

Successful project managers recognize the benefits of face-to-face communication, balance it with the need to be efficient, and run their meetings so that they are a good use of everyone’s time.

Long-Distance Status Meetings Benefit from Formality

Project team communication within geographically dispersed teams don’t get the benefit of informal communication of the kind that happens in the break room or hallway. Conference calls and videoconferencing bring people together, but they need an additional level of formality to make sure all the issues are raised and everyone is heard.

The open task report provides the structure for keeping all parties on track and ensuring that all the details are discussed.

Set Communication Expectation

Managing expectations is a repetitive theme in project management, and it applies equally to project team communication. The communication plan described in this article outlined the communication channels and responsibilities for project participants.

Putting the communication structure in place by setting up the schedule for meetings and status reports, establishing the location of issue logs, and publishing change management procedures makes it easier for people to know both what to expect and what is expected of them.

Visibility Rooms

If knowledge is power, then sharing knowledge is empowering to everyone. Visibility rooms are openly accessible areas for displaying project information. They are another way to promote team involvement in managing the project. By visiting the visibility room, team members might not only find answers to their own questions about the project, they might also find problems someone else has missed.

Here are the kind of documents that a visibility room should contain:

  1. The project schedule and issues log.
  2. The most current version of the statement of work, responsibility matrix, risk management plan, and other project management documents.
  3. The current version of product requirements, specifications, test plans, and other product development information.

A visibility room might seem like a luxury reserved for large projects; there may simply not be enough rooms for every project to have one. In this event, project managers can turn their office door or cubicle wall into a visibility area. If there isn’t enough room for all the project documentation on the wall, then you can put up the information people will want most often, such as the project schedule or high-level product design drawings.

Some firms have a central project visibility room shared by several projects. Alternatively, you can simply keep an up-to-date project notebook in a centrally accessible place (you may need to chain this down).

Create a Visibility Web Site

Technology offers another visibility room alternative: the project web site. Company networks can make your project information available around the office or all the way around the globe.

This may be the easiest way to post up-to-date information on everything from product specifications to team parties. Probably the greatest value of this technology is the way it can link teams from different time zones or different companies.

There’s No Substitute for Active Communication

Despite their value, visibility rooms are basically passive communication. They must not be considered a substitute for status meetings or one-on-one communication. If you post something in a visibility room that everyone needs to see, be sure to send out notification that it’s there.

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