One of my colleagues said something interesting recently that hadn’t occurred to me. He stated that many people on a project will know the project manager only through his or her communications. So the PM is often working in a virtual environment and some of his team members are in another part of the country or even the world. And they will know him by how his voice comes across over the phone or especially by how well-written his emails are.
The Project Management Institute (PMI) publishes a book called the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). In this tome, among other things, PMI establishes nine Knowledge Areas including Cost, Scope, Time and Communications, each a chapter unto itself. And I agree with this, applaud it, and certainly would have insisted it be in there if somehow PMI had overlooked it. Because put simply, projects can fail or be severely hampered because of poor communications.
One of the fundamental centerpieces of the PMBOK Communications chapter is something called the Communications Management Plan. In a nutshell, this is a plan that details the specifics of how all project communications are to be handled. So it answers the questions, To whom must we communicate and how often? By what method will we communicate to them? Email? PowerPoint? Each person (stakeholder) on the plan should be aware of its existence and know how and when communications will be made. And the PM should stick to it, transmitting out any news: updates, changes, delays, etc. While this is not a panacea, it will go a long way towards at least establishing a framework for communications.
Now, as mentioned, PMI speaks a lot about the vehicles one should use to effectively communicate in a project. But even if you’ve established that you’re going to communicate to stakeholders regularly via email, that alone isn’t enough to guarantee good communications. Because just because you’re writing regular emails to your team, that doesn’t mean that they’re well-written, persuasive or effective. So consider some points below before sending your next message.
Are your emails, for want of a better expression, crisp and to the point? Or do they start somewhere and meander, ultimately leading nowhere? I don’t necessarily offer a template for writing email. But I do suggest that you carefully take time to craft your messages saying exactly what you want to say, no more and no less. I think the important thing is that you want there to be zero misinterpretation. You want people to reply saying, “Got it” not “I didn’t understand what you meant (but I went ahead and did it anyway).” Because that misinterpretation can lead to problems down the road.
One way I personally keep my correspondence effective is to start writing my email, then save a draft, then come back to it later. I usually then see misspellings, bad grammar and poorly stated points. Once I have a fully-fledged draft, I read it out loud to myself. You would be amazed at the grammatical and other errors you discover when you do this. Now, you don’t have to be Hemingway. But you do have to communicate clearly. (I read each blog post aloud before posting. And in thus doing, have come to realize that I was using the word ‘so’ in front of too many sentences).
As to overall communications in your organization, set the standard. Be what I call a “high communicator.” I’m one. Email me, I email you back. Fast. Call me, ditto. I get email to my phone so I can reply from wherever I am if only to say, “Got your message. Here’s a quick note, more detail when I am able.” So don’t keep people waiting. They love it when you come through quickly even if you don’t have the most up-to-date answer. My string of “Thanks for getting back so fast” emails attests to this. It’s called customer service and it doesn’t matter if you’re a project manager or flipping burgers at McDonald’s.
Lastly, at your kickoff meeting, establish your expectations for communications. I personally have become weary of the “non-answer answer” types. These are people who for one reason or another won’t answer your email and so somehow think that speaks for itself. It does but not in the way they think. Let the team know this is unacceptable. If you have a question, it must be answered even if you (or they) may not like the answer. If you’ve identified team members who consistently do this, set up a meeting with them and talk to them about it. Sometimes I’ve found it’s an area of growth for people and they just need to be called on it.
(Stay tuned for part four, Stakeholder Management)