Priority #5 in project rescue – Communications management
This is the last in a series on Rescuing Projects by our friend and colleague, Bob Louton, PMP.
This article discusses the 5th-most urgent area of a project, communication management. This is also the last on my list. As you address the big problems with team communications, you can progressively turn your focus to the remaining project problems.
One prevailing factoid is that communication is 90% of any project manager’s job. Given that, why would I assert that communication is the 5the-most urgent to address? My answer can’t fit into a few simple statements.
Communication is certainly a legitimate contender for first place. Based on my own experience, prioritizing communication as 1stplace or 5th place is actually not straightforward. In practical terms, communication problems take time and opportunity to identify. I haven’t found a reliable way to go out into a team and systematically uncover all the communication problems. Instead, I discover them in the course of other activities. Working through the previous 4 project areas on my list has provided ample opportunity to build a list of communication problems to address. In other words, holding off until the 5th spot has this tactical advantage.
It’s conceivable that I could find a monstrous communication problem on my second day on the project and feel it must come before anything else. I would not rule it out. For me, this has not happened yet. Maybe it’s because teams tend to develop workarounds for communication problems that can permit at least some progress.
Communication management on a project is part art and part machinery. The range of things that can go wrong with communication and the ways to address these problems are so varied and numerous that it is really difficult to provide generalized guidance. Uncountable books and seminars are out there that deal with this.
In my own experience, there are a number of problems that seem to recur fairly regularly. Rather than share theories and platitudes from various publications, I will share what I’ve seen go wrong a lot and what seemed to work.
These are the most common problems I’ve run into:
- Vertical flow. Communication both up and down stops working. In the downward direction, leadership often gets too swamped bailing out the project to take the time required to keep the team informed. When there’s a vacuum in the information, we know how people will fill it – with their imagination. In the upward direction, workers on a problem project quickly become conditioned not to escalate problems. Consequently, important status stops flowing up and problems go unmanaged.
- Horizontal flow. I have come onto projects where part of the team is not talking to another or at least not routinely coordinating as they should. Sometimes it’s because one or two people are on a power trip. Sometimes, their team members don’t get along. Sometimes on matrixed teams, the functional managers are in conflict which manifests itself as dysfunction on the project team.
- Skill deficit. Not everyone is born with a gift for communication. Most people can develop it given the chance. Some people might never get good at it. I have seen teams where underdeveloped communication skills simply get in the way.
- Morale. If a team is demoralized, it is simply difficult for people to find the energy to go the extra distance and make sure communications are timely, accurate, and relevant. Once people are emotionally checked out, all the soft skills suffer.
- Cultural inhibitions. The organization’s culture can impede good communication. Sometimes managers routinely withhold information as a source of power and control (aka “mushroom management”). Aggressive companies typically reward success and punish failure to a fault which encourages dysfunctional competition within a team.
Addressing communication problems at their source is frequently an intractable option. Either the people at the source are not capable of applying constructive feedback or they flex their control or authority to make bad feedback go away. Here are some things that helped when I couldn’t fix things at the source:
- Daily team meetings. On one project where the entire team was under a microscope, we instituted daily team meetings. In the beginning, they lasted 30-45 minutes. Within a week they averaged 10 minutes and never exceeded 20. Note that this was years before the world heard of Agile or scrum. For me, this meant that I put a lot of effort every day into making sure that the daily meeting was efficient, helpful, and routinely worthwhile for the whole team. This helped not only the vertical flow of information but horizontal. Everyone became more attuned to people they needed to coordinate with and, even more importantly, why.
- Coordination meetings. I really hate the knee-jerk urge to fix things with meetings. But if the problem is communication, you need to get people together. And I don’t mean just the team leads. I mean everyone who should have first-hand involvement. It might even be the whole team for the right issues. The point is that sacrificing work time for extra meetings can quickly address the dysfunctional communications. Coordination meetings can simplify communication by giving people direct involvement with what is said and how it is said. It’s our job as project managers to pay attention and end coordination meetings when they are not needed. More and more, combinations of people will show up having done pre-work for the meeting. Eventually, this pre-work will become the communication that makes your coordination meetings superfluous. That said, one or two coordination meetings might not go away because they are simply needed for the long-term.
- Open door policy. I have been a contributor on a troubled project when the new guy announced that his door is always open. We all said, “yeah right.” No one was comfortable taking him at his word. Later when I was the new project manager, the shoe was on the other foot. I remember my own experience and decided to do more than just announce my open door. I deliberately and systematically put it into action. First, I always admitted publicly when I was wrong and gave credit to whoever set me straight. Second, I judiciously would bring people in and grill them on things with the goal to find out what decision I need to reverse. Again, public credit went to those who “set me straight.” One time, I actually found an ally on the team who agreed to raise a touchy issue that put me in a bad spot during the daily team meeting. This person saw that everyone’s fear of punishment was affecting his job directly. The situation really played into my hands. But it was powerful. I could demonstrate what was in my heart—that I really want to know about the warts and would not kill the messenger.
- Replace the irreplaceable. This is really tough. Sometimes, a person on the team who is a cause of communication problems is also the only one who holds critical knowledge. If you can get them to loosen their grip, then that’s fantastic. It’s really hard, and it is part of the art. If you can’t, then you have to decide whether you can complete the project despite them or must bite the bullet and get rid of them. I always do everything I can to keep it constructive. I work with functional managers and HR and try to do everything I can to make sure the individual can use the experience to grow.
- Put culture in the open. I’ve been on several multinational teams. Culture is always a concern and sometimes a problem. I have had very good luck taking time out from the project to elucidate various members on where others are coming from. Recognizing different assumptions and expectations during a meeting can become routine and even a light diversion. This is also an art.
If there is any advice I can share that is universally applicable without exception to any and all problems with team communication, it is the following:
- Whatever you expect of the team, management stakeholders, the sponsor, the vendors, the customers, etc., you must do the same first. You must walk the talk. If you don’t, you are a hypocrite. I see no gray area here. Follow your own advice or you won’t get the results you need.
- In every communication from formal status reviews to the most incidental or informal chat, you should be consistent, accurate, and honest 100% of the time. Every slip is a failure that you must own completely and work aggressively to prevent.
- Take time to think. When it comes to team communication, multitasking is for the foolish and the naïve. I guarantee that you will miss things no matter how good you think you are. When you give full attention, you show respect. That message is worth gold. In fact, respect might be the single most important thing you can communicate on a project. You also need to set aside the time to read things carefully and not just skim through them enough to give the impression of being informed.
These things aren’t easy. But they are universally necessary.
Unlike earlier priorities in my list, communication issues will generally take a long time to reach a satisfactory level. This means that you will be able to address the big communication problems before moving onto the other problems on the project. You must find a way to transition your attention more and more to the remaining problems well before you are content with project communications. On some teams, it is normal to end up holding the team’s hand for the duration to ensure that communication is working well enough.
As communication problems need less attention, you can then start looking at issues like morale, quality problems, patterns in missed schedule, vendor problems, and so on. From my own experience, I have not found a clear and repeatable order of urgency for these remaining problem areas. I have some thoughts on this and arguments for them but not the experience to back it up. So I will stop with communication and wish you well on your next rescue project.