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Leading Communications

Effective communication among  team members and stakeholders is a critical component of any project.  Without strong communication among project participants, project success is unlikely.  The root cause of failed projects is often found in lack of alignment on goals, incomplete understandings of project roles and responsibilities, misunderstanding of the project status, and lack of recognition of risks and dependencies; each of these failures has its roots in flawed communication.  Miscommunication is project approach-agnostic, and poor communication will equally sabotage Agile, Waterfall and Lean projects.

Communications Breakdown

Project leaders own communications for their projects.  Despite the increase in the number of choices for communicating among team members (verbal, digital, etc.) effective project communications have never been under a greater threat than in today’s workplace.  There are three reasons for this:

  • Proximity: The point in time when a project leader could rely on all participants and stakeholders being in the same room has long since passed.  It is increasingly rare that the project leadership challenge does not include some (if not all) of its participants engaging from different locations across the nation and around the globe.  Effective communication often relies on physical expression such as gestures, facial expressions and body posture to convey intent.  Masking these important physical cues removes a key communication dimension that must be overcome in other ways.
  • Information Overload: Most individuals involved in project work find themselves bombarded with emails, text messages, and internet-based information. Project participants and stakeholders find themselves overwhelmed with far too many inputs and will browse, skim, or simply overlook key updates.  A project manager who simply sends off electronic missives under the belief that all will be devoured by team members is likely to be disappointed.
  • Flawed Technique: If lack of proximity and information overload create a weak foundation, flawed technique is the final factor that can cause project failures.  Many project leaders fail to confirm assumptions, fail to validate project facts, and leave key data points out of updates.

Owning the Communication Process

A project leader’s role is to ensure that project communication is excellent.  The project leader “owns” communications on the project – not only upward and outward, but in all directions.  While SEI often fills the leadership role on a project, we’re also called upon to assist clients in re-establishing a project’s success path by supporting their project leaders.  SEI recently assisted a client to improve the performance of a number of their projects that seemed to be floundering.  In addition to consistently missing timelines and milestones, team morale was extremely low.  After performing a quick triage and gap analysis, new norms were installed within the project team for documentation, information sharing, and status reporting.  Tuning-up project communications is often an impactful starting point and this process frequently involves coaching around the following four opportunities:

  • Speak: Email and texting can be effective ways to document and memorialize decisions, but dialog is the best way to review options, define positions, negotiate approaches, and reach a direction.  Conversation either over the phone or in person has the added benefit of helping to build a bond and cadence among individuals that can’t be forged solely through writing.  Highly effective project teams, with the project leader facilitating, talk to each other about what’s occurring and they do so frequently.  Ensuring that teams meet visually (in person, via FaceTime, using Skype, etc.) at least once every day or two also helps build the bridge.
  • Get It In Writing: Conversely, a project team may make the mistake of having great discussions but failing to document the topics covered and the conclusions.  Written records show the decisions reached as well as the logic or evidence supporting those decisions – they can then be circulated for confirmation and affirmation by all involved.  Written records, whether email or a collaboration tool (SharePoint, Confluence, etc.), can clarify project directions, act as an important alignment tool with stakeholders, and also eliminate re-hashing of issues that were previously resolved.  The project leader typically owns the creation and maintenance of this documentation.
  • Engage and Ask: Is a project task slipping? If so, why? What are the root causes?  What has the team done to stem the slide?  What’s worked and what has not?  Project teams that communicate effectively do not simply let statements or uncertainties slide.  They tend to be intellectually curious and collectively ask questions to remove ambiguity, drive common understandings, and ensure that they understand contributors and factors.  This also has the benefit of allowing for group problem solving (i.e., the wisdom of the team).  The project leader needs to ensure that the team does not leave open items or uncertainties at the end of a discussion without a plan for resolution.
  • Flexibility: Communication is one of the most personal traits of an individual; the style that works well for one person may not work for another.  The project leader needs to tailor their own style to what works best for each team member in order to maximize the contribution of that team member.  Some individuals are very comfortable in groups where they can play off the team; others are more comfortable in a one-on-one setting.  The role of the project leader is to find what works on a personal basis and leverage that approach for the project’s success.

Leading Effective Communications

Technology and norms change, but the need for effective communication does not. Team members need to be well-informed, and stakeholders want to know that the project team is aligned with project goals, success measures, and pathways to a positive outcome. Careful planning, analysis of team communication styles, and regular communication cadences can take any project leader from good to great.