Communication is the lubricant that allows partnerships to function. Good, positive, precise, proper, respectful communication enhances partnerships and allows business transactions to flow smoothly. However, the opposite is also true. Negative and unnecessarily lengthy communication robs the project management machine of this essential lubricant and creates clogging and grinding, slowing projects down.
Project managers must do all in their power to create good communications. One of the best ways of doing this is to build on the positive and avoid the negative. Managers should carefully consider the following: first, good communication is a skill; second, good communication involves several techniques that can be mastered; third, good communication is essential for success.
Think about how good communication impacts every activity on a project. All of us have seen this in operation. We may not have understood what was happening, but we always knew when this type of communication was taking place. It often breathed fresh life into the processes. For example, good communication will clearly answer these critical questions for project activities, leaving no doubt what is to happen:
- What are the needs of the customer?
- Who is responsible for the activity?
- What is the scope of the activity?
- How do we handle scope changes?
- When can the activity begin?
- How long can the activity take?
- On which other activities does this project depend?
- What is the budget for the activity?
- What other resources are available to the team?
- Who must receive information about progress?
- What type of information do these guiding individuals need?
- What are our quality metrics?
- Who is responsible for quality control?
- What risks are present for this activity?
- How will we manage risk?
- What are the safety concerns for this activity?
- What constraints are associated with this activity?
- What are the acceptance/closeout procedures?
- What completion documentation is required?
- How will billing take place upon completion?
This is more than a game of “twenty questions!” Just look at all the information that must be communicated. These questions apply even for the simple activities, not to mention the complicated scenarios. Imagine how this translates to projects with hundreds or even thousands of activities! The breadth and depth of communication that may need to occur during a project’s lifecycle can be staggering!
Given the information above, can anyone wonder that good communication is essential? In fact, good communication tops the list of “most important” skills for managers in almost every study we have reviewed. We personally conducted a study on behalf of a government agency regarding the skills most required of project managers during a project lifecycle. Our analysis of the data showed that good communication was considered the most important skill in almost every response we received!
Earlier we said that leadership was the most important skill. The above communication study does not refute that point of view. Good leadership encompasses good communication. In other words, leadership cannot happen without good, appropriate communication.
Why then do project managers still experience so many problems? Usually they occur because managers fail to communicate, and in most cases they don’t know they are failing. Consider precise and positive speaking and thinking as we send and receive messages. Some project managers believe that force and volume are more important than clarity and quality. This is a serious mistake. The reader, like most of us, has probably experienced being a captive audience where a manager drones on and on over-telling his instructions to his employees.
One manager we knew actually liked listening to himself. He would repeat his instructions in a dozen different ways. Often he would dominate the meetings with the sound of his voice. In truth, he was losing the critical instructions and important details in a sea of unnecessary information that was spilled upon the receivers.
This type of communication is project defeating. At best, it always slows the process down. At worst, it leads to misunderstanding.
Project managers will be much more effective if they are positive and precise. They should carefully review, and even rehearse, what they’re going to say to their team members before they enter any meeting. This does not mean the presentation should be “canned.” Once managers have the order of their instructions well within their own mind, and commit to being positive and precise in the delivery, then they will be much more effective communicating only the right information, to the right people, at the right time. To some this may seem counter-intuitive, but it usually involves less volume. “Positive, precise communication” is usually much higher quality.
“Positive, precise communication” occurs when information is sent, received, and understood by the receiver as the sender intended. In other words, communication must be a two-way experience. The sender must send the message clearly. The receiver must listen, process and somehow restate the information in their own mind, and then verbally restate the message back to the sender exactly as the sender intended. This leads to a connection between sender and receiver that will work as intended. The diagram below illustrates this concept.
In today’s business environment we have a wonderful array of communication tools available to us; more tools than any business community ever had. But we are experiencing just as many, if not more, communication failures than ever before. The reason is we don’t place enough emphasis on positive, precise communication with the proper recipients.
Many of us rely too heavily on tools such as email and voicemail to transact business. Once we hit the “send” button, we assume our message has gone to the world and is understood. The problem, however, is this communication is often only one-way. This can end up creating more work than we intended if we are not careful.
Email and voice mail provide a wonderful way to close the loop. But we must complete the entire process. The message should go only to the appropriate people; it also must be carefully reviewed before it is sent, and then we must ask the recipients to “reply” to ensure appropriate understanding.
Perception also plays an important role in positive, precise communication. There have been many mole hills made into mountains because the receiver of an email or voice mail perceived a demeaning attitude in a message from a sender. Usually the sender had no such intent.
For instance, one manager with whom we worked sent all of his email messages in large, bold, colored font. One day he received a reply from a peer asking him why he always “shouted in his emails!” This gentleman didn’t even know he was giving this perception over the wires. The fact was he used these fonts and colors because he had trouble seeing. It is amazing what two different people can perceive in the same message!
Again, email and voice mail are wonderful tools; they can be used to further the work of a project in powerful ways. When used effectively they provide valuable methods of communication and record keeping.
However, project managers need to understand that without effectively closing the “positive, precise communication” loop powerful partnerships can never be formed and cultivated.
So, how do project managers maximize the effectiveness of their communication? First: create and implement a communications plan. A good communication plan identifies the following:
Who needs specific information?
- What information is needed?
- How should the information be transmitted?
- When should it be transmitted?
- Who will provide the information?
A small story may illustrate this point.
A new project manager had recently been hired at a film studio. He was certainly a quality detail person. But he liked to write emails. Every detail of each project was stitched into every email. These epistles sometimes reached eight or nine pages.
He was most concerned that the producers obtain proper rights before they ingested film footage into larger productions. This could be very difficult; a simple piece of music needed several different kinds of licenses. A synchronization license was needed to play music over the air ways; a master’s license was needed to incorporate the lyrics; and so forth. Every person whose image appeared in the film had to sign “a release to use image” before his/her image could be used in the film. (This manager was so concerned because a recent law suit filed by an individual in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals of California had awarded 15.6 million dollars to an individual whose image was used by a coffee company without permission.)
This manager became almost frantic with the details. Page after page of instructions were fired off to everyone on the project. The tone was threatening.
Finally, the producers just stopped reading the long emails. They knew they had to be careful, but these emails were taking up valuable production time. Of course, in the process someone failed to get a critical license. The mistake cost the company $362,000. The manager, of course, could say, “I warned you!” But the loss was critical. If the emails had been carefully directed, and precise, the producers wouldn’t have stopped reading them.
Project teams must have this type of information so they understand proper organization, flow, type and volume of communication required for a project. When this information is understood, the team can plan and schedule appropriate, effective, communication opportunities to ensure information is flowing and business is transacted within the established organizational framework.
Enterprise project management tools have become very useful for modeling and checking the organizational framework associated with project management, and assisting with the flow and tracking of project information. But all the digital tracking available will do little good if it is swallowed in a sea of unrelated information. Most team members do not have the time to sort out the useless information from the necessary.
Another step in every communication endeavor is to determine which communication techniques are most effective in given situations. Positive, precise communication involves the use of an appropriate combination of written, visual and vocal techniques. For instance, some have taken email communication to the next level and added photos, visual elements and graphics to the words they send to try and achieve even better understanding. With digital camera phones even cell phones can be used to transmit written and visual messages. Each situation will dictate which techniques project managers must use.
No matter the situation, we recommend the use of techniques that combine and maximize the use of all three of the elements mentioned above. We believe that communicating in person is most effective. However, we recognize that in a global project management environment this is not always possible. In these instances, technology is making the world much smaller with online meetings and video teleconferencing capabilities. Whatever medium project managers use, they must remember that accuracy improves and positive, precise communication becomes more probable when the receiver can see, feel, hear and understand information the sender is attempting to transmit.
A final step in effective project communication is to ensure meetings are productive. As consultants, we come very near to preaching as we stand on our soapbox regularly; we “preach” that time wasted in meetings cannot be endured by any productive company. Project teams must schedule communication opportunities. And they must stick to the schedules and agendas. If they don’t, these opportunities can turn into time wasters.
Successful meetings require planning. The meeting organizer must create an effective agenda outlining the purposes and goals of the meeting – along with the decisions that need to be made. Invitations and agendas should then be sent to the proper participants before the meeting so they can prepare before hand. Attendees should include only those necessary for the discussion and decisions at hand. The meeting should be conducted according to the agenda with a scribe recording appropriate minutes and action items for follow-up. Along with managing meetings in this manner, we also believe that every meeting should be an attempt at partnering.
We recently provided a project conflict resolution session for a group of stakeholders who had not fully grasped the concept of partnering or communication. We could feel definite tension between key members as we met with the stakeholders on the first day. The project was a very difficult renovation of one floor of a hospital. The area being renovated was sandwiched between some very critical healthcare functions: the intensive care unit and the surgery suites. Tension was high because there had been a string of unfortunate events on the construction project that had potential safety implications for patients and staff members.
As we reviewed the situation, we found that this string of events was not truly the problem. The incidents themselves were relatively normal for a complex project of this type. The real problem was that communication efforts between some key members of the group had broken down. Information was not flowing through the established organizational communication chain. People who thought they had a need to know specific pieces of information felt let down and alienated from the project. Specifically, upper management felt that construction efforts were not being properly coordinated with them and with other key hospital staff members.
This led to the perception that the construction group was not concerned about patient and staff safety. It also led to a perception that the incidents were much more severe than they really were.
Through further investigation, we found that the group directly involved in the construction was working very hard to ensure patient and staff safety. But they had not properly communicated this to upper management. As we reviewed their communication processes, we noticed the following: first, there was a working group in place that was holding regularly scheduled meetings to coordinate project activities, especially those concerned with staff and patient safety; second, this group appeared to be working well together. However, this group had never included upper hospital management in their decisions and plans.
Because of this, upper management felt no ownership in the project and found themselves viewing it from a very detached position. What they saw was a group of construction people who didn’t care what they thought. This perception created tension and slowed the project down.
As we discussed this communication breakdown with the construction team, they began to see how important it was to help upper management gain a feeling of ownership in the project. So they planned specific communication opportunities and meetings that would allow upper management to walk through the construction site and visualize the magnitude of the work; they especially pointed out the measures the team was taking to protect patients and staff. As the team included the right people in their meetings, they began communicating more effectively. A much better environment developed in which positive, precise communication could flow.
Prior to project closure there was a marked difference in the attitudes of stakeholders. The construction people and management had become a fully functioning partnership. Their efforts to communicate and partner literally pulled the project from failure to success.
This project taught all stakeholders a valuable lesson. They came to understand that communication truly is the lubricant that allows partnerships to remain vibrant.
We believe that project managers who embrace the importance of this skill, and set and take action to improve communication processes, will find that synergy, innovation, and powerful partnerships become possible.
The previous blog post is an excerpt from the book entitled, “Project Management Paradigms” by Dr. Denis Petersen and Daniel Anderson,
© 2006 Milestone Publishing