Extensive research has been carried out to identify what differentiates average Project Managers from those who are seen as excellent by their teams, senior management and most importantly by their customers – and communication comes out top time and time again…
Andy Crowe’s research in his book, Alpha Project Managers estimated that PM’s spend as much as 90% of their time communicating in one way or another so it is not surprising that effective communication makes such a difference to the success of a project.
As one PM said in Crowe’s study,
‘Until my product is in the customer’s hands, communication is my deliverable’.
Based on current research plus our experience of working with Project Managers on our own workshops, this article aims to identify what the best PM’s do so well in the area of communication and some of the traps that average project managers fall into.
What we have found is that the average PM gravitates towards communicating information they want people to know – with little understanding of the real needs and expectations of their audience. They base their communication on experience – in other words, they felt their communication had been adequate in the past, and so they continued to build on what they felt was an overall pattern of success. They often believe they are doing a good job of communication – however this is not always how their senior managers or customers see it. In Crowe’s study 94% of all PM’s gave themselves a higher rating for the effectiveness of their communication than their stakeholders did!
Why the difference?
Many PM’s lack a key understanding of their audience’s communication needs and how their communication is being received by the stakeholders. In a complex project there may be long period of time when the only deliverable the client receives is communication – it is the only tangible upon which to base their views of project progress and the calibre of their Project Manager.
Rather than having one standard approach to communication the best PM’s know that they need to target their communication to the needs of their customers and make sure it is really hitting the mark for them.
‘Communication is my customer service, and it has to be market-driven’ (Alpha Project Managers)
Top Tips for Communication
Tailor your communication and agree this with stakeholders from the start
The best PM’s take time at the start of the project to understand stakeholder needs and agree with them what communication they need, when, how frequently and in what structure. Then they really listened and tailored communication to meet those needs.
Not only does this help to meet the stakeholders’ needs but it also makes the PM’s life smoother. Reliable and predictable communication builds trust and reduces the number of ad hoc requests for information
Consistency & Predictability
Place a premium on regular and predictable communication. Customers want to reduce the time and energy they expend in reading and digesting reports so a consistent format delivered on time without exception makes their life easier – and in turn makes the PM’s life easier.
If stakeholders are certain that they’ll get their questions answered once a week in a standard communication to them and they know they can count on it being there they are less likely to bombard their PM with e-mails…..
…whereas inconsistent and unpredictable communication can do more harm than no communication at all!
Clear and concise – especially for senior stakeholders
Stakeholders, especially those at a senior level want relevant information that they can access easily and quickly – it’s worth remembering that famous quote from Mark Twain:
‘I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.’
The best PM’s realise that being clear and concise can take time but that this investment is well worth it and the benefits will be felt throughout the life of the project.
Research shows that lengthy project reports can so completely put senior directors off that they routinely bin them without a glance – missing even the key points in the report.
The impact of clear and concise communication on stakeholders:
We have reflected this research in our advanced project communications workshops, where we work with project managers to develop clear ‘value-based’ executive communication – for both written summaries and presentations. This is probably the most effective ‘quick-win’ we have found in project communication.
Communicating ‘Difficult’ Messages
PM’s often feel pressured to agree overly optimistic targets especially in the early stages of a project – not wanting to impact the formation of early relationships and trust. The best PM’s however, recognise that if they take the ‘easy-way’ out early on that the result is that communication can be more difficult in the later stages.
‘No one likes to communicate bad news. BUT – If the project starts off working towards an unrealistic goal, then almost all communication from that point forward is guaranteed to be bad.’ (Alpha Project Managers)
Communicating difficult messages and concerns early and positioning them as problems which can be successfully tackled and resolved will build credibility and trust. An issue that is revealed late or is discovered by the customer before being informed about it by their PM can lead to suspicion and distrust throughout the life of the whole project.
Project managers who know how to tailor their communication to the needs of their different customers and who put the time and effort into delivering consistent, predictable communication which is both clear and concise will find their efforts well rewarded.
Excellent, clear, relevant high-impact communication not only positions the project in a good light, it also has a huge positive knock-on effect, reducing emails and ad-hoc requests, releasing budget and ensuring the project gains the attention of senior stakeholders.
In many ways, excellent project managers borrow skills here from the world of sales and marketing – showing how the project is adding value and making sure the communication ‘grabs’ the relevant audience.
Many project managers, especially those who have developed via a technical career path, are not naturally ‘tuned’ to this approach. The good news though is that these skills can be taught and make an immediate difference both the project and the PM’s career.