Getting the "soft stuff" right
effective communication is the key to successful project outcomes!
No senior manager with integrity will commit to a project knowing that its objectives cannot be achieved. Most projects that commit to achieving “impossible” time, cost, or scope objectives are started because the correct project management messages were not received or believed by the managers commissioning the project; this may be caused by:
- A lack of confidence in the data provided,
- A lack of awareness of the availability of relevant information, or
- An organization structure that cannot generate appropriate data to inform the relevant senior managers.
Effective communication with senior managers is not a one-off effort by an individual project manager. Rather, it’s an ongoing collegiate effort by all project practitioners in the organization, designed to inform, educate, and influence senior managers so that “sensible” project decisions become the norm. This effort is significantly helped by the presence of an effective project management office (PMO) structure, but simply generating accurate project data does not inform senior managers or help them make wise decisions.
Wise decision making requires relevant information at the right time. In this context, “relevant” has two components: the information needs to be “usable,” (pertinent, accurate, and understandable) and it needs to be “used” (the recipient believes the information is credible and important to the decision).
Credibility is the most critical element in effective communication and also the most fragile. PMI’s new Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct requires members to respect themselves and others, and to act responsibly, fairly, and honestly. The code places particular emphasis on truthful communication and the provision of accurate information in a timely manner. These requirements are the foundation of credibility, and the failure of one project manager to live up to these standards damages the credibility of all project managers.
A key element in honest communication is knowing what’s possible. Writing on pieces of paper cannot guarantee or change the future, even when the “writing” is a printout from a sophisticated computer program! It is therefore critical for project practitioners to clearly explain the limitations of project management processes and make appropriate use of risk management to deal with the inherent uncertainty associated with every attempt to forecast the future.
Some managers in organizations that lack the necessary levels of maturity may find this lack of certainty worrying, and when realistic estimates fall outside of their desirable range, are inclined to “shoot the messenger.” Managing these situations requires project managers to be highly skilled negotiators and communicators capable of managing individual stakeholder expectations and creating a positive culture change within the overall organization.
This paper will outline some key techniques to determine the right stakeholders to focus communication effort on at each stage of a project and suggest strategies for communicating effectively to create positive change in an organization, including effectively managing the expectations of key stakeholders.
Overview of Project Communication
Project communications are multidimensional. They include every exchange of information between members of the project team and their surrounding stakeholder community, as well as exchanges of information within the project team. The information exchanges can be:
- Bi-directional, immediate, and direct (for example, a telephone conversation)
- Single-directional, immediate, and direct (such as an email sent from one person to another)
- Single-directional and direct (for example, a letter sent from one person to another)
- Indirect (such as information read by a person from the project Web site).
The above list of options is far from complete, and each person in touch with the project, either as a stakeholder or a team member, will be assimilating information about the project from a variety of sources and using the information received to “color” their perceptions and expectations of the project. If the person is, or has been, in communication with a number of projects, the information received will be influenced by the person’s pre-existing knowledge, perceptions, and prejudices created as a result of all of the communications they have received.
This creates two obstacles to effective project communication. The first is currency of information: a report written six weeks ago may still be in circulation and only just seen by a stakeholder, when another piece of information is received that was generated a couple of hours ago. These two pieces of information could show totally different views of the project if there has been a four-week strike in the meantime, particularly if the information focuses on different aspects of the project. Six weeks ago, the project was showing a healthy cost performance, but the current time data shows a major delay caused by the strike. Most managers would be suspicious of an “OK” cost report on a project that is running more than a month late. If the person has incomplete information (and no one has complete information), the credibility of the project’s reporting process will be challenged in the mind of the stakeholder.
The second problem is based around perceptions and prejudices derived from previous experiences. If a manager believes project reports are “always overoptimistic,” based on his or her experience of many projects to date, the assumption will be that your project reports are “overoptimistic,” even if you are the world’s biggest pessimist.
A project can control many of the issues around the currency of its data; it is much harder to deal with entrenched perceptions built up in a person’s mind over many years.
Definition of Stakeholders
All communication takes place between people! A report that is written, filed, and never read is not a communication; it may be a valuable record but it only becomes a communication when the information is received by someone. The people with whom the project needs to communicate are its stakeholders. For the purpose of this paper, stakeholders are defined as “individuals or groups who have an interest or some aspect of rights or ownership in the project, can contribute in the form of knowledge or support, or can impact or be impacted by, the project” (Bourne, 2005).
Every stakeholder is potentially significant to the project and as a minimum, the project’s stakeholders include the project manager, project team members, suppliers and contractors, managers within the organization, and customers or users of the project’s deliverables. Communicating effectively with all of the key stakeholders within and around a project is difficult; communicating with every stakeholder almost impossible.
Types of Communication
From the perspective of a project, communications fly in a number of defined directions:
- Upward to clients and managers
- Downward to the project team
- Outward to a wide range of people, including the general public
- Sideways to peers of the project manager.
Additionally, communications can be internal to the organization or external to the organization. Internal communications are usually easier to manage than external communications, primarily due to the ability of the communicator to directly interact with the recipient of the information.
Types of communication are generally considered to be either:
- Oral (spoken or heard), or
- Written (read).
Oral communications can carry significantly more information about the “sender” than written communications, through elements such as the pitch and tone of the voice, levels of confidence, and the ability to develop empathy.
Communication theory also recognizes the difference between formal and informal communications. By their nature, formal communications tend to be more authoritative than informal communications, but may also be structured to “hide” information as well as to communicate the “selected” information.
For the purposes of this paper, there are three key factors to consider in the transmission of a message:
- The transmission factors: Message/Medium/Noise
- The people involved and the: Sender/Receiver/Feedback loop (PMI, 2004)
- The impact of “filtering,” “packaging,” and “pattern recognition” on the interpretation of the message by both the sender and the receiver.
The Message/Medium/Noise. The three elements of an effective communication are:
- Selecting the right messages to send to a stakeholder.
- Choosing the right medium to use and often the right messenger.
- Minimizing unnecessary “noise” in the transmission.
The “right” message is not the message the sender wants to send, it is the message the receiver is prepared to receive and respond to. This means the message has to be relevant to the receiver and couched in terms that address the issues and interests of the receiver. This requires the sender to think from the perspective of the stakeholder (empathy) and link the needs of the sender (the project) directly to the needs of the receiver (the stakeholder). If the interests of the receiver are not engaged, it is highly unlikely the message will be listened to and acted upon.
Having designed an effective message, the second element of an effective communication is making the message easy for the receiver to access and use. This involves using processes preferred by the receiver to transmit the message. Is it better to send a text message or make a quick telephone call? If the receiver is a “people person” who likes conversation and hates the cryptic language of text messaging, using a text message to communicate key project data probably will not be effective. Wherever people form part of the transmission medium (presentations, coffee meetings, and so forth) it is vital to make sure the “right” person is given the job of carrying the message. The messenger needs to build rapport and communicate effectively with the receiver.
The last element in designing effective communications is minimizing “noise.” Noise exists in every communication medium and distracts the receiver from the contents of the message. The art of effective communication is to make sure the message is as clear and easy to receive as possible. Unnecessary graphics and colors in reports or background chatter in a presentation distract the receiver and cloud the message, reducing the effectiveness of the communication. A well-designed message is interesting, attractive and clear; any embellishments should enhance the impact of the message, not distract from it.
The Sender/Receiver/Feedback Loop. The three elements of a successful communication are:
- The sender creates the message (encodes) and sends it to the receiver.
- The receiver interprets the message (decodes) and creates a feedback message (encodes) to let the sender know the message has been received and understood.
- The sender receives the feedback (decodes) and checks the receiver has understood the message as intended.
In the project environment there are a number of specific problems with this ideal model. One key issue is that effective feedback is often very difficult to achieve. Passive, or pull, transmissions (such as a receiver accessing a report from a project web site) may occur without the project knowing; alternatively, the simple receipt of an email containing a key attachment by someone does not mean the receiver has read the attachment, even if they acknowledge receipt of the email.
Another major issue is the multiple meanings of the same or similar words, which can create illusions of agreement (or disagreement) even with effective feedback (this is discussed further in “filtering and pattern recognition” below). When a PMI-trained project manager tells an architect the “plan” needs to be finished this week (meaning a PMBOK® Guide-style amalgam of schedule, risk, cost, HR, and so forth sub-plans), and the architect agrees, (meaning the design drawing for the project) both sides of the communication understand exactly what they have agreed to but have a completely different outcome in their minds.
Filtering, Packaging, and Pattern Recognition
Filtering, packaging, and pattern matching are the most uncertain elements in any communication and they are always unavoidably present in everyone’s thinking processes. All communications are filtered, by the sender and by the receiver; the only counter is to recognize that this happens and to seek to maximize the beneficial aspects or reduce the disruptive effects.
The brain uses “filtering” to survive; filtering includes “packaging” and “pattern matching.” Your senses (vision, hearing, smell, touch, and taste) bombard the brain with significantly more information per second than the brain is capable of processing. The brain solves this problem by filtering out most of the information it deems “unimportant.”
Packaging includes stereotyping people and events (there is no such thing as a positive stereotype) and dealing with regularly experienced objects and places as a single entity (filtering out the detail). If you are looking for your car in a car lot, you see “your car”’ (one piece of data), the eyes record the dust on the tires, the smudges on the windshield, and so forth. The brain discards this extraneous data from conscious processing, the package “my car” is adequate, and your brain’s processing power is available for other things, such as avoiding traffic. This changes on the weekend, when you are focusing on cleaning the car—then the dust and smudges matter and are “seen,” or processed by the brain for action. “Where is the car?” and “Is the car dirty?” are different thought processes using different filters.
Pattern matching is the expectation of the same outcome from an action or occurrence as was experienced before, especially if the experience has been repeated. Pattern matching can cut in very early, when only a small part of the message or event has been experienced, effectively blocking out the rest of the message or experience.
Filtering is heavily influenced by an individual’s past experience; consequently, each person’s perception of what is “real” is different, since their “reality” is experienced through their personal filters. The person’s prior experiences allow patterns to be recognized and assumptions made about the appropriate “package” for them to use. This process changes the message actually received by the receiver, as well as the receiver’s perception of the message.
In the project context this can be positive—“the PMO’s reports are always excellent”—or negative—“the engineer’s reports are always too technical.” Where the danger lies is that while one engineer in the past may have “always been too technical,” the new engineer may be a far better communicator whose reports are ignored because of the stereotyping of “all engineer’s reports are too technical.” Awareness helps minimize the effect of filtering on project communications and effective communication is enhanced by the sender routinely checking the receiver’s perception of the messages he or she has received.
Defining Successful Projects
Projects are successful when they meet or exceed key stakeholders’ expectations by delivering the expected benefits in terms of value (time/cost/scope), within an acceptable risk profile, while maintaining effective relationships with the key stakeholders (Bourne, 2007b).
The key element in achieving a successful project outcome is understanding and managing the expectations of the project’s key stakeholders. Unrealistic expectations are unlikely to be achieved! Similarly, delivering exactly what was asked for when it is not what is actually needed will be seen as a project failure by unsatisfied stakeholders. The key to understanding and managing stakeholder expectations is effective two-way communication, and effective communication is the basis of, and dependent on, maintaining effective relationships with the key stakeholders.
Some symptoms of communication failure in projects include:
- Time too short and/or insufficient budget, causing the project to overrun. Potential communication failures include:
• Project estimates not believed (lack of credibility)
• Project estimates not requested (lack of visibility or understanding).
- Scope not properly defined, causing the project to fail to meet expectations. Potential communication failures include:
• The relevance and use of project management processes not communicated to decision-makers
• Inadequate time allowed for planning and scope definition (lack of understanding)
• Failure to identify and communicate with all key stakeholders.
- Failure to create adequate contingencies, causing the project to overrun. Potential communication failures include:
• False belief in the accuracy of project management processes (failure to communicate limitations)
• Lack of information on, or recognition of, the inherent variability of the project environment (failure to receive and/or research information)
• Lack of confidence in project managers to manage uncertainty and risk (lack of credibility).
The above list is far from exhaustive, but does serve to demonstrate the key linkage between relationships (senior managers to project managers), project communications (messages received, believed and understood), and project success. The other key factor is that one project on its own cannot change the perceptions and beliefs (filters) of senior managers exposed to project communications from numerous projects over many years.
We would suggest that one of the significant root causes of project failure is the failure of project-related communication within an organization. Conversely, where project-related communication is effective, the likelihood of project success is enhanced. An untested but sustainable hypothesis is that the improvement in the proportion of successful projects delivered within organizations with “mature project offices”, identified by KPMG (2003) in their program management reports, was due to the improved communication of project-related messages within the organization facilitated by the PMO.
Elements of Effective Project Communication
The elements of effective project communication identified thus far include:
- Designing the right message, including the relevance of the message to the receiver, the accuracy of the information, the timeliness of the information, and the clarity of the information conveyed.
- Selecting the right medium and the right messenger for effective communication, including ensuring that the message is received (access to the receiver) and perceived as credible.
A third critical element is the organizational culture within which the project-related messages are communicated. Where overall corporate governance requirements focus on effective project governance and support open, effective communication, the opportunity to develop a culture of effective communications is significantly enhanced. Organization’s “boards” recognize that they need effective and accurate project data to govern the organization and develop systems to encourage openness. However, while open communication is easier in the “right culture,” professional project managers have an ethical responsibility to communicate honestly and effectively regardless of the culture—the job of communication is just more difficult and needs greater skills where the culture is counterproductive.
Understanding Influence Networks
One of the tools available to project managers, and one of the factors influencing the communication surrounding any project, is the network of connections between stakeholders. Some of the connections include:
- Direct links from the project to its stakeholders
- Links between the project and its PMO
- Links between the PMO and its stakeholders
- Links between other projects and their stakeholders
- Stakeholder-to-stakeholder links independent of the project.
Understanding this pattern of communication and influence is difficult and never 100% complete, but the communication-aware project team is always looking to understand as much about their overall communication environment as possible.
Exhibit 1 – Influence Networks (Bourne, 2007a)
The denser a network (more interconnections), the more resistant individuals within the network are likely to be to change, due to the “pull” of all of the network connections back toward the “normal” behaviors of the group. However, from a communication and influence perspective, if the project team understands who influences whom, they can enlist the help of appropriate “friendly” network members to pass messages and influence the behaviors and expectations of stakeholders outside of their direct communication links.
The Interaction of Messages and Influence Networks
The network of influence within an organization tends to be holistic. It spans the organization rather than surrounding a single project. This means that the communications from any project have the potential to influence perceptions of every project. This is a two-edged sword. On the positive side, repetition builds belief and creates understanding. If every project is delivering similar reports, management gets used to seeing them, develops an understanding of the information they contain, and over time becomes confident in using the data as an aid in making decisions. Changing and creating cultural norms takes time and requires a consistent effort. However, “one bad apple spoils the barrel,” and the impact of one bad project on an emerging culture can be devastating. Bad news and poor perceptions seem to have a far greater impact on a network than good news and good perceptions.
Developing credibility for all project messages requires a coordinated and concerted effort; this is frequently a role adopted by the PMO. To be successful, time needs to be devoted to:
- Developing the credibility of project managers and project management.
- Developing the credibility of project management systems and reports.
- Recognizing the varying degrees of accuracy and uncertainty in any project situation and not promising the unattainable.
Dealing With Uncertainty
All project forecasts are wrong! Tasks will be accomplished quicker or slower than planned, will cost more or less than planned, and so forth. In a mature organization, the likely degree of uncertainty is recognized and managed. Immature organizations tend to seek certainty where none exists.
Writing numbers into a cost control system does not and cannot control costs. This is as true of a simple cost control system built in an Excel spreadsheet as it is of a multimillion-dollar ERP system such as SAP or Oracle Financials. The estimated values entered into the system are estimates derived from what the project team thinks might be likely to occur in the future. The actual price paid for anything is what it actually costs in the market at the time it is purchased. Good estimating can be reasonably accurate if the market remains relatively stable or changes at a predictable rate. When the assumptions of predictability break down, the costs paid can alter dramatically. Recent examples include the rates paid to contractors during the Y2K boom, the possible cost effect of climate change, and the cost of structural steel in southeast Asia caused by the Chinese building boom. In the unlikely event of a collapse in the Chinese economy, the cost of structural steel in Australia would halve in a matter of weeks.
Similarly, the information written into a schedule does not guarantee anything about what will happen in the future. People have been trying to accurately forecast the future for centuries, by means of Tarot cards, the stars, and numerology, to name a few techniques. Given the highly subjective nature of a schedule (Weaver, 2006a, 2006b), attempting to treat the schedule as some modern form of astrology that can accurately predict future outcomes is dangerous. As George E.P. Box once said, “All models are wrong but some are useful” (Box, 1976).
The usefulness of a well-constructed schedule, WBS, cost plan, and most other predictive models used by project managers is not their ability to control the future (this is a dangerous illusion), but their ability to communicate complex ideas, generate agreement on objectives, and facilitate coordinated team action to achieve the project’s objective, in line with the plans. As reality “bites” and work fails to proceed in accord with the plans, the degree of deviation can be measured, corrective actions agreed upon, and the updated documents used to communicate the adjusted objectives to the project team and stakeholders. The schedule and other project data models are a means to visualize an uncertain (risky) possible future and then manage the consequences of risks as they eventuate.
However, this paper is not about risk management, its focus is on communicating for effect. The importance of risk and uncertainty in the project communication environment is the damage caused by the false attribution of certainty to uncertain outcomes. Every time the “certain outcome” fails to happen, credibility is destroyed. Whereas managing uncertainty effectively helps build credibility, as long as the key senior management stakeholders in the process understand what is happening and why. Effective risk and contingency management identifies the degree of uncertainty in each estimate, develops appropriate levels of contingency, and manages the project within acceptable parameters. Effective monitoring and reporting systems provide plenty of warning if the underlying risk assumptions start showing signs of being too optimistic or pessimistic, and when these findings are communicated in a timely and effective manner, credibility is enhanced. However, this approach to managing projects requires the trust of senior managers (that is, the project management processes require credibility), and the projects needs to be operating in an effective communication environment.
Tools for Project Communication Management
This section will briefly look at some of the tools and techniques available to help develop and implement an effective project communication plan.
Stakeholder Mapping and Prioritization
No project or PMO will ever have adequate resources to communicate fully with every stakeholder. The communication effort needs to be focused on the people who are most important to inform or influence at any given time in the life of the project. While it is unwise to ignore any stakeholder, the amount of effort devoted to different stakeholders can be varied significantly to obtain the maximum benefit from the effort expended. Therefore, understanding who is most important, and the characteristics of these key stakeholders, is a critical first step. Tools such as the Stakeholder Circle™ (see www.stakeholder-management.com) have been developed to assist in this process and more importantly facilitate the updating of assessments as the dynamics of the project change.
Having identified who to communicate with, the next step is determining the what and why: communication planning. Some stakeholders may simply need routine reports. Key stakeholders that the project may need to influence to help build support or mitigate unfavorable perceptions normally need a more thoughtful approach. Understanding the stakeholder’s interests and aligning the project communications to the needs of the stakeholder are critical. The concept of “mutuality,” trying to balance “what the stakeholder can do for the project” with “what the project can do for the stakeholder” is a key concept (Bourne, 2005). However, this is a far more resource-intensive process than simply “reporting.”
Project team members and contractors are also stakeholders. The internal communications system needs to be planned and properly resourced as well as the external communications.
Communicating effectively is a two-way process. As well as the traditional distribution of information, a well-designed communications system encourages feedback to ascertain that its messages are:
- Being received and correctly understood
- Relevant and useful to the recipient
- Achieving the required or desired effect.
Additionally, the project team needs to be skilled in effective listening (intelligence gathering), tapping into their networks to identify emerging trends, opportunities, and problems as early as possible (Bourne & Walker, 2003).
Communications Monitoring and Feedback
A project’s stakeholder community is constantly changing. Communication monitoring and feedback include testing to see if the communication plan is having the desired effects within the stakeholder community.
Exhibit 2 – Improvements in the Levels of Stakeholder Support and Receptiveness Over Time (Bourne, 2007b)
Monitoring changes in the stakeholder community and updating the communication plan to keep it as effective as possible is the key to long-term communication success and ultimately project success.
Effective project communications requires a collegiate effort from the entire project management community. The maximum effect is achieved when all projects communicate with senior management in a consistent and effective manner.
Credibility is critical for effective communication; it takes time to build but is easily damaged. One of the key elements in building credibility is to embrace uncertainty and manage risks proactively. Ignoring uncertainty simply postpones the inevitable problems and destroys credibility when the illusion of certainty breaks down.
An effective PMO is a major asset in helping develop credibility for the project management community. The PMO can help develop effective communication models, help focus effort on the right stakeholders for each project, and more importantly, focus effort on those stakeholders that have influence in the overall network of managers within an organization.
Finally, the process of “communicating for effect” needs to be managed in an ethical and open manner. The objective is not “win-lose”; a project cannot “win” if its stakeholders lose. The benefit of effective communication is the alignment of stakeholder expectations with the project’s outcomes so that the stakeholder’s needs and expectations are fulfilled and the project is perceived to be a success.
Bourne, L. (2005). Project relationship management and the Stakeholder Circle™. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, RMIT University, Victoria, Australia.
Bourne, L. (2007, January). Avoiding the successful failure. PMI Global Congress Asia–Pacific, Hong Kong SAR,China.
Bourne, L. (2007a). Communication for technologists. Workshop, © Mosaic Project Services Pty Ltd. Course plan available at http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/Training-Comms.html#Top
Bourne, L. (2007b). Successful stakeholder management. Workshop, © Stakeholder Management Pty Ltd. See http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/Training-SHC.html#Top
Bourne, L., & Walker D.H.T. (2003). Tapping the powerlines – A 3rd dimension of project management beyond leading and managing.Moscow: International Project Management Association.
Box, G. E. P. (1976). Science and statistics. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 71, 791-799.
KPMG. (2003). KPMG 2003 program management survey – Asia Pacific update. Retrieved July 5, 2007 from http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/Resources_Papers.html#Proj_Off
Project Management Institute. (2004). A guide to the project management body of knowledge, (PMBOK®Guide),(2004 Ed.). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.
Weaver, P. (2006a, March). Float – Is it real? Ninth Australian International Performance Management Symposium, Canberra, ACT, Australia.
Weaver, P. (June 2006b, June). The cost of time, or whose duration is it anyway? ProjectChat @ WelcomWorld Asia Pacific, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.
© 2007, Patrick Weaver
Originally published as a part of 2007 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Atlanta, GA, USA