Project communications: A plan for getting your message across

Here are some tips to help you better manage key communications channels for your next project. Follow these guidelines to keep your project on time and on track.

Like it or not, communication is the most important component within any project. The success of most projects, whether handled by a dedicated project team or a cross-departmental team, depends upon a set of crucial communication skills and techniques. Interestingly enough, all IT project and development managers that I interviewed agreed: Communication and human interaction make or break a project.

We sometimes forget that project communications refer to the specific behavior and techniques used to motivate, lead, delegate, and report back to all stakeholders working on the project. There are three clear communication channels that managers need to establish once the project has started (See Figure A). Managing and improving these channels can dramatically increase your chances of success.

Figure A
The key to successful communications is to keep information flowing in the right direction.

Communication affects performance. Therefore, if you want high-performance teams working on a project, you need effective communications entrenched to make sure you get these kinds of results. Without well-established channels, it is likely that the project will fail. Successful project managers typically have good communications skills that include being able to effectively present the issues, listen and act on feedback, and foster harmony among team members.

Reinforcing project communications
An effective communications plan will:
  • Facilitate team development: Proper communication actually provides the basis for the project team to work together and understand objectives and tasks to be completed. Better communication means better performance.
  • Be used throughout the software development process: From defining the user requirements to implementing the product, a proper communication plan aids in informing all project stakeholders what communication channels will be used on the project, who will report to whom, and the frequency, type, and format of project meetings.
  • Make it easier to update stakeholders: Frequent communications keep stakeholders in the loop.
  • Save on creating additional project documentation: By taking effective communication steps from the day the project starts, you may see a reduction in project documentation.

Use the plan to resolve critical issues
I was recently asked by my CIO to assess how one of our most critical e-commerce projects had literally fallen apart at the seams. A quick assessment showed that the project failed because of poor communications. The client was very unsatisfied with the way in which the project was being managed. He expressed his displeasure by saying, “All the project manager had to do was to either ask or come and see me, and we could’ve resolved this issue.” There were also complaints about insufficient project status reports and how the project failed to deliver the application as the client wanted it. An initial kickoff document and a few e-mails were distributed, but that was it. No follow-up meetings were conducted and the client was left without any means of tracking progress. The client complained that he hardly ever saw anyone from the project and had wondered what was going on.

The project manager indicated that it was the developers who had failed to develop the application correctly, a problem that meant he had to "fight fires" most of the time. Nevertheless, our company lost a valuable client, had unhappy project members, and a failed project. The CIO later said, “This is not what I want to hear on my watch; why didn’t someone tell me what was going on?” An effective communications plan could have helped avoid most of these problems.

Effectively improving your communications
Project communication isn’t always as easy as it may seem, but it is a foundation you can use to build your team, demonstrate your leadership, and provide timely project direction. See Table A for some of the communication tools that project/development managers have available.
Table A
Communication aids
Type/technique Description
Allows project teams to communicate text, audio, and video files between the team members
Interoffice memos
Provides a formal forum to communicate key dates, policies, and procedures
Instant Messaging (IM)

Allows team members to communicate real-time

Project status meetings
Provides regular status updates and reviews of the project
Telephone/video conferences
Provides a medium to involve team members located in other geographic regions
Intranet, Internet boards
Formally communicates status, progress, highlights, and objectives to all
Project road show Provides feedback to stakeholders or users
Walk-about Involves a hands-on face-to-face approach with your team and clients

You need to go back to basics to determine which tools to use to remedy poor project communications. Communications are essentially closed when information comes in but doesn’t go out. This occurs when some team members have access to accurate information and others don’t. It’s a key responsibility of project or development managers to provide regular and consistent feedback, such as status reports, issue logs, risk logs, meeting notes, or a project Web site, where project information can be published. You should develop a common repository for project information to avoid miscommunication and confusion on the team.

On the other hand, you should also ensure that you get the correct information across to the project stakeholders without overloading them with reams of documents that are irrelevant or contain repetitive information. Skillful project managers know how to plan their communications, understand what type of information each team member needs, and utilize a wide range of communication methods.

Achieving balance in the communication process
I often think about the great expectations managers leave with stakeholders at their initial project kickoff meetings. Managers say, “My door is always open to you” or “I’ll provide you with all the communication you need,” but then, a week later, it’s a different story. The key factor is that managers should facilitate project communications and encourage openness and allow the teams to be “empowered” with the right information to do their tasks. How do you know if you are effectively managing communications? Here are a few red flags to look for that could signal impending project failure:
  • Micromanaging everything on the project: Managers design these 1,000-line project plans and start pushing themselves and the team to get every task done in the most incredible detail. This style of project manager actually stifles the entire communication process as a result of getting too involved with the details. The team soon realizes that a dictator has taken over the project, and they typically refrain from saying too much, or, worse yet, can’t wait to leave the project. This style of management leads to mistrust and eventual frustration. The project manager usually only releases information on an “as-needed” basis and, as a result, the team becomes less creative or unwilling to come up with great ideas. Remember that project managers need to foster more open and transparent communication.
  • Allowing too much communication: Sending too much communication can actually hamper the amount of work that gets done. Sharing every piece of data and information with everyone is the norm for this type of manager. Team members are actively encouraged to speak their minds, share their pains, and, eventually, a 40-hour workweek is made even longer, all due to overcommunication. The downside here is that when breakdowns do occur because of technical challenges, the project manager will have a tough time trying to bring the project back on track, due to communication paralysis.

The correct balance is needed on a project team when it comes to communications. The important factors involve communicating how the project will be managed, including how information will flow into and out of the project. You should also have a clear and concise communication plan to address project responsibilities and the types of communication that will take place.

The communication plan
The television series Star Trek embraces the communication plan quite well, I think. Starfleet crewmembers all refer to “The Prime Directive,” a master plan that lays out what communication channels are to be used, reporting standards, responsibilities, etc. Well, the project communication plan is no different. The following communication information should be contained within the project communication plan:
  • Project communication strategy
  • The kick-off meeting
  • Roles and responsibilities of the team
  • Project status meetings and frequency
  • Change control communications
  • Project review meetings
  • Transition from deployment to operations
  • Closure meeting

In this primer on project communications, I’ve introduced you to the basics of effectively communicating on a project or program. Not only is it essential to create a communications map of your project (i.e., communications plan), but you should also be able to effectively analyze information and distribute such information in the correct medium.

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