Being involved in a great number of projects in IT for around 14 years allows me this opportunity to share my thoughts on project communication. Based on my experience and observation, one can always heavily rely on the technical skill sets the team members bring, as well as the managerial competence the project manager has. But project stakeholders should also take communication as one of the major aspects that determines whether the project would be successful or not.
Communication is very crucial. Trust me. It influences the project. A lot.
Like what matters most in mainstream communication, let’s go back to basics. We can follow the principle “it takes two to tango.” The person who communicates is the “communicator”, and naturally will speak with their language. The ideal thing is they should be able to communicate with the “receiver” in a language they would be able to understand. Comprehensively. Period.
Tons of surveys out there state the way they communicate, or the “method”, is far more important than the content itself. I could safely say the percentage is 80:20. Indeed, the method is the winner! Do always remember: communication means “constant”. There are always people that didn’t hear, or heard but didn’t listen, or listened but were not fully aware afterwards, didn’t understand, didn’t follow or made the connection when they heard it the first time.
As a start, to put it in a concrete way, we must have an idea how this person would want to receive our information. Communication is always and foremost about the other person. Do remember that “u” is ahead of “i” in the word “communicate”. The clue is pretty simple. If we want our message to be received, the best thing we could possibly do is present it as the listener wants to hear it. If you are clueless, then it’s time to be proactive. Ask the person on how they would like to receive the message: call, email, SMS, chat, or voice mail?
Digging in deeper, what’s actually inside the method? Some of you might be aware of this. Language, media, and frequency are the elements we need to put our attention to the most, while vertically, accuracy, completeness, presentation and clarity are extremely important touch points to consider.
For local and national companies, they will have a local or national language in the countries where they are based or headquartered at. Usually to communicate with another company – principal, distributor, reseller, or partner – in particular, foreign businesses, the mutual convention shall be agreed. English as one of the top three most spoken languages is the preferred choice, but for specific countries, it depends on the result they compromise on. Yet some companies with more bargaining power prefer or even require their affiliations to be able to speak their languages. At this extent, even though it only accounts for a small percentage of businesses, their partner need to go extra miles, if there isn’t a workaround.
In a project, the Project Manager and the stakeholders at large need to have an agreed language on how they will communicate with each other. More importantly they must have a common view on terms because otherwise it will lead to confusion and misunderstanding between the individuals, entities and firms involved. Pointing it out fast forward, failed projects have failed simply because of this. One thing to take note is that all terms flying within a project should be accommodated in the project plan and its subdomains too. In this case, it’s the project communication plan.
Always pay attention to how people communicate to us. If we’ve already done it, take it more seriously. In most circumstances, watch how people talk to you and respond the same way. If our contractor texts us asking about their payment status then text them back. Or raise the level of communication by replying through email. We might even want to do a phone call.
E-mail, phone call, SMS, chat, conference call, meeting, review, and audit are types of media where we are concerned. Before the project starts, the Project Manager should prepare a communication matrix. Literally, it’s a table of what kind of events the project will have, the type of media suitable for each, and the persons involved in particular activities. Also included is the frequency – once per week, bimonthly, semestral basis, upon project completion and so on and so forth.
Example of Communication Media
This matrix should be circulated not only to team members, but to the steering committee and executives as well. All of them should be aware of it, not only know, and committed to roll it out. Support from top-level Board of Directors and executive management are another side of this coin.
The most common way to communicate is over email. Don’t do any important thing unless you receive an email saying so. Substitute words like “it”, “this”, “those”, or “that” with complete words like “Purchase Order”, “quotation”, “report” or “launch date” to make sure everyone is clear on what you are saying. Let the stakeholder know in advance, a week’s notice at the very least, when a leave has been approved. Set your auto-responder on dates that you won’t be available, and add whether you will have access to e-mail, the person-in-charge during your leave, and when they could expect to hear back from you.
SMS is good for reminding someone on something they might forget. If it’s urgent, make a phone call instead. Conversing over Skype or voice call at any other messaging platforms such as Microsoft Office Communicator are today’s way people get connected to each other. These days, who (really) needs a phone? As messaging apps are heating-up, SMS looks a bit of “so yesterday”. Those living in rural areas, who often face difficulties in accessing the net, might still need that.
Conference call is pretty common as time and expense of travel is no longer necessary. Listen carefully to the dialogue taking place on intonation and clarity of the verbal message. Nowadays there are quite a number of paid and free services that facilitate numbers to dial into.
Example of Communication Matrix
I am seeing more and more projects capitalizing on Wikis. Content uploaded into the respective platform is editable by anyone with particular permissions. It’s useful for collaboration perusal for documents and information on any specific topic the project benefits from. A blog is worth trying as another media to keep our team informed about updates, changes and decisions.
Needless to ask, in-person meeting is the best method to do coordination. Gestures, body language, expression, handshake, eye contact are the crucial aspects to help understand what someone is trying to say, or reacting on something. It’s irreplaceable, especially the eyes. As far as I’ve experienced, they always tell the truth. Yes, they are natural-born lie detectors! It’s the best way as we have both verbal and non-verbal cues that enhance communication and help avoid misinterpretation.
Don’t forget to set a clear agenda when calling for a meeting. Slate a clear outcome and send the minutes out upon completion. Speaking about meetings, lunch meeting, having coffee after work, and other casual environments could be great for strengthening relationships, getting feedback, ideas, and gaining support. Even so, sports like tennis, golf, etc., are informal ways to explore initiatives, do brainstorming, improving communication skills, build rapport, and gain more support from the stakeholders.
Being swamped in a mission-critical and time-critical IT project reminds me the importance of having emergency and alternative communication methods. The first is, for instance, when natural disaster takes place, in order to update project status and progress, the project members know who they should reach out to and which method they should use. Get used to have another communication detail accessible for secret missions. Whenever there’s something private and confidential, only person-to-person conversation is needed, and we all know how to do it.
We also need to pay attention to the culture of our organization and the other parties involved in our project. In some corporations, present time messaging has been flying around all days for quite some time. But on the other hand, we are still witnessing numerous businesses spreading their company information by voicemail, which the younger generation finds ineffective. Always put in mind that information should be accurate, complete, clear, and well-presented.
Good common sense tells us that any phase within the Project Life Cycle needs to have a review. Starting from project initiation to implementation, we can continuously improve processes, as well as do necessary actions, adjustments, and work-arounds to make sure it’s on the right track.
Other things that correlate with communication are project template, documentation and performance reporting. Keep all our project information in a central location and disseminate where the location is to related stakeholders, as well as set-up its access (authorization and authentication). To manage information flow, it’s better for us to create a template for our status report so all project members could easily use and take advantage of it. By having such standards, it will also guarantee us the desired information we’d like to have and, even further, to bring it forward by implementing document management systems for example.
When communicating with stakeholders, what we could do first is to identify them for each activity in the project by classifying them into two groups. Referring to RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed), put the first group in those we need to consult with and the latter as those who need to just be informed. To make it more organized, don’t hesitate to create a distribution list of each category and craft communication strategies if necessary. Please always be mindful in sending relevant messages to relevant stakeholders. Don’t bother with Cc and Reply-All stuffs if we are eager to streamline our communication over email.
You guessed it right. A plan will never be enough. For certain, it’s critical to understand what our stakeholders want, need and desire, both spoken and unspoken. Their expectations should be carefully managed from beginning till the end. Pick up the most advantageous communication media and frequency, and make sure it’s going on efficiently and effectively.