Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Few Words About Communication In Projects

Too much email.

Most of the time my inbox is flooded with information I could very well live without, just because someone thought of adding me in CC or I am in too many email lists that are spammed with messages that only concern a few people. Most of the time, I receive a message "just in case I might be interested". And, of course, a two page long, unstructured document follows. This creates a lot of information overload and noise and thus the risk of missing relevant facts is significant. I know that this is a common problem to many managers. Many of them try to find solutions to limit the spam and channel the communication only towards the relevant people. Not only that it wastes time, but spam also generates a significant risk on the project because the project manager gets caught in a reactive loop instead of taking the proactive, look-ahead stance.


The solution is quite straight forward but, just like any PM area, requires a little bit of planning ahead. It is called "the communication plan". Among others, the communication plan tries to answer the following question: who are the stakeholders and what are their information needs: level of detail, frequency, matter of interest, preferred format, the kind of information that can be obtained from them. The communication plan tries to identify important channels of communication and direct the flow of messages across those lines. By structuring the communication we aim to:
  • Reduce the amount of spam in the project
  • Focus on relevant matters
  • Escape the need of digesting unimportant messages
  • Less meetings

Basically the aim is to shift focus from quantity to quality and, instead of spending hours or scanning unnecessary reports, focus.

Focusing the communication is not only to help the PM and the team reduce their information overload, but it is also a matter of respect towards the recipients and of their time. Above all, it significantly increases the quality of human interaction and the chances of actually getting timely answers to your needs. (Yes, it is significantly harder to write clear, shorter and focused messages than it is to quickly type 1 page of text and throw it away to 100 recipients).


As there are many guidelines out there on how to hold effective meetings, I will focus my attention to another important part of the communication plan: reporting. All project managers and team leaders are bound to send reports and mastering this art can significantly improve their image, the image of the team and increase the chances of getting support.

The aim of reporting is to:
  • Provide a clear picture of what is happening in the project.
  • Acknowledge / celebrate successes and recognize errors.
  • Identify risks and propose solutions.
  • Involve stakeholders by providing relevant information and asking pertinent questions.
  • Provide a single reference of the project status and reduce spam.
  • Bring everyone on the same page.

As with any other communication means, visual reports are more appealing and easier to understand. Instead of  throwing in a long list of items and actions, the more pictures, charts, tables we have, the better we are. And, of course, we all love statistics thus, when we have numbers, we should never hesitate to use them. Beside the visual dimension, a good report is a short, concise one.

Emphatically writing a report means acknowledging that most stakeholders have a superficial understanding of what the actual situation is and thus it is of extreme importance to provide a context. If a PM complains that his reports are never read, it is because people don't understand them. Nobody bothers reading lists of items that don't make sense for him because he cannot relate them to a bigger picture. A report that presents information in context generates understanding and thus increases the chances of being read, generating reassurance and trust even if it brings bad news. What the reader wants to grasp is:
  • How the work relates to the global objectives of the project. (again, context / plan)
  • What the objectives of the project are - better say, does the team have the same understanding of the objectives as I, the reader, do?
  • Everyone is busy with relevant work.
  • The team knows what to do next and why. The possible blockers that prevent them from proceeding according to plan have been identified and solutions have been proposed. 
  • What the team actually does - this is probably the least significant. 

Therefore, the purpose of the report is to show (of course, all the information must be true!):
  • The project team knows what to do and is in control.
  • The project team has a plan that is approved, clear, with tangible objectives.
  • The project team knows where the (possible) problems are and has solutions to them.
  • The project team is proactive and focused on attaining results.
  • The project team has results that are celebrated and the morale is high.
  • The project team is not afraid of bad news and talks about them openly.

If the recipient doesn't get all that information  or if he  needs to perform a significant effort to understand the report, he will become less confident and we expose ourselves to the risk of having doubts spread about our work to other stakeholders. Then, the effort of counteracting and gaining the confidence again is really high. It is by far easier to keep everyone correctly informed right from the start instead of trying to set things straight after we have an image issue.

One more thing before I end.

The purpose of any communication is not for me, the emitter, to transmit it easily; it is for the recipient to understand it clearly. Therefore, it is my duty to spend significantly more effort in being concise and clear than to write a lousy message that the recipient needs to put in effort to decipher. Even more, my effort is not only bound to transmitting the correct message. It is my duty to make sure my communication has been properly received and understood. I need to ask for feedback, comments, and spend time to understand the needs of the recipient.

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