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.

When you have been with the customer for as long as my boss Wayne, people from all over the company get to know who you are. A few days ago, Wayne received a visit from one of his friends in the finance department. The finance manager was concerned about a lack of communication with one of the project managers. The finance manager heard there was a risk that this project might miss a critical quarterly reporting deadline.

I went to see the project manager, William, the next day and introduced myself.

The dilemma
“The project isn’t in bad shape,” William said. “We missed a couple milestone dates but by less than a week. I think we are back on target now.”

“That’s good news,” I said. “It sounds like the client’s concerns were unwarranted.”

“I wouldn’t get too optimistic yet,” William said. “The overall workplan was very aggressive. We are still going to struggle to hit the deadline. I have been trying to communicate this in our status reports. Not that anyone reads them.”

“This project sounds very important to the finance department,” I said with some surprise. “Why wouldn’t they be interested?”

“It’s just the way this project has gone,” William, who sounded frustrated, said. “I don’t think anyone reads the status reports. When we sent out e-mails to solicit requirements, we hardly received any replies. I send out e-mails whenever we have problems, but I don’t get any help from the senior managers. We also publish risk plans, project news, and current status on a shared Web server, but none of the clients are reading it. I think it’s unfair that now they are saying we are not communicating effectively.”

It sounds like I may have hit upon a pattern. “It certainly sounds like you have provided the clients with a lot of information,” I noted. “However, when is the last time you met with them face-to-face?”

Mentor advice
One of the key responsibilities of a project manager is to communicate effectively with customers, team members, and stakeholders. Some of this communication is routine and obvious, including status meetings and status reports. However, these communications are the minimum, and they do not satisfy the communication needs for most projects.

Since proactive communication is probably not his strong suit, William is finding himself communicating in a manner that best suits his needs—not the needs of his clients and stakeholders. Sure, it is easier to fire off e-mail messages. Yes, it might be quicker to place documentation on a shared Web server for stakeholders to read. But it turns out that the ease is from William’s standpoint and not from the standpoint of the business clients.

There is a place for e-mail, but there is no substitute for face-to-face meetings and personal communications. William is facing a common IT problem. He is providing information, but it is not in the right mode. Senior managers can receive hundreds of messages per day. It is not reasonable to assume that they will be able to sift through the rubble to find the key bits of information that are relevant to the project. It is more likely that they will remember the things they hear about at meetings and from colleagues, even if the information is not entirely accurate.

My advice to William is to start setting up personal briefings for the sponsor and other senior stakeholders. This will facilitate accurate and reliable communication with them and make them more comfortable to communicate directly with him if they have further questions.

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.

The benefits of personal communication

How often do you personally communicate with your clients? Do you feel that it’s more effective than prepared status reports and e-mail? Send us some mail or post a comment.