An orchestra conductor does not play any of the instruments in a symphony. His job is to coordinate each of the musicians that do play. This is a special form of communication between the conductor and the other musicians. Additionally, the musicians need to be able to communicate with each other. And the better they communicate with each other, the more effective they are likely to be.
It’s part of almost every job description: “Strong communication skills.” But it is such a nebulous term that few really agree on what that means. The need for communication skills can differ depending on the role. And there are specific communication needs for project managers.
Project Communication Plan
One of the most important documents that a project manager creates at the beginning of the project is the communication plan. This document defines who will communicate when, with whom, and how.
I usually put this together as a spreadsheet. I will list all regularly scheduled meetings including weekly status meetings, daily stand-up meetings and monthly steering committee meetings. I’ll identify who attends each meeting on a regular basis, when and where the meeting his held, and any other details about each meeting.
I will also define ad hoc communications such as how issues and risks should be communicated when they are identified. If there are standard reports or documentation that are generated by the project team, the communication plan should define how those items should be escalated.
The communication plan should also spell out where documentation is stored. Usually a central repository such as a shared drive, SharePoint, or another cloud-based tool is used. Members of the team should be made aware through the communication plan, what gets stored and where.
The communication plan can also be used to inform the team of appropriate modes of communication between team members. There are times when email is preferred. In other situations, instant messaging, texting, or some other forms are preferred.
Project Communication in Meetings
Being the organizer of a meeting is an important responsibility. As the organizer, you are in charge of a large block of time. A one hour meeting with ten participants uses ten collective hours. Because of this cumulative volume, managing the time of the meeting efficiently is key.
Virtually every meeting should have an agenda. The purpose of the agenda is to define the scope of the meeting. It defines what will be discussed and the order in which it will be discussed. Each person attending the meeting should go in knowing the meeting’s purpose and any information they need to be prepared to discuss.
When it is time for the meeting to begin, the meeting organizer should arrive early enough for any set-up items. This includes dialing in to a conference bridge number, setting up a screen share application, and making sure the projector works. This enables the meeting to start on time and avoid a group of people sitting, wasting time waiting for things to be set up.
Once the meeting starts, the organizer should review the agenda with the team to reinforce the scope and purpose of the meeting with all attendees. It is the meeting organizer’s responsibility to keep the meeting on track. If someone veers off topic, the organizer should pull it back in line.
Every once in a while, someone will bring up a topic that is not on the agenda, but is nevertheless an important topic. An effective tool to use is the parking lot. The parking lot is a list on an easel pad or a white board of important topics that come up that should be addressed, but are not within the scope of the meeting. If the meeting ends early, you may have time to discuss some of the parking lot items. Otherwise, a separate meeting should be scheduled to discuss them.
Finally, when all topics of the agenda have been completed and there are no parking lot items to discuss, the meeting organizer should adjourn the meeting. If it was scheduled for one hour and the agenda topics have been completed in forty minutes, the meeting should be completed rather than filling in the remaining time.
As a participant of a meeting, you are responsible for helping the meeting organizer stay on topic. This involves restricting your own conversations to the agenda. It also means helping the facilitator facilitate. If you notice someone else taking the meeting down an off-topic rabbit hole, you can help the meeting organizer by attempting to bring them back on track. Something as simple as, “That is something we should take off-line outside of this meeting,” will usually work.
Another critical responsibility the project manager has from a communication perspective is reporting status to management. Here, the project manager must switch gears from tactical to strategic.
Project managers often attempt to report what has been accomplished based on tasks on the project plan. For each task checked off as complete, the project manager is tempted to list each one in the accomplishments section of the status report.
People at the management level often don’t understand how those accomplishments translate into business value. They also may not understand how the accomplishments indicate the health and progress of the project.
This is where the project manager needs to think like the business. Refer to the project purpose in the project charter and determine what management is hoping to accomplish strategically from the project. Then, understanding the purpose at the strategic level, report the project’s progress in a way that indicates to them (a) what has been accomplished and whether the project is on track; and (b) what the accomplishments mean to them and their ability to conduct business.
Communicating status by understanding your audience and translating it to their business needs will ensure that your message is understood.
It is also essential to anticipate questions that the status audience may ask. You can’t – and shouldn’t – report every detail of the project’s progress from the past week in your status report. There are areas where the business stakeholders may want more detail. It is important to anticipate as many areas that they may be interested to have in case they ask.
Instead of presenting everything, provide a summary. When they ask you for detail, you can provide only the detail for the areas in which they are interested.
Project Communication Through Leadership
Communication is one of the key aspects of leadership. A good leader knows how to communicate to each individual based on their personality. Additionally, a good leader can translate technical information to business people in an understandable way and translate business requirements to technical team members.
Communicating with other people is only half of it. A good leader should be able to facilitate communication among the members of the team. The project manager should enable and encourage each team member to communicate with the others. When a team member is working on a task that has a dependency, that team member should communicate his status to the dependent task owner to keep him in the loop.
A good way to facilitate communication within the team is the daily stand-up meeting. Holding a daily, fifteen-minute meeting in which everyone stands and gives a daily update on their status helps everyone on the team know everyone else’s status.
Clear, concise communication is one of the most critical skills that a project manager must possess. Project managers need to have different communication approaches based the recipient of the information. Additionally, project managers should facilitate communication among each team member to ensure that everyone communicates with each other.
How effectively do communicate with your team?
If you would like to learn more about a career in Project Management, get Lew’s book Project Management 101: 101 Tips for Success in Project Management on Amazon.
Please feel free to provide feedback in the comments section below.
Images courtesy of David Castillo Dominici, Ambro, imagerymajestic, and Pakorn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net