Project Management Institute

Clear channels



Cliff Purington, Director of Organization and Employee Development, Carmeuse North America, Pittsburgh, Pa., USA



Insufficient or poor communication often manifests itself as incomplete up-front planning, overly ambiguous directives, unrealistic deadlines and budgets.Worse yet, as these failings perpetuate throughout the project life cycle, they cause irreparable damage to a project team's reputation. In a study of IT managers conducted by French computer manufacturer and systems integrator BULL, “bad communication between relevant parties” accounted for 57 percent of project failures.

“The biggest flaw in the way project managers communicate is their inability or unwillingness to clearly state their expectations to individuals and the team,” says Chris Butler, president of The Performance Engineering Group, a change management consultancy based in Santa Barbara, Calif., USA. “Unspoken expectations lead to crisis.” The irony, he says, is that if project managers stated their needs in clearer terms, they could avert many of the high-pressure situations. “It is the project manager's role, as team leader, to be the voice of the team and to communicate its needs graciously without fear of repercussions.”

Good project managers are radically honest and diplomatic at the same time. That means using a project planning expertise to point out when projected goals can't be met— before they are set in stone. “With some psychology, a project manager can have a coaching conversation instead of a confronting conversation,” says Luc Galoppin, consultant for Reply Management Consulting, a change management firm in Meerbeek, Belgium. “An executive is more eager to buy a conclusion when he or she is co-creator of it. Even if you know the conclusion, don't go for the straight confrontation, for it may block people. Instead, use the right questions, so they can come to the conclusion themselves. And most of all, be open to the answers you get. Asking the right questions is an art not to be mistaken with manipulation.”


img When project managers use ambiguous or insufficient communication techniques, team members have difficulty working effectively as a unit.

img To ensure the project has the best chance for success, project managers must deliver clear detailed directives and give regular feedback to team members, clients and executives about the project's progress.

img The team leader must speak up when unreasonable objectives are set and broadcast the team's successes to ensure the team receives the accolades— and future support—it deserves.

Planning a difficult conversation upfront by thinking of possible objections and alternate solutions may help ensure it goes as smoothly as possible. If your suggestions aren't accepted, at least you made them known and can refer back to your concerns when the project runs into trouble. “If you don't share your knowledge up front, you take responsibility for the entire team's failing,” Mr. Butler says.

Many Paths

Good communication isn't a one-size-fits-all technique. Project managers must address members of the team, management and clients with diplomatic aplomb and sensitivity to their specific work styles. For instance, some people need regular praise and constant updates while others need high-level directives and don't want to be micromanaged.

img “The project manager, as a communicator, must have correct tools and skills to reach all of the different types of individuals on the project team effectively,” writes Ginger Levin, Adjunct Professor, University of Wisconsin-Platteville, project management consultant, and Parviz F Rad, PMP, Ph.D., project management consultant, in Achieving Project Management Success Using Virtual Teams. In this book, they offer an instrument based on Douglas McClennand research showing the need for achievement, power and affiliation that goes into each person's personality type and their best team roles. It includes 50 situational questions in project management to help project managers match personality types to individuals.

“Miscommunication can create hard feelings that might remain undetected for a long time, undermining team success,” Ms. Levin and Dr. Rad wrote in a paper, “Requirements for Effective Project Management: Differences and Similarities in Virtual and Traditional Project Environments,” presented at PMI Global Congress 2004—North America. “But if the communication style of the leader is predictable and effective, it will help maintain trust and momentum among team members.”

Every project team should prepare a formal communication strategy that defines the goals and expectations for interactions as part of a team charter that describes roles and responsibilities. Establishing strategies for multiple forms of communication creates a network of opportunities to discuss ideas, issues, insights and information.

To establish buy-in, team members must help define the plan and agree to reasonable performance expectations—both personal and across the project. “Early involvement of team members through formal communication opportunities sets the stage for encouraging them to work with one another to develop effective ways to share project information,” the paper says. To ensure that the flow of information is unencumbered, the team should draft protocols for the appropriate use of communication tools.


Simple changes in communication strategies help project managers avoid creating unnecessary obstacles. Chris Butter, president of The Performance Engineering Group, has three simple steps for becoming a better communicator and more successful team Leader:

1 GIVE TEAM MEMBERS CLEAR UNAMBIGUOUS PERFORMANCE EXPECTATIONS. Be specific when you set goals and be sure that the team or individual can deliver on those goals. Consider every directive to be a mini-project plan—set a deadline, a budget and a quality target. This can be as simple as stating your needs in a few sentences or as complex as writing out your list of objectives.

2 GIVE REGULAR PERFORMANCE FEEDBACK. If team members do something well, give positive reinforcement; if they do something wrong, show them why they failed and what they can do differently in the future. Offer feedback in real time so team members can benefit.

3 MAKE SURE YOUR PEOPLE HAVE THE TOOLS TO DO THEIR JOBS AND REMOVE ANY BARRIERS THAT BLOCK THEIR ABILITY TO PERFORM. That means everything from making sure they have the time and money to produce the final product to running interference with the client or management so that they can focus on the job.


“Team meetings, either face-to-face or virtual, should be viewed as results-oriented and as a useful way to spend time,” the paper says. “Each team member should participate actively in team meetings in whatever format, taking responsibility for being heard and being understood.” The authors suggest using a metric—such as issues resolved—to measure the effectiveness of each meeting to ensure they add value. A metric gives the team a quantitative tool to compare progress to established goals and enables it to stay on track.

Ms. Levin's and Dr. Rad's paper also encourages teams to use “lean” technologies, such as e-mail for information exchange, with videoconferencing reserved for brainstorming sessions or conflict resolutions. However, if e-mail is a significant part of the communication plan, and especially if team members are located in many different locations, guidelines for e-mail structure should be established. Group dynamics are more difficult to manage in the asynchronous environment.

It may seem like a lot of effort and time to spend on talking to the team instead of working on the project, but the paper says it is not. “Communications is 90 percent of the project manager's time—better to overcommunicate than undercommunicate.”

Promoting Projects

Communicating with your team is just half of the project manager's task. Even with smooth and easy relations with all team members, project managers must be able to communicate progress and resource needs to those in authority, or they may find support for formal project management lagging. By ensuring successes reach executive ears—instead of just issues—project managers can establish a positive communication flow.

Just ask Cliff Purington, director of organization and employee development for Carmeuse North America, a supplier of lime and lime-related technology based in Pittsburgh, Pa., USA. Mr. Purington, who was training director at Rockwell Collins, a communication and aviation electronics company based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, USA, and Mr. Butler were responsible for leading a transformation of Rockwell Collins’ training program, expanding the company's training offerings by 40 percent while saving $14 million over three years. He attributes much of the project's success to his constant marketing of the team's efforts during the three-year transition.

“Your transformation process cannot have the kind of phenomenal success that we saw at Rockwell Collins if you don't constantly and aggressively market your project,” he says. “It's not enough to do well; you need to brag about it. Failures get plastered all over the bathroom walls of most organizations, but the successes are buried in the company bulletin. You have to blow your own horn because nobody else will do it for you.”

When Mr. Purington and Mr. Butler successfully completed any phase of the project at Rockwell Collins, they compiled the details—along with the before and after performance statistics—and presented them to every executive in the company who agreed to meet with them. “The goal of sharing successes is not just to boast, it's to prove, anecdotally and statistically that you are achieving what you set out to do,” Mr. Butler says. “If we didn't share these successes, we would fail to deliver on the communication aspect of our strategic plan.”

img To keep executives alert to your daily efforts and to further cement their support of your initiatives, Mr. Butler suggests sending regular memos to share completion rates or goals accomplished. “If you define your core objectives with measurable parameters before you start, it's easy to gather data to prove that you've achieved your goals,” he says. For example, the goal at Rockwell Collins was to deliver 30 percent of training using technology by the end of year one, 50 percent by year two and 70 percent by year three. With those parameters set, it became a simple matter of collecting data and doing the math to determine whether Mr. Butler's team accomplished its objectives—as of June 2002, the end of the three-year project plan for Rockwell Collins, the team met every budget goal ahead of schedule.

Hard Evidence

Having statistics on hand helps you deal with those who don't support the project or your team, Mr. Purington says. “Even if a project is succeeding, it can fail if a few key people perceive it as failing.” For example, when his team rolled out three custom leadership training courses, he received 40 e-mails complaining that the courses were confusing and didn't work. But in that same time period, 8,500 people had successfully completed the same courses.

Instead of conceding failure or sweeping the complaints under the rug, Mr. Purington interviewed the complainers. He discovered the negative experiences were mostly a result of people being forced to take the new training without ample time. “They were frustrated and vocal about it,” Mr. Purington says. “But because we gathered those statistics, we had a stocked arsenal of weapons to fight the negative publicity, proving that any problems they were having were in fact their problems—not ours.”

img Every few months, project managers should go to their leaders to share their big successes. “Bring numbers, but wrap them in detailed stories of how your work impacted the success of the company,” Mr. Purington says. “Statistics have a much deeper impact when they are delivered in a context that links them to the business imperatives of the audience.”

This was especially true when the Rockwell Collins team developed an electromagnetic interference (EMI) training course that helped solve a multi-million-dollar problem in the manufacturing department. The course was linked directly to a critical business issue: products meant for airplane cockpits were failing final tests because the static they emitted interfered with other equipment in the airplane.

Training helped eliminate the problem, and Mr. Purington spread the word. “If we had simply told executives that we delivered EMI training to 2,500 engineers, it would have had little impact, especially since few of them understood the specifics of electromagnetic interference and its effects on the business,” Mr. Purington says. “Instead, we told them a story, highlighting the amount of money the company wasted redeveloping products every year due to EMI, and how after considerable front-end analysis we created a single 12-hour CD-ROM course that got all 2,500 engineers trained in six months and made the problem disappear.”

Big project successes like this one should receive lots of attention, he says, and it's the project managers’ job to make that happen. “We talked this course up to anyone who would listen because it was the clear illustration of how our transformation directly caused an increase in productivity and reduction in costs,” Mr. Purington says. “It was a powerful example of our success, and sharing that story won us the continued support of the executive team.” PM

Sarah Fister Gale is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Il., USA. She's written for several magazines, including Training, CRM, Inc. and Workforce Management.

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