Project Management Communication Tools & Techniques

Communication is an essential part of project management. I have never met a successful project manager with many projects under their belt that was not a good communicator. This is due to the inherent nature of project work as compared to process work. Projects are unique one-of-a-kind set of activities. If we did exactly the same thing in every project, the same way, with the same people, and in the same sequence, then project manager communication skills would not be as important. An individual could be trained for a job, placed in it and the expectations would be clear. But project work is always different. That is why we need good communication. Those working on the project need to understand what is required on this project, when it is required, how it should be done, and what other activities it must integrate with. Without good communication, projects fall into chaos.

The methods and frequency of communicating will vary from project to project. One of the most important considerations is the project complexity. Simple projects require a minimum of communication, since it is usually a one person team and only one stakeholder involved. Focused projects require more communication planning and execution, but they typically are still relatively straight-forward since there are only a few people on the team. The project manager can often handle the communication through informal channels such as one-on-one meetings or calls to all of the team members and stakeholders. When the complexity grows to the size of Full-scale projects, the communication focus needs to shift. Now the project manager must spend dedicated time keeping everyone on the project aware of status, issues, and changes. Also, there are usually many stakeholders and stakeholder meetings on Full-scale projects. Once the complexity grows to the size of a Complex Program, the program manager is spending virtually all of his or her time doing communication and risk management. In fact, you could argue that communication IS risk management. These programs are typically managed as a portfolio of integrated sub-projects. The program manager is continuously communicating between the sub-projects to ensure they stay integrated and to guard against a problem in one sub-project cascading into all of the others.

Tools and techniques that are used by project managers to aid in communicating start with the Communications Plan. To develop a communication plan, a project manager will often do a Communication Technology Assessment. Of course, a Team List should be developed. Naturally, I recommend that when conducting a meeting - use good presentation skills, when composing a message - use good writing skills, when having a face-to-face encounter - use good interpersonal skills. However, these are not unique to projects so I am trusting you can get help on these from your Human Resources or Training department and you don't need me for that. I will stay focused on the parts of communication that are unique to project work.

The PMBOK includes Stakeholder Management activities in its communication chapter. I have placed the stakeholder management activities in Project Initiation and Project Controlling pages. Although those activities entail communicating, they are so integral to Initiating and Controlling that I felt it was better to address them in those sections.

Before I start to discuss the communicating tools, there are two topics I would like to address. The first is the understanding of a "Sender - Receiver" model. Whenever information is being communicated, it is translated from the sender's mind into a message and then from the message back into the receiver's mind. There are opportunities for misunderstanding in both translations, and for noise and errors to be introduced during the transmission of the message. That is why I believe every project leader meeds to focus on communication. Since project work is often new or unique, the chance for misunderstanding is even greater. There is no established pattern or expectation. I strongly encourage the habit of "Repeat it back." for all project communication to minimize misunderstanding.

The second is the recognition that listening is a three step process. If a team member does not seem to be listening, it is important to understand which step of the listening process is the issue. The three steps of listening are: 1) hearing, 2 understanding, and 3) judging. The Hearing step is just that. The actual receipt of the message. Team members who "aren't on the call" will not get the message. For vitual team members you may need to create special channels of communication to ensure they actually hear the message. The Understanding portion of the listening process is the team member translating the message into desired actions or changes to the project. Team members who do not understand the acronyms or whose native language is different than the normal language of project communication may hear the message that is being sent but not understand what it means. To determine if this is the problem, the project leader will need to have a directed conversation with the team member and ask them what they think the message is telling them to do. The third listening step is Judging. In this step the team member hears and understands the message and then decides whether or not they believe it applies to them and their project work. When this is the breakdown in listening the project leader will need to spend time with the project team member to determine either why the message does not apply in this special case or to explain to the team member why the message does apply to them.

Sender Receiver

Project Communication Plan

Every project manager uses a Project Communication Plan. Many project managers do not consciously develop one, instead they embrace one that has been imposed upon them from a previous project, they follow a procedure instituted by the PMO, or they conduct their communication in an ad hoc fashion. That is an approach for developing a plan - not a very good one - but an approach. I recommend that a conscious decision is made as to what communications need to occur for a successful project. I typically consider four categories of communication. All four types are not needed on every project, but they are typically found and should be planned for.

  • The first category I consider is management meetings. This category is often an extension of the Communication Strategy for stakeholders that I discuss in the Project Initiation page. For this category, consider which managers need or want information, the frequency they need or want it, and the content detail. Major communication sessions with stakeholders, such as technical reviews that I discuss in the Project Control page are often reflected on the project schedule as milestones and should be included in this portion of the Communication Plan. The management meetings should be planned and proper preparatin conducted. Some of these are face-to-face meetings and some are conducted using an electronic medium. A poor management meeting jeopardizes support for the project and reflects badly on the work of the project team.

  • The second category of meeting is the project team meetings. Depending upon the size of the project and the team, these can be short ad hoc conversations, conference call updates, email chats, formal pulse meetings, or a variety of other communication approaches. Regardless, these are where the project manager is able to track the day to day work of the project and resolve issues while they are still small.

  • The third category I like to consider is management reports. Many organizations require project managers to provide periodic reports for the management team. Often these are reviewed by managers who are not direct stakeholders in the project. These reports need to be able to stand alone in describing the project and its status. A project manager cannot assume the reader is familiar with the goals or risks in the project. That is why it is important to use the standard template or format the organization suggests/requires. The standard template guides those who are not familiar with the project to the areas of the project report that they are concerned with.

  • The final category that I consider is project records. These are the method that the project team uses to communicate to the future. Whether the future is teh business team members who use the project deliverables to implement business stategy, the next generation project, archives for litigation, or records for lessons learned, the records need to be complete enough so that whoever is reading them after the project has completed will be able to understand what has happened.

    Communication plan

    Communication Technology Assessment

    The type of communication technology used by the project manager will vary based upon the organizational constraints of the project team and stakeholders. Factors that influence the technology include whether the team is co located, the confidentiality of any information that needs to be shared, communication facilities available to the team members, and the organization's culture for how meetings and disucssions are normally conducted. Some technologies lend themselves to large group interactions and others are more appropriate for one-on-one discussions. The table below provides an assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of different communication technologies for use in a project environment.

    Technology Assessment

    Project Team List

    The Project Team List is a list or database with all project team members and their contact information. This includes the core project team members and extended team members. I typically will also include key stakeholders on this list. The list is provided to team members to aid communication. I want project team members to know who to call when they have a question or an issue arises. The list can be maintianed in as a spreadsheet, a word document, a file for your email server, a contact list in your project eroom, or any other mechanism that is a normal resource contact management system in your organization. One caution about the list, I provide business contact information, but not personal information. In this era of identity theft and the increase of "creepy people" I try to protect the team member's privacy as much as possible.


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