Project Management Institute

The challenges of communication



QUESTION: How can project managers best transition from day-to-day details and develop, distill and communicate information for their clients?

In my present career, I get to work with variety of firms in a wide array of industries. Dozens of organizational climate surveys administered in these companies (some of them the very best and others much less than that) reveal only one common element when compared: in every case, when the firm's stakeholders list their concerns, the need for better communication is always, always, among the top two issues.

Project management is not immune to this, of course. Yet there is a surprising amount of agreement in the answers of the three experts, representing broad and diverse project management backgrounds, who addressed this month's question.

Bill McDonald is a longtime project manager in the aerospace world, having seen both the government and industry sides. Currently he's a senior systems engineer with Advanced Defense Concepts Inc., supporting the Pentagon's missile defense work. In Mr. McDonald's view, the first step in the project manager's communication process is to identify the various audiences, along with the information they want and need. Audiences include the project manager's chain of command, investors, community experts and clients. These constituencies have varying levels of understanding about project managers and the issues they face, like project complexity, resources available, and interdependencies with other projects.

Another perspective comes from Tim Kloppenborg, Ph.D., PMP, a professor of management at Xavier University, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. Dr. Kloppenborg has co-authored two books on project management, including Project Leadership (Management Concepts Publishers, 2003). Like Mr. McDonald, he sees project communication, first and foremost, as an issue of stakeholder management. He recommends a five-step algorithm.

“I have project teams answer these questions: who needs to know anything about my project; what do they need to know; when do they need to know it; what form of communication works best for the audience; and how do I know they understand what I told them?” he says.

That last step (how can I be sure they understand what I told them?) often is overlooked because it can be tricky. We can confirm such understanding as parents (ex. “OK, Johnny, now repeat what I just told you,”) and perhaps in our supervisor-subordinate relationships as well. But project stakeholders require different, subtler methods of ensuring understanding, and those methods are reflected in project documentation: formal contracts, signed baseline agreements, clear change order procedures and the like.

Lowell Dye, PMP, is president of TriCon Consulting Inc., Beavercreek, Ohio, USA. He has written and lectured extensively on the subject of developing project management core competencies. While agreeing with Mr. McDonald and Dr. Kloppenborg on assessing the specific needs of each audience, Mr. Dye adds a couple of insights.

ANSWER: Identify the various audiences who need the information and tailor it based on what each group wants and needs to know. Share the facts you know about the project and realize you may not have all the answers.

The first is the existence of a data gap, which he defines as the difference between the data currently available and the information stakeholders need to make decisions. Anyone who's had to make a presentation based on 60-day old information knows all about the data gap, but there can be other causes for this gap in addition to obsolete knowledge: technological surprises, political gamesmanship, intentional obfuscation or just the presence of “unknown unknowns” can create or widen the gap.

Simply put, what he is suggesting is that successful communication obviously depends on what the project manager knows. What's less obvious, though, is that what's not known at any point in time can be equally crucial—Mr. Dye contends that the data gap always is present; only its precise dimensions vary over time.

Mr. Dye also faults what has become known as “management by exception,” the notion that causes us to focus on only shortfalls in project performance. Surely, attending to areas of underperformance is important, but so is the recognition and communication of those areas in which project performance is exceeding expectations.

Successful project communication has to address a paradox: While project managers may have a million details rattling around in their heads, only a tiny fraction of those ideas can, or should, be communicated to the project's various stakeholders. The successful project manager must see and understand the project at the micro-level, all the while being able to synthesize and communicate that understanding in formats and terms that various audiences can grasp readily. Small wonder, then, that the challenge of communication remains among the greatest the project manager faces. PM

Do you have a practical, project management technique-oriented question for PM Network? Write a 50-words-or-less description of your workplace situation and the issue you'd like addressed, and e-mail the question to PM Network reserves the right to edit submissions for clarity and length. All submissions should include name and contact information for verification purposes.


Bud Baker, Ph.D., teaches at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio, USA, where he heads the MBA concentration in project management. He is a regular contributor to PM Network and Project Management Journal and is a member of the Journal's Editorial Review Board.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.




Related Content