Communication is the Key to Project Management Success

Whenever project managers gather at the bar and discuss the pros and cons of project management processes, they often recount their personal “war stories” of old projects. It doesn’t seem to matter whether individual projects succeeded or not! But of course, the real value of these war stories is whether we can get an insight into the biggest problems encountered by projects and how they can be overcome.

One subject that comes up time and time again is the failure of communication.  And it is clear from the stories, when a project has failed, poor communication will often be the underlying cause. Whether information wasn’t available to the right people at the right time, whether information was inaccurate or incomplete, or whether critical data was late in being relayed to the team, some communication breakdown happened. Unfortunately, it keeps happening.

PRINCE2®[1] was developed to reduce the likelihood of a project failing because of poor management, and communications is a key aspect of project management. So PRINCE2 puts considerable emphasis, throughout all its processes, on structured and appropriate communication.

One particular tool to help this is the development of a “Communication Management Strategy” for the project. This can be thought of as the project’s “operations manual” with respect to communications. It will include an assessment of who the project’s stakeholders are, what their interests and concerns are, the best approach for developing robust two-way communication with them, and who – on the project – will be responsible for each different aspect of communications.

Although the specific level of detail, format and presentation will vary to suit the particular project, it is an important part of initiating the project to make sure that everyone involved in the project understands what is required. As it will outline the means and frequency of communication to both external and internal parties, it is key to establishing the right bi-directional flow of information between those parties.

The Detail

To do their job, each member of a project team needs the right information at the right time. As well as detailing the ‘who’, ‘how’ and ‘when’ of communication, therefore, the strategy also needs to explain the ‘what’ – what exactly needs to be communicated, and to whom. Principles of good project communication are that information needs to be accurate, brief, clear, as well as relevant and current. What might be right for a small project team all located in the same open plan office would be completely inadequate for a geographically dispersed team from several different organisations.

We need to make sure that the intended message is the one understood by the recipient. As children we probably all played the “chinese whispers” game and have seen how a simple message can get unintentionally changed as it passes from one person to another. And in a more modern context, we have probably all sent, or received, a text message that has been misinterpreted. The more complex the message, the more chance there is of misinterpretation.

Equally, we need to make information easy to access and read – so, for example, a single page highlight report from the project manager to the project board may well be significantly more useful than a longer one, if it means that busy senior managers on the project board can read and assimilate it quickly.

One thing that can be easily overlooked is “crisis” communication, but a sound crisis communication plan prepared before the crisis occurs can make the communication far more reliable and effective than a “shoot from the hip” response sent in the heat of the moment. Crises could be as varied as an internal (to the project) issue that needs rapid escalation, through to a situation where some project work has adversely affected live operational processes with a direct knock-on effect on customer service.

Summary

Good communication is such an important part of every project that it’s worth spending a lot of time on ensuring this one aspect is covered in great detail. By confirming everyone involved knows just what is expected of them and when you can be sure that one of the biggest reasons for projects failing is under control.

[1] PRINCE2® is a registered trademark of Axelos Ltd.

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