Non-written communication in project management

 

Abstract

Non-written communication plays a big role in our success as project managers. Whether we need to inform, persuade, or inspire others, we need skills to help us be effective doing that. We can learn those skills, but we have to practice them, and also teach others about them. This paper elaborates on the need for formal education and practice of these skills, suggests one way for organization assessment and also for development of a personal skills improvement plan.

Introduction

All projects have their objectives. In order to achieve those objectives, many stakeholders are involved during all the phases of the project. Some of the stakeholders are involved more often, while others not so much. Ideally, all of them should be involved as much as it is appropriate and practical.

Projects with more stakeholders imply more interpersonal relationships and therefore more complex environments. Project manager needs not only communicate clearly and efficiently with stakeholders, but she also needs to enable effective communication between them. Because of that, project managers spend most of their time communicating back and forth.

In order to achieve more and with less effort, project managers need knowledge and skills that can be applied in communicating with others. They need to make sure that their messages get across to another person or a group. And perhaps even more important, they need to make sure they receive and understand the information that is being directed towards them (Adair, 2003).

Successful communication between stakeholders largely improves project's chances of success, while miscommunication usually has a negative, sometimes even disastrous impact on the project.

Communication Skills in Project Management

Lack of emphasis on non-written communication

Communication is a process of exchanging information, usually via a common protocol. It takes many forms, but for this paper's purposes we will divide it in two categories, according to usage of writing (Springer, 2005).

  • Written communication
  • Non-written communication

A lot of communication in project management usually takes place in written form. The main reasons for written communication are to document and archive what is going on, and to deliver the same unchanged message to many people in need of the information. Obviously, this form of communication is very important and necessary, and it receives a lot of attention in project management literature. Much more than its non-written counterpart, anyway.

For instance, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) recognizes the importance of interpersonal skills in project management, especially such as effective communication, motivation, negotiation and conflict management. While there is one whole Knowledge Area in PMBOK® Guide that deals with Project Communications Management, it is focused only on processes that are “required to ensure timely and appropriate generation, collection, distribution, storage, retrieval, and ultimate disposition of project information (Project Management Institute, 2004, p 221).”

It does briefly mention communication skills and even states some of them: choice of media, writing style, presentation techniques, and meeting management techniques. However, project managers need much more information on how to acquire and further develop their non-written communication skills. The purpose of this paper is to emphasize that need and provide advice and direction to those who decide to improve their own or their organization's non-written communication knowledge, skills and behaviour.

Formal education and practice

This is most efficiently done through the means of formal education and practice. Formal education enables knowledge transfer necessary to learn the governing principles and techniques. On the other hand, in order to reap the benefits of this knowledge, it needs to be used, and it takes practice (Toastmasters International, no date).

There are people who are naturally more skilful than others. It may also seem that natural talent is necessary for successful non-written communication, or that one simply has to be “born with it”. But for usual everyday purposes it is not necessarily true. Talent, obviously, can help one learn the skill faster, and it can even help one perform the skills better. But with learning and practice a lack of talent surely won't stop her from achieving admirable results when compared to the average person. Maybe she won't become the next great orator like Martin Luther King or JFK, but with learning and practice her communication skills can become much more effective, her results more prominent and her self-confidence sky-rocketing.

Communication Process

Non-written communication

Non-written communication consists mostly of spoken communication. It includes elements such as use of voice, body language, and listening (Stone, 2004). All of these elements are used together in order to transfer information between the communication participants. Message senders and receivers actively transfer messages back and forth in order to exchange information, clarify their own understandings, and seek for more details.

Usually this process is a sequence of one-way message transfers, from sender to receiver, after which they swap their roles. Receiver then becomes the sender and starts transmitting her own message back, while former sender starts receiving the message and thus becomes the receiver.

This applies even in cases when it is not so evident, for example when one speaker delivers a talk to a large group. Although it might seem that this is a clear example of a one-way communication, it is not. The speaker constantly receives at least a visual feedback from his audience, knowingly or not, and modifies his performance accordingly (Serafino, 2003). More experienced speakers usually do it consciously and use that process to customize their delivery in order to achieve their communication goals more effectively.

Message Transfer Model

So let's analyze this one-way process that is being repeated in alternating directions. Here is the model that we'll use to describe the one-way transfer of the message from sender to receiver (Springer, 2005).

The process of message transfer in this model consists of four distinctive steps.

  1. Sender creates the message
  2. Message is transmitted through the channel towards the receiver
  3. Receiver receives the message
  4. Receiver interprets the message

All of the steps in this process are critical. Message can become corrupted during any of these steps, and if it happens then the message can be changed in meaning or even get lost completely. This is how miscommunication happens (Fisher Chan, 2002).

For instance, when sender creates the message she can use the language or voice that receiver won't understand easily or even not at all. Poorly known foreign language, bad choice of words, speaking that is not easily understandable, all of that can be a barrier to communication.

Sometimes the channel itself can be a barrier. For example, noisy room, weak mobile phone signal or damaged monitor screen can make the communication much more difficult or even impossible.

Receiving of the message can be troublesome if, for example, receiver gets distracted during the receiving and thus never receives the message or an important part of it.

And finally, interpretation of the message can be different than what the sender intended. Interpretation can be quite influenced by differences in emotional states, context and circumstances.

After that, what usually happens next is a change in roles. Receiver becomes the sender and former sender now becomes the receiver.

Process Improvement

According to this model, in order to improve the communication we can try improving all of its elements. The most effective way to make that improvement is working on our own skills. This is something we always can (and we really should) take responsibility for. In almost every situation, we only have a very limited influence on the skills of other participants. By far, the best results we'll achieve if we focus on our own skills.

Skills related to message creation include defining the purpose of the message, organizing the message according to the purpose, use of language and words, use of voice, use of gestures and body language. The message should also be appropriate for the channel that will be used to transfer it, in both its form and content.

Sometimes we can choose the channel (i.e. place, setting and participants) and sometimes we can't. Some communication needs to take place in one-on-one setting, while others are more effective if made in a more formal group setting. Accidental meeting in the hall is also quite a different setting than during dinner in a fancy restaurant. Choice of the right setting can influence the communication channel, and also the results of the communication (Thackwray, 2001).

We can hardly influence the receiving and interpreting of our message by the receiver, except for trying harder to speak as loud and understandable as possible and appropriate. However, we can pay attention and try to figure out if receiver did get the message, or we can indirectly or even directly ask her to find that out. However, when we're on the receiving end of the communication, we can make sure that we listen actively, and ask questions so that sender can repeat or clarify his message if necessary. We can also state our understanding of his message, in our own words, in order to check if we understood right. Active listening is also a skill, and its usage can quite improve the results of our communication (Gilley, 2001).

List of Skills

In summary, here's the non-comprehensive list of non-written communication skills that can help in making communication more successful, in no particular order:

  • Defining the purpose
  • Organizing
  • Use of language and words
  • Use of voice
  • Gestures and body language
  • Choice of communication channel
  • Active listening

Fostering the Skills

Three steps

There are three necessary major steps we should take in order to foster our own communication skills. They are: learning, practicing and teaching.

First we have to learn about the communication itself, and learn the skills that will enable us to communicate more efficiently. There are a lot of books, articles and courses, both online and offline, which cover this knowledge area. But as Goethe said: “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.”

Practicing communication skills is unavoidable in fostering our skills. So we have to practice wherever we can. We can practice at work, at home, at our hobbies or at the groceries. Every opportunity is right for practice and we should seize them as much as possible.

We can take it one step further and join one of the organizations that help their members develop effective public speaking skills, such as Toastmasters International, International Training in Communication or any other such organization.

With practice we'll further develop our own self-confidence and make our messages more genuine and more acceptable to people we communicate with. We'll have less communication barriers that we need to go beyond and our messages will reach our audiences much easier.

Then the next step is to teach others about those skills and the necessity of its practicing. It is much more likely that two people with developed communication skills will communicate much more efficiently than if one of them didn't develop them yet. So not only do we help them when we teach them, we also help ourselves because we'll be able to improve the communication between us and them.

Imagine the organization where there's much less conflicts, simply because everybody communicates much clearer and more effective. There would simply be much less miscommunication. Now, that does sound as a nicer place to work and live.

Organization Assessment

So how can we tell if our organization systematically strives to make its project managers communicate as effective as possible? Here is a set of assessment questions we can ask about our organization in order to get a glimpse at the answer.

  • Does organization have a systematic method for assessing the level of its project managers' communication skills?
  • Does organization have a systematic method for improving and tracking the level of its project managers' communication skills?
  • Does organization invest in communication skills of its project managers?
  • Is there a budget defined for development of project managers' communication skills?
  • Are top- and middle-managers aware of communication skills importance?
  • Do top- and middle-managers speak highly of communication skills and inspire project managers to learn and practice it?
  • Are there incentives in place which additionally motivate project managers to further develop their communication skills?

Even if our organization doesn't rate highly on this assessment yet, all is not lost. We can work to influence the organization and instil the changes in favour of making the necessary adjustments.

Personal Communication Skills Improvement Plan

Of course, we as project managers also have a personal interest in improving our own communication skills since it enables us to perform our jobs better and therefore prove ourselves as more valuable to our organization. This is why we have to take care of our own improvement even if our organization doesn't have a systematic way to help us do that yet.

Here is a description of a simple five-step process for personal communication skills improvement.

  1. Decision – The first step, maybe the most important one, is deciding that we want to improve our communication skills. In case that we're satisfied with our skills at the time being, it is perfectly acceptable to exit the process with the decision not to pursue the improvement at this time.
  2. Assessment – Assessment of our current skill levels for each particular skill. For that purpose we can use the list of skills from this paper, or any other list which is appropriate enough for our purpose.
  3. Plan – During the third step we need to determine our desired levels of each particular skill, and develop a plan how to reach them. This step really depends on resources and possibilities for learning and practicing which are available to us.
  4. Action – Putting the plan from previous step to action. Attending courses and trainings, reading the books and articles, practicing on and off the job.
  5. Feedback – Evaluating the result of all the previous activities and returning back to step 3 for re-planning as necessary.

Self-assessment is critical in order to recognize our strengths and weaknesses, and to determine the right course of action (Fisher Chan, 2002).

This process basically doesn't ever have to end since there will usually always be a gap between the current state and the desired skill-levels. However, at some point in time it will probably be wiser to invest the time, energy and resources in development of some other skills or knowledge, and then this process should be exited.

Conclusion

Typical project managers spend a lot of their time communicating. Project managers' success and projects' success can well depend on project manager's communication skills and particularly on his non-written or spoken communication skills.

Project managers need to learn and practice those skills in order to make their communication clearer, more understandable and more effective. They also need to teach others how to improve their own skills, to push the quality of communication to even higher levels.

In order to do that project managers need to help their organizations see the need for investment in communication skills development, as well as the need to develop the systematic method for assessment, improvement and tracking of project managers' communication skill levels.

If all else fails, project managers need to develop their own personal communication skills development plan, and start pursuing it. There is no hard evidence yet, but it is intuitively understandable that benefits of achieving higher communication skills levels quickly justify the investments made.

References

Adair, J. (2003) The Concise Adair on Communication and Presentation Skills. London:Thorogood

Fisher Chan, J. (2002) Communication Skills for Managers, Fifth Edition. New York:AMACOM

Gilley, J.W. et al. (2001) The Manager as Change Agent. Cambridge:Perseus Publishing

Project Management Institute. (2004) A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), Third Edition. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute

Serafino, L. (2003) Sales Talk: How To Power Up Sales Through Verbal Mastery. Avon:Adams Media

Springer, M.L. (2005) A Concise Guide to Program Management: Fundamental Concepts and Issues. West Lafayette:Purdue University Press

Stone, F. (2004) The Essential New Manager's Kit. Chicago:Dearborn Trade Publishing

Toastmasters International (no date) 10 Tips for Successful Public Speaking Retrieved on 3 March, 2006 from http://www.toastmasters.org/pdfs/top10.pdf

Thackwray, B. (2001) Managing for Investors in People, 2nd Edition. London:Kogan Page Limited

© 2006, Dino Butorac, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Madrid, Spain

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