Project Management

Communication plans are vital for success on large projects

Status meetings and reports will usually suffice for keeping stakeholders up to date on a project's status. But as Project Mentor Tom Mochal explains, a more sophisticated communication plan is needed for a major initiative.


Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice about how to plan and manage projects. Tom first describes a common problem scenario, based on real-life situations. He then offers a solution, using practical project management practices and techniques.

The dilemma
Reyna was recently put in charge of a large effort to implement a customer relationship management (CRM) package at Blue Sky Manufacturing. The undertaking will be complex and affect almost every person in the sales and marketing departments.

“I was named project manager only a few weeks ago,” Reyna said. “But I’m already getting calls and e-mails every day from people who want an update.”

“It’s understandable that people are curious about what’s going on,” I said. “After all, word has gotten out about the project, and people know that it will impact how they do their jobs, for better or for worse. I’m sure the business clients are fielding even more questions. How are you responding to the inquiries?”

“I’m trying to be as helpful as possible, but it’s distracting,” she said. “I’d like to send them all a common status update, but the requests are from people all over the organization—managers, peers, executives, business clients, salespeople, and so on. Maybe the reason I’m getting so many requests is because the previous messages I sent out didn’t have the right focus.”

The solution
I could appreciate Reyna’s problem. I explained to her that a project like this one will require a proactive and sophisticated level of communication.

I told Reyna that monthly status reports won’t cut it in this situation. In fact, because communication will be one of the success factors of the project, she would need a formal communication plan.

I explained the timing: “First, go ahead and complete your project definition and workplan. We’ll create the communication plan in the analysis phase. However, for the next few weeks, when people ask you for information, note what they’re requesting and ask them what their ongoing communication needs will be.”

Mentor advice
On most projects, typical status meetings and status reports are sufficient to keep clients and IT people informed. On a major initiative, however, a proactive and sophisticated communication plan must be developed and executed as an integral part of the project plan. The business client and the IT team should work together to craft a communication plan as follows:
  1. Identify the major stakeholder groups, including management, steering committee, vendors, and end users.
  2. Determine the communication needs of each stakeholder group. Each group’s “needs” should be looked at as a combination of what they want to know and what the project team wants to tell them. Determine how frequently the communication should take place.
  3. What is the best medium to communicate to each group? Should it be in person, written, e-mail, or a group presentation?
  4. If you end up with too many communication ideas, prioritize them so that those that are the least costly but provide the most value are included in the final communication plan.
  5. Place the details of the communication plan into the project workplan to ensure that the steps will be executed. Determine who is responsible for carrying out the communication plan and assign dates for the completion of each phase of the plan.

Renya’s formal plan will allow her to organize the communication so that she can send the messages she wants to send, while also ensuring that the stakeholders get the information they need. The requests she is receiving will help her determine the types of information that different groups will need, and she can solicit further information as to which communication medium would be the most appropriate and effective. This information will help her build a proactive plan that will foster the success of her project in the future.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project management and life-cycle skills. He’s also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.

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