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Avoid a Project Communication Failure

Anyone who has chosen a career in Project Management has experienced some failure while working on a project. The more projects that one has worked on, the more likelihood there has been a significant failure. It could be a major milestone slip, a large cost overrun, the facility not achieving its desired throughput, a safety incident, erosion of return on investment / net present value / internal rate of return, and the list goes on. Often the failure could have been mitigated or avoided altogether. The Project Management Institute has numerous authors and articles on the primary causes of project failure which include, but are not limited to:

  • Changes in Company Priorities

  • Inaccurate or Missing Stakeholder Input

  • Lack of Business Success Criteria / Business Objectives

  • Changes in Project Requirements / Business Objectives

  • Poor Communication

  • Poor Cost Estimates

  • Poor Change Management Process

  • Poor Identification of Risks and Risk Management Plan

  • No Senior Management Support or Check-ins

  • Resourcing Issues. Materials, People, and Equipment

  • Inaccurate or Aggressive Time Estimates

  • Inexperienced Project Manager or other Team Members

Communication management or lack thereof is always at the top of the list and the one that will frequently show up as a lesson learned when the project is complete. If a project team is communicating effectively, there is less chance of a negative event occurring.

When a large diverse team of individuals come together to work on a project, communicating effectively is always a risk. Different individuals have different ideas as to how and when they should be communicating. Some people will be introverts while others will be extroverts and conflicts will occur between departments, managers, and individual team members. Some may forget or even actively exclude others from meetings, emails, and transmittals. The overuse and misuse of e-mail can be a problematic issue on a project with some managers receiving 200 or more e-mails a day. Some studies show that 50% of e-mails are misunderstood or even ignored completely. Patience runs thin with some team members when they receive a lengthy e-mail explaining an issue when a meeting would have been more appropriate. A simple exercise that I conducted on myself a few years back is an e-mail count. Go into the sent folder of your e-mail and conduct an e-mail analysis. How many do you send per day? How many could have been avoided with an e-mail? Did you get a reply when you expected one? How long are the e-mails that you sent? Did the recipient understand your e-mail? Was a large and complex spreadsheet attached? Are you contributing to a project communication issue?

For effective project communication to flourish, a project manager has multiple tools to use. Communication starts with stakeholder identification and the general recruitment process for hiring a project resource. Have all the internal and external stakeholders been identified? If we don’t identify and communicate with all the stakeholders and team members, the project is at risk of failure. When we recruit someone to the team, will they be a good fit? If we recruit and hire a person that does not interact with the team in a positive way, the project could be impacted.

The Project Management Institute`s PMBOK Version 7 offers some additional guidance on effective project communication. Section 2 of the PMBOK States the following:

“Communication planning overlaps with stakeholder identification and engagement as described in the Stakeholder Performance Domain. Communication is the most important factor in engaging with stakeholders effectively. Planning communication for the project entails considering the following.”

  • Who needs the information?

  • What information does each stakeholder need?

  • Why should the information be shared with stakeholders?

  • What is the best way to provide information?

  • When and how often is the information needed?

  • Who has the information needed?

There may be different categories of information, such as internal and external, sensitive and public, or general and detailed. Analyzing the stakeholder, information needs, and categories of information provides the foundation for establishing the communications processes and plans for the project.” When we talk about stakeholders, it’s important to note the PMI definition: “An individual, group, or organization that may affect, be affected by, or perceive itself to be affected by a decision, activity, or outcome of a project, program, or portfolio.” This includes members of the team that are completing the work.

The Project Manager will not be able to manage all aspects of how the team and stakeholders communicate but can still positively influence good communications processes. A stakeholder register and RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed) Chart can be developed to help the team understand what information should be shared as well as the frequency. Guidance and expectations on communication practices can be rolled down from functional leads and the broader team. This can include anything from e-mail usage, meetings, one on one meetings, transmittals, document control processes, RACI charts, meeting minutes, communications/meeting frequency, social gatherings, distribution lists, etc.

Social gatherings and town halls are excellent ways for teams to build relationships and also provide an opportunity for leaders to communicate project updates to the team. General announcements can be sent out periodically on project developments, objectives, and upcoming milestones. The Project Manager can develop a communications plan or guideline for use on the project. An extreme idea would be to bring in a communications specialist to conduct a survey/audit and talk to the team about good communication. The Project Manager must take communications very seriously to ensure the team is getting work done productively and there are no gaps in the execution of the project. For this reason, I think it is important for the Project Manager to have a way to gauge how the team is communicating. The best way to do this is to spend time talking to and soliciting input from all members of the team. The PM should be asking if the team members are getting the information they need from other members of the team. Being approachable so that team members feel comfortable speaking up is critical for effective Project Management. The PM should also develop a communications plan and periodically update it.

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