Monday, February 11, 2013

Communication crumbs

Communication is probably the most critical task in project management and not surprisingly is often one of the greatest challenge a project manager has to face. 
What is maybe less surprising is the fact that it is not only poor communication planning that can harm a project but also its overabundance.
I want to tell you a story.
Some weeks ago, upon the completion of a milestone,  a project manager in charge of a very complex technical project sent an e-mail to some of the project’s stakeholders, explaining technical details about the deliverable, details about technical solutions adopted and why they had been adopted, details about problems encountered during the deliverable realization and further step to be taken. It was a very well crafted e-mail. If you have had the time to read it you would have been aware of almost every aspect of the work packages, activities and issues related to the deliverable. 
The problem was that just a few stakeholders seemed to have found the time to read it. 
Someone marked the communication as important, put it aside meaning to read it later and eventually forgot about it. Someone else decided that the e-mail was too long, so preferred to be related by someone else that (maybe) read it. Some other stakeholder skimmed fast through the e-mail searching for the parts he/she could have been interested into. In many cases missing them. The only stakeholders that bothered to read the entire communication were the few really interested in almost all the aspects of that communication.
What do we learn from this story ? Two important lessons
  • Communication must be accurately planned and
  • Communication must be accurately targeted.

How it should be
Communication should be both efficient and effective and always on time.

Efficiency can be summed up in the ability to articulate complex concepts in small spaces and with few words or in a small amount of time. The aid of images and graphs is often required. The use of bulleted list is welcomed. The use of short unambiguous sentences a must. Redundancy must be banned.
if only you were touched by the idea that a sentence could be unnecessary, then erased it immediately or do not pronounce it.
In case the message, regardless of the type and of the delivery method, should be long and complex it would be a good idea to include a brief digest at the end. Before delivering it please consider if just the digest couldn’t be enough. There is no point in communicating a great deal of unnecessary information. It wouldn’t make the team effort’s more appreciated, it would reduce your probability to make a breakthrough in your audience attention.

Effectiveness can be summarized as the ability to deliver a message that can be easily understood and remembered. This is obviously better achieved with brief and clear messages with the characteristics mentioned in the previous paragraph. 
Be careful not to distract reader’s attention from what is really important. Even better do not include anything that it is not really important. You are not writing a poem or giving a lecture on the eighteenth century English literature. You just have to deliver a business communication.
Should your messages be too long and articulated, this could be a sign that your communication plan could be not well crafted. 
Consider a revision and try to shorten the communication interval or to split the current communication in two or more messages.

On Time communication should never be given too early and absolutely should never be given late. If a message is delivered too early the recipient could forget the communication details right when he would have needed them the most or he could archive the communication and eventually forget about it. Conversely if a message is delivered too late the recipient will find it absolutely useless and could call into question the value that the project manager gives to their relationship.

give everyone what they need and only what they need to know.

These are general guidlines that I have been comfortable with in almost any kind of communication (verbal, written, visual,...) and like all the guidelines it comes the time when a project manager has to breach them. Still I think that those occasions should be not very common.

What, When, Who and How
A good idea is to directly ask the stakeholders What kind of information they are interested in, When they want to receive updates and How. It is a small courtesy that will allow you to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of project communication and at the same time show your stakeholders that you care about their needs and you consider their time valuable.
Obviously this again is a general approach. Sometime an unexpected 3 hours intercontinental phone call in the middle of the night is necessary and not avoidable.
If interviewing stakeholders about their communication needs is not possible the safest way to proceed is to ask yourself Why a stakeholder should need a particular information and communicate just the informations for which you have found a sound reason. Chances are that if you identify the main reason for a particular communication then the When and sometimes the How will follow as a consequence.
This kind of information should obviously stored in the communication management plan.

I think that previous guidelines hold for reporting too. I fell like to add just a brief consideration. Reports, differently from other kind of communications, are about the past. Project management is about shaping the future. So take good care in reporting informations but do not put in it more effort than what it deserves.
For report being on time is maybe more important than for other types of communication. Reports are a snapshot of a project in a given moment. Projects evolve in space and time. So why should I need a snapshot about the project status on Monday afternoon if now is Friday morning ? Probably I will decide to skip this report and to read the next one and as a consequence I could miss some very important points. 
Project manager should proactively avoid this kind of problems managing communication toward and from all project stakeholders.

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  1. Great post. Thanks for addressing the all too common communication problems facing PMs!

  2. Nice post! I have long thought that authentic relationships drive successful Communication - understanding our audiences, knowing what drives them and what they are looking for in the relationship. If we can understand those things, we can make sure that our communication is personal, targeted and effective.


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