People make projects happen. They solve problems, make decisions, lay bricks, draw models, and so on. It is the job of the project manager to make other people more productive. Through agreements, plans, recommendations, status reports, and other means, a project manager coordinates and influences all the stakeholders, while giving them the information they need to be more productive. He or she also manages customer expectations. But no matter what the task, every action of a project manager includes communication. A careful crafted communication plan reduces the risk of a communication breakdown.
Let’s look at what can happen when such a breakdown occurs. Dirk, a project manager for a consulting firm, tells this story:
We were assisting one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. with FDA approval for a new production facility they were building. Like most of our projects, the client requested a lot of changes as we proceeded. I followed the normal change management process outlined in our contract, getting the client project manager to sign off on any changes which would cause a cost or schedule variance with the original bid. Although the changes caused a 50% increase over the original budget, the client approved each one and I thought I was doing my job right.
When we finished the project and sent the bill for the changes, our customer’s president saw it and went ballistic. He came down to my office and chewed me out. He’d never heard of any changes to the original bid, and he sure didn’t expect a 50% cost over-run. The president of my company flew out to meet with the customer’s president. I spent two weeks putting together all the documentation to support our billing, including the signed change orders. We did get paid, but you can bet I didn’t get an apology from their president. And we didn’t bill them for the two weeks I spent justifying the bill.
I made the mistake of assuming the client’s project manager was passing on the cost overrun information to his superiors. I don ‘t make that mistake any more.
This story illustrates the dangers of letting communication take care of itself. The answers to questions like, Who needs information? What information do they need? When and how will they get it get it? vary on every project.
A communication plan is the written strategy for getting the right information to the right people at the right time. The stakeholders identified on the statement of work, the organization chart, and the responsibility matrix are the audience for most project communication. For instance, the simple organization chart below depicts who will need information on this particular project.
But on every project, stakeholders participate in different ways, so each has different requirements for information. Following are the key questions you need to ask, with tips for avoiding common pitfalls:
- Who needs information?
- Sponsor. The sponsor is supposed to be actively involved in the project. There shouldn’t be a
question about who the sponsor is after writing the statement of work.
- Functional management. Many people may represent functional management. Their two basic responsibilities of providing resources and representing policy will dictate the information they need. Each functional manager’s name or title must appear on the communication plan, though it may be appropriate to list several together as having the same information needs.
- Customers. Customers make decisions about the business case—what the product should be, when it is required, and how much it can cost. There are likely to be many different levels of customer involvement, so individual names or titles must be listed.
- Project team. The project team can be a particularly complex communication audience. It will be relatively straightforward to communicate with the core team, because they’ll be tightly involved in the project. Other project team members, such as vendors, subcontractors, and staff in other departments, may have a variety of communication barriers to overcome, so each will need to be evaluated separately.
- Project manager. While the project manager is the source of much information, he or she will often be on the receiving end as well.
- Sponsor. The sponsor is supposed to be actively involved in the project. There shouldn’t be a
- What information is needed? In addition to the obvious cost and status reports, there are several other typos of information distributed during the project. There are basically throe categories that classify how information is managed:
- Authorizations. Project plans, the statement of work, ‘budgets, and product specifications must all be authorized. Any document that represents an agreement must havo an approval process, including stops for reviewing and modifying the proposal. Be specific about who will mako the decision.
- Status changes. Reports with cost and schedule progress fall into this category. So do problem logs. It is common to issue status reports, but the content of each report should be specific to the audience receiving it.
- Coordination. The project plan helps to coordinate all the players on a project. It contains the tasks and responsibilities, defines the relationships between groups, and specifies other details necessary to work efficiently. When change occurs during the course of a project, coordination among teams or locations is often required on a daily basis. The communication plan should record the process for keeping everyone up to date on the next steps.
Keep the Status Report Short
A common mistake is to include in the status report everything about the project that anyone might want to know. Instead of having the intended effect of informing everyone, these obese reports are overwhelming for a busy audience. When developing the report content, keep it practical. A department manager responsible for 250 projects made the point this way:
“Some of our project leaders have ten projects. If they have to spend two hours a week writing status updates, there won’t be any time left for them to do work. They report to supervisors overseeing up to eighty projects. We need a way to identify and communicate the key information quickly so project leaders and supervisors can spend time solving problems and moving the projects ahead!”
Set up an Escalation Procedure
Some problems get out of hand because they must be passed up several layers of authority before they can be
resolved. The project manager must set up a procedure for communicating with higher management—called an escalation procedure—when a project begins to run over cost or schedule. This escalation procedure will determine which level of management to contact depending on the degree of variance from the plan.
Make Information Timely
For information to be useful, it has to be timely. As part of the communication plan, the project manager needs to decide how often to contact each stakeholder and with what information. In fact, stakeholder response to the communication plan is a way of discerning the involvement level of each stakeholder.
Include Regular Meetings in the Communication Plan
It’s best to have regularly scheduled progress meetings written into the communication plan. While everyone says they would rather be proactive than reactive, many sponsors or supporting managers want to have status meetings only as needed—meaning only when there is a big problem. They are willing to let the project manager handle everything as long as it is going smoothly (they call this type of uninvolvement “empowering the project manager”).
In reality, when troubles occur, by the time these higher-level managers get involved, it is often too late for them to help. This is why scheduled meetings are important. If things are going smoothly, the meetings won’t take long, but if a problem does arise, these meetings will give management the background information they need to be effective.
How Will Communication Take Place?
There are now myriad ways to stay in constant communication. Internet and intranet technologies allow more people to share information simultaneously. Paper status reports are now posted on project web sites, and videoconferencing enables project teams to be spread around the world and still meet face to face. But with all these options, the question still remains the same:
What is the best way to get the information delivered? One thing is certain: Technology doesn’t have all the answers. Putting a project’s status on a web site, for instance, doesn’t ensure that the right people will see it, need to consider the audience and its specific communication needs.
For example, because high-level executives are usually very busy, trying to meet with them weekly—or sending them a lengthy report—may not be realistic.
Consider the communication breakdown described earlier in this chapter. After Dirk’s client contact failed to report budget overruns, he learned the hard way how to manage communication with a customer:
“After that project, I always plan for my president to meet with a client executive at least quarterly. It goes into our contract. The client likes to see our president on site, too.
They know we take them seriously.” In this case the medium isn’t just a meeting, it is a meeting with the president. (This is also an example of the company president being a good sponsor for the project manager.)
Dirk has learned to get his customers to commit to regular project status meetings. He includes this commitment in the contract and, because the commitment is clear and formal, the customer is likely to pay attention to it.
Not all projects, however, need that level of formality. In the case of small projects with few stakeholders, you might find that discussing communication expectations early in the project is sufficient. A project manager might build a communication plan solely for his or her own benefit and use it as a strategy and a self-assessment checklist during the project without ever publishing it. In either case, whether a communication plan is formally accepted as part of the project rules or is just a guide for the project manager, the important thing is that communication has been thoughtfully planned, not left to chance.
Take a Tip from Madison Avenue
If you want to communicate effectively, why not take a lesson from the folks on Madison Avenue? Whether
they are running ad campaigns for cars or computers, movies, milk, or sunscreen, they use both repetition and multiple media channels. You can mimic this by providing hard-copy reports at status meetings and then following up with minutes of the meeting. In the case of a video- or teleconference, providing hard-copy supporting materials becomes even more important.
Don’t Miss Out on Informal Communication
While it is important to plan for communication, it is also true that some of the best communication takes them weekly place informally and unexpectedly. You can nurture the opportunities for informal communication. Be available. Get into the places where the work is being done or the team members are eating their lunch. Listen.
Watch for the nonverbal, unofficial signs of excitement, confusion, accomplishment, or burnout.