The impact of a strong communications strategy in a large program of work
Why are so many projects failing? What can we do to improve effectiveness in communications, one of the most critical elements in project and program planning?
The importance of a strong communications strategy becomes evident when delivering a large program of work. It is not enough to manage day-to-day communication with the customer, key stakeholders, and team members. See how this critical aspect of project management can be addressed in the delivery of complex programs across cultures and organizations.
We will describe the typical challenges of a complex program from the communications perspective, and see how we can derive requirements to establish and implement a communications strategy. We will conclude with suggestions on how to measure the results of this strategy.
Effective communication is essential at all levels of a program of work. While tactical steps can be sufficient to address the needs of a project, experience in delivering large programs has demonstrated the importance of developing a clear communications strategy whenever multiple organizations or complex interactions between stakeholders of projects are present.
Within a large program of work, there is a vast amount of communication that needs to be exchanged across a broad range of stakeholders. One of the key challenges is ensuring appropriate distribution of key communications from project leadership to impacted team members within the program, while recognizing and preventing communication overload.
This paper identifies and addresses the following four different levels of communication flow:
1. Internal program communication: what is happening in the day-to-day delivery of the program and what changes or successes/delays team members need to be aware of.
2. Communication between the program and the customer: the best way for the program to communicate across the two business organizations.
3. External communication: what information is appropriate for media relations and when to best share it.
4. Corporate communication: engagement with the internal corporate centers and organizations.
A basic communication strategy outlines the various steps required before any tactical activity or communications plan for the individual projects can be put in place. This paper describes the key elements in a communication strategy, as well as examples of tactical objectives to be included in communication plans that will implement this strategy.
Measuring progress in program communications allows monitoring its effectiveness and it is recommended to plan regular reviews of the communication plan as a way to ensure appropriate adjustments are introduced during the life cycle of the program.
As project managers, we know that communication is between 80% and 90% of our job. Are we spending our planning time well enough to communicate successfully in a complex program of work?
We can envision several examples of communication flows and potential blockers outside program and project management. A country’s infrastructure is based on a network of roads, airports, and railway/bus stations that connect key areas: cities, factories, and rural communities. In most cases, these networks are developed by overlapping historical roadways and airports with newer construction, so the resulting communication infrastructure might not be the most effective method to connect key civic and industrial hubs. In the telecommunications field, for example, incumbent service providers who already have a copper infrastructure may find implementing a fiber overlay much more expensive than establishing a green field optical network.
Studies have shown that the number of failed projects in the past eight years has increased (Mersino, 2010, Standish Group Bi-annual Chaos Study chart), despite the considerable increase in the number of project managers. What has changed in the global landscape to justify such an increase? Among other things, we believe that off shoring and the distribution of project teams across multiple time zones and countries have increased the complexity of the communication networks required within projects. It is our job as project managers to reverse the trend, and reduce the number of project failures, by communicating more passionately in our projects and even considering distributed teams and widespread cultures.
We know that the communication channels increase exponentially with the number of team members (PMI, 2008, p 253), and we have all seen how the diversity in cultures, now engaged in our projects, adds a considerable layer of complexity. This causes communication plans based on, often trite, tactical objectives, to fall short of actually helping us reach out to our teams, especially in complex, cross-organizational programs.
Although there are physical impediments to a complete revision of basic communication infrastructures such as roads and telephone networks, in most cases, a program communication plan can and should be revised to address the program’s strategic communications goals, because lack of a strong communications strategy leads to ineffective governance.
During the execution of a large program, it is commonly required to respond to immediate delivery needs, and, without a structured communications strategy, these efforts can be minimized as the communication flow weakens across the program’s components. When the program’s communication plan loses its effectiveness, the program itself loses its ability to respond quickly to change. In short, we can lose control of the program; while the projects and the entire program might still be delivered, costs and resource utilization might not be optimal.
Complex Program: Typical Challenges
From a communications perspective, being able to convey a consistent message to all affected individuals across a multitude of teams is essential, but how can we determine who is affected, who really needs to know, versus those who might require elective access to the information?
- How can we reconcile project communication requirements (changes in roles and responsibilities, reporting, escalation, etc.) with the corporate communication about process updates and re-organizations?
- How do we share project documentation across organizations, and project/program phases, in a way that fosters internal collaboration and sharing of key project knowledge, without drowning our colleagues in yet more unread e-mails?
- Do you push information into people’s desktops, or expect them to retrieve it when they need it?
- How many websites and portals should be established and, more importantly, maintained, for your program?
In several companies, we have gone beyond “simple” matrix organizations—we now have complex multi-dimensional matrix structures. Intricate reporting structures (regional and centralized, country unit and global product house, sales and services) add layers of “dotted line” management, the subtle and not-so-subtle dependencies on cross-organizational teams.
The throes of the “delivery schedule,” the “fix it now” frenzy, and the urgency in getting the job done—these all push us toward tactical, immediate-result choices, which may patch the current problem, but not serve us well in the long term. Although it is important to remain flexible in our project execution, the time spent in planning our strategy is worth tenfold while executing it.
For example, sometimes being on-site with the customer, in their environment, makes staff feel they are closer to the customer. This approach, however, can create a challenge in communicating with internal staff on corporate policies, process updates, and organizational changes. Technical hurdles are multiple: Extranet/Intranet access, firewalls, disparate systems, and multiple telephone systems, to name a few, are some of the key challenges experienced in such a model. So, we need to ask ourselves: What is the strategic objective we want to achieve? If the goal is to establish close proximity to the customer and better collaborate with them, then the seating arrangements need to be included in the program management plan. This means that the program plan has to account for IT infrastructure set-up, real estate agreements, telephone and firewall change notices, and so forth, including planned time for all team members at the corporate locations for meetings, training, and other corporate events. In this example, simply considering seating, staff location, and infrastructure costs as considerations of our program communication plan determines how can we allocate enough time, cost, and skills to its proper (and useful) set up. At which point we need to ask ourselves if this is what we really need. How does it fit in with the program’s objectives?
Although 10 to 15 years ago we could have supported a project environment with e-mail and telephones, we can see the need to include in today’s communication infrastructure other elements: blogs, websites, social networking are all parts of how we communicate across teams, projects, and corporations. While it is true that information overload eventually leads to a much-reduced attention span, we need to acknowledge the importance and relevance of all available communication channels.
So, what do we need to “talk” about? Why do we need to say it? Who becomes critical to planning how we can communicate it and when?
According to De Bono and Heller, “Strategy is any long-term plan, which will be the product of the art of conducting a campaign and manoeuvring an army. Tactics are purposeful procedure achieved by exercising the science or art of manoeuvring in presence of the enemy” (De Bono & Heller, 2010 ¶3).
So, before working out the individual project’s communication plans, let us consider what the guiding principles are for the tactical elements in the overall program communication strategy.
Establishing a Communication Strategy
Establishing a good communication strategy significantly improves the probability of success on a program. We all know that relevant and timely information is paramount to achieving program objectives. Every day, people are inundated with a substantial amount of data and must determine and prioritize what to pay attention to and when. Communication across different time zones for global teams is a challenge and demands focused attention and effort. A communication strategy allows us to better structure and control information flow, removes uncertainty, and eliminates unnecessary churn in the program. A good strategy outlines the message, the target audience to address, the communication channels, the resources required, and the feedback methods to measure results of the exercise. Most importantly, it is good to extend strategy development efforts to include implementation and execution planning. Organizational leads commonly believe that strategy is distinct from execution. This is a flawed assumption, because a strategy constitutes the vision driving our actions: we’ve all heard too many times how corporate strategists point to working level execution “flaws” when the strategy they have devised flops. According to Roger L. Martin, “The idea that a strategy can be brilliant and it’s execution poor is simply wrong.” (Martin, 2010, p 67) So, it is very important to plan the communication strategy very carefully because it will determine how effectively the program communications flow will function.
Exhibit 1 – Components of a Communication Strategy
The image in Exhibit 1 illustrates the key elements of a communication strategy, and how they interlock.
The following steps can help us develop and implement our strategy.
Establish requirements by reviewing program goals and objectives
This is when we establish stakeholder requirements and decide what to achieve with our communication strategy.
- We should study the corporate strategy and our understanding of how the program fits in with the corporate strategic objectives.
- Next, we should review the program goals, objectives, and communication requirements, taking into account the culture, politics, systems, and structure of the program.
- At this point, we are ready to define the types of program information needed to support the overall corporate strategy and help achieve the programs goals and objectives. Program information can be grouped into the following categories: project management plan, project status, project records, standards, and templates (Binder, 2007, p 101–102).
- Finally, we should identify stakeholder information requirements, including priority and timeliness of information.
The more informed we are about our program and all of its stakeholders, the better our strategy will be. As our project and program managers move into a role that encompasses a higher level of business engagement, the expectation from our sponsors and customers are increasing and include a strategic approach to critical aspects of the program, such as communication.
Understand how things are going by conducting a communication audit
Conducting a communication audit is a simple way to assess the effectiveness and reliability of the current communication tools and techniques. To avoid making assumptions, we should ask simple questions and evaluate whether: (1) the team understands the goals and objectives of the program; (2) the communication channels and methods of the program are effective in reaching and informing your target audiences; and, (3) the program is investing communication dollars wisely and can achieve better results by making changes.
The more research we can do to determine the pulse of the organization, the more buy-in we will have for our strategy. With the audit, we need to answer at least this question: “Are you getting the information you need, when you need it, and in the right format for your easy consumption and understanding?” When employees are included in the process and made to feel empowered, the entire organization wins (Martin, 2010, p 68).
Determine who the “customers” are for this communication strategy: identify the target audience
After conducting a communication survey, we need to revise the target audience, and a good approach is to develop a strategic segmentation scheme to categorize our target audience properly, based on the outcome from the survey. Are there internal and external teams, partners, and customers? Do we need to communicate with local, national, or global teams? We can then segment the audience to indicate whether they should receive project-specific, corporate, internal, or PR communications, and determine what types of methods should be used to reach the audience: why, how (tactics), when (same day, same week, next month), and priority. Cultures and customs may vary widely from one team to another. By carefully segmenting the audience, we can develop a strategy that meets the needs of each segment and improves the effectiveness of the exercise. There are also “side audiences” that we try to reach, often accommodated with a “copy to” in an e-mail, for example. We should consciously format our message to also reach this “side audience” (for information only, or for any additional required action) to maintain an effective communication flow.
One way in which we have been able to perform this exercise is to divide our target audience into four groups:
- Internal program communication: this refers to communication inter- and intra-project team members, to what is happening in the day-to-day delivery of the program and what changes, successes, or delays team members need to be aware of.
- Communication between the program and the customer: Although transparency is a fundamental attribute of customer relationships, it is important to understand what information goes to the customer and when.
- External communication—investors, media, and analysts: not all programs include this aspect, but it is worth keeping in mind that our projects and programs have an impact on our community, so we need to determine what information is appropriate for media relations and when to best share it.
- Corporate communication: we have to distribute organizational and other operational information to all employees in the program, especially with regard to organizational health and safety, process improvement, and employee recognition and/or awards.
Once we segment the audience, we find it helpful to position each group of stakeholders using the power/influence grid (PMI, 2008, p 249) to determine urgency/priority of communication to these stakeholders.
Determine how to be effective as we reach the audience: define required communication channels
We are now ready to look at the possible communication tools, techniques, and channels needed for the target audience segments. Based on our communication requirements, we can define what channels are effective and minimize the amount of information spread indiscriminately (to avoid overload). We need to consider how the audience (younger generations in particular) need to be reached and reachable via a more diverse set of channels than what we are used to. One way to achieve this objective is by using a chart like the one shown in Exhibit 2 or similar charts (Mersino, 2007, p 165).
Exhibit 2 – Communications Channels Description Chart
Develop the Communication Strategy
It now time to draft and baseline the communications strategy and make this strategy meaningful to the program team members and stakeholders.
Prepare a preliminary outline. The template in Exhibit 3 can be used to help develop the outline.
Exhibit 3 – Communication Strategy Template
Distribute the outline to various partners for comments and revisions. Partners may be anyone we think could make a productive contribution to the strategy. Ideally, we should seek input from a communications expert, such as a communications manager, if one is available.
Define what it will take to implement the strategy (feasibility assessment). Include required resources and investment needs.
Meet with partners to review, revise, and baseline the strategy.
Exhibit 4 – Example of Tactical Implementation
To be successful at strategy implementation, we will need to develop a detailed action plan that maps out our strategy implementation process. Like any other action plan, we’ll need to assign responsibility to a specific individual to complete each of the action steps, set due dates, and estimate the resources required to accomplish the plan. Establishing realistic action steps and meeting them will help us secure early wins and increases our credibility. Below is a list of key action steps to include in the plan:
- Communicate the final strategy to the target audience you want to reach and, first and foremost, the project managers. This will make it easier to integrate them into the process of developing and implementing the various tools and media intended for use. There may be resistance to proposed change. To counteract this, work to build credibility and mobilize the energy created with the partners and communication expert that helped define the strategy.
- Explain expected roles and behaviors in the context of the communications strategy
- Plan proper utilization of resources. Identify human resources/communicators within the program who can implement the strategy and the new communication channels and tools. The aim is to minimize the cost incurred and make communication cost effective. Develop a communication responsibility matrix to schedule and assign responsibilities (Exhibit 4). List the target stakeholders, assigned resource/communicator, type of program information required, communication channel, delivery date, frequency, priority level, the reason stakeholders need to know the information provided, and the expected result. The program team needs to agree on how to manage and coordinate communication activities and develop key processes for exchanging critical information.
- Document new communications channels, tools, and processes for target audience segments
- Establish and test the communication channels identified in the strategy (blogs, websites, e-mail aliases, etc)
- Hold reviews of current projects’ communication plans with the project managers to make sure all project plans are consistent with the program communication strategy. While it may not be possible to implement major changes to these plans, at least the project manager can be aware of any gaps or discrepancies. Any newly developed communication plans will have to be consistent with the new program communication strategy. Effective integrated communication plans are required to implement and execute the strategy successfully.
- Make updates to the established communication channels based on the reviews held with the project managers
- Train target audience segments on new communication channels, tools, and processes
As part of the communication strategy, we need to identify ways in which we can measure if our communications are effective. Some quantitative measures can be intrinsically in place: how many hits/responses to the wiki, blogs, yammer, websites, and others might need to be set up.
Monitoring attendance to planned events (from all staff program updates), to celebrations, to open forums) is often useful, especially over a period of time: it gives a clear idea of the overall engagement felt by the target audience.
However, it is a good idea to also collect qualitative feedback on the effectiveness of these initiatives, to understand if we are actually meeting our strategic objectives and having the right impact on the program. For example, we can measure our effectiveness by sessions with all levels consisting of interviews with small groups of stakeholders, to give us candid feedback on which communication tools are working and which tools do not provide any value. A periodic survey, similar to the baseline one taken as we planned the strategy, will enable a comparison of key progress and delays.
Indirect measure of improved communications can be obtained by tracking escalation intervals (it takes less time to escalate issues that can’t be resolved locally), change requests implementation (project teams are aware of the upcoming changes, and can react more quickly), employees, and customer satisfaction surveys.
Keeping in mind the ever-present possibility of information overload, these measures should be used to adjust our communication tactical goals periodically.
We have talked about the need to develop a strategy as we plan communications for a complex program of work, going beyond the individual project plans, and we have seen what some typical challenges might be as we plan and execute such complex programs.
Although the methods and examples we have discussed are just a starting point, we should look at the importance to determine clearly what the key aspects of our overall communication within (and without) the program should be.
Every program has its own environment and practices, and there are industry-specific conditions that need to be taken into account. But the fundamental approach to defining the overall communication requirements and target audience remains valid: engaging key stakeholders as we define how the information flow needs to move inside and outside the program is as important as obtaining their endorsement for the program deliverables and schedule.
Implementing the strategy then becomes the same as defining the strategy: the communication tools and channels, tailored to the budget and target audience, as well as the metrics we set in place to measure success, are the tactical devices to support seamless communication.
As project managers, we know that communication is anywhere between 80% and 90% of our jobs. Are we spending our planning time well enough to successfully communicate in a complex program of work?
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Binder, J. (2007). Global project management: Communication, collaboration, and management across borders Gower Publishing Limited: Aldeshot, Hampshire England, 101–102.
Martin, R. L. (2010, July-August). The effective organization, Harvard Business Review, 67–68.
Mersino, A. (2007). Emotional intelligence for project managers, New York, NY: AMACOM, 164–165.
Mersino, A. (2010). Why We Are Afraid to Tell the Truth about Project Failures, Standish Group Bi-annual Chaos Study chart, Retrieved on 18 July 2010 from http://eq4pm.typepad.com/eq4pm.
Project Management Institute (PMI). (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® Guide—Fourth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.
© 2010, Loredana Abramo & Retha Onitiri
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Washington, DC