Proactive communication for project managers

Introduction

PMI's A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (Project Management Institute. 2000) describes the communication effort that leads to a properly managed project. This paper will demonstrate methods to proactively apply PMI's recommended communication measures.

Specifically, this paper draws upon the PMBOK® Guide to improve communication in these areas:

  • img  Communication Management Planning
  • img  Scope Planning
  • img  Project Plan Development
  • img  Risk Management Planning
  • img  Integrated Change Control

Effective communication drives project success

The PMBOK® Guide states that communication “…provides the critical links among people, ideas, and information that are necessary for success…” (PMI, 2002, p 117). This assertion draws almost universal affirmation from the project management community. Most of us can cite examples of first-rate communication skills manifested by successful project managers, and we can also cite examples of how poor communication has led to problems and failure.

But what makes communication “effective”? Communication is multifaceted, subjective, and loaded with issues of politics, personality, and perception. Is it possible - with a high degree of certainty - to define effective communication?

This paper makes the argument that – in the project context - effective communication is proactive communication. The PMI PMBOK Guide tells us what to do. This paper will suggest how to do it.

Proactive Communication Defined

Proactive communication is assertive, honest, and focused on objectives. It keeps the project manager in front of the curve, enabling teamwork, effective decisions, and accountability throughout the project. It allows the project manager to fulfill his or her leadership role, actively pursuing project objectives from a position of strength rather than a “reactive” position of weakness.

Proactive people take action. Using personal values and business objectives as reference points, proactive people constantly move forward. In his landmark book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People Stephen Covey (1990) considers being proactive to be “…the first and most basic habit of a highly effective person in any environment…”

He goes on to define “…the habit of proactivity…It means more than merely taking initiative. It means that as human beings, we are responsible for our own lives. Our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions.”

“Our basic nature is to act,” says Mr. Covey, “and not be acted upon. As well as enabling us to choose our response to particular circumstances, this empowers us to create circumstances. (Being proactive) does not mean being pushy, obnoxious, or aggressive. It does mean recognizing our responsibility to make things happen. Many people wait for something to happen or someone to take care of them. But (successful) people are the proactive ones who…get the job done.” (Covey, 1990)

Plan

Building a communication management plan

“Identifying the informational needs of the stakeholders and determining a suitable means of meeting those needs is an important factor for project success.” (PMI, 2000, p 119)

The first requirement of effective communication is communication planning, and the PMBOK® Guide clearly advocates a proactive approach.

“On most projects, the majority of communications planning is done as part of the earliest project phases.” (PMI, 2000, p 119)

Creating the communication management plan is a two-step process. First we must identify our key stakeholders. These are the people that sponsor the project, shape the scope of work, do the work of the project, or use the end product or service. Second, we document the communication needs of each key stakeholder, and create a structure to meet those needs. As we open communication channels, we allow stakeholders to ramp up and seriously consider their role on the project. We adopt a visible leadership role, and take action to get things moving in the right direction, starting with clear, open communication.

“The informational needs of the various stakeholders should be analyzed to develop a methodical and logical view of…methods and technologies suited to the project.” (PMI, 2000, p. 120)

Stakeholder analysis is the only tool and technique of Communication Planning. There is no other way to do it - you must establish communication with your key stakeholders, and ask direct questions such as:

  • img     “What information do you need right away?”
  • img     “As the project progresses, what communication/information will help you get the job done?”
  • img     “When, and in what format, do you want it?” “
  • img     “Are there documents or other communication deliverables that will affect your ability to move forward, or influence the quality of your work?”
  • img     “Are you prepared to send regular status reports and attend meetings?”

Under no circumstances should there be a communication void on a project. This situation will be especially damaging at the outset. If people are “waiting” for information or direction, that is the mark of weak project management. Identify your key stakeholders. Contact each one, and ask them to define their communication needs from the project. Make sure key individuals understand that, as the project progresses, you want to hear from them if they have any needs, issues, or ideas concerning the project.

Establishing clear project objectives

“The scope statement provides a documented basis for making future project decisions and for developing common understanding of project scope among the stakeholders.” (PMI, 2000, p. 208)

You cannot expect people to work toward a successful project outcome if you cannot clearly define success. The same problem exists if the objectives are defined, but the project manager fails to document them and communicate them to stakeholders. Sometimes project managers encounter this clarity when they take on a project, but usually we have to create it. How? We dig into controlling documents such as charters, contracts, work orders, authorizations, statements of work, RFP's, and correspondence, searching for scope definition. Somewhere in all that Cracker Jack is a prize worth working for…a clearly defined scope of work.

With the controlling documents of the project in hand, we are ready to push for dialogue with key stakeholders. The topics? Project assumptions, constraints, expectations, and requirements.

A good way to drive accurate scope at the outset of a project is to organize a hand-off meeting that includes sales reps, designers, sales engineers, and others who played a role in the conception, proposal, pricing, sale, and initial authorization of your project. The purpose of the meeting is to verify that the project has all relevant documents, and that the content of these documents is understood by the project team.

The ensuing scope statement will lay out the work needed to fulfill the assumptions, constraints, expectations, and requirements that come out of the hand-off meeting. Equipped with a clear description of what the project will produce, the PM can drive communication out to staff, customers, end users, and other parties who will play a role in the project. The purpose is to get people on the same page, and to generate a flow of information that validates and refines the scope statement.

It is a mistake to wait for people to come to you with questions or comments about scope. It is the project manager's job to align stakeholders with the project scope, and vice versa. If this is accomplished early, it is likely that future changes or risk events can be managed with the resources at hand. If people and scope are not aligned – if assumptions are not validated, expectations not defined, constraints not communicated, or requirements not documented - then the project is vulnerable to an all too common risk element: weak project management.

Developing a scope statement that has approval and buy in from all stakeholders requires dialogue. It also demands that the project manager fully document important issues, concerns, questions, and ideas that accompany project objectives.

With the communication management plan and the scope statement in place, we will continue to verify and refine scope. As we move from Initiating to Planning processes, we will be in a position to build upon our (proactive) initial communications to create the ultimate management deliverable: the project plan.

Proactive Communication Model (Initiation & Planning)
Input Process Documented In
     
Strategic Objectives & Business Need Sponsor-PM Feedback Loop Project Charter
Communication Requirements Stakeholder Analysis Communication Management Plan
Constraints, Assumptions, Expectations, Requirements Stakeholder – PM Dialogue with Follow –On Documentation Scope Statement/Change Control System
Roles and Responsibilities Establish Accountability Project Plan

Proactive communication: an essential planning tool

The PMBOK® Guide makes a series of recommendations for developing an accurate, reliable project plan. Proactively applied, these tools ensure a well-run project, and greatly increase the odds of meeting or exceeding stakeholder requirements:

  • Build feedback loops to/from project sponsors and executive stakeholders to validate assumptions, expectations, constraints, and requirements.
  • Publicize the project charter, scope statement, WBS, and the project plan to define clear project objectives.
  • Use stakeholder analysis to create a communication management plan that meets the needs of project stakeholders for accurate, timely, complete information, delivered when and where they can make best use of it, in the correct format.
  • Build and maintain open channels of communication, to capture critical information and deliver it to the right place at the right time, in advance of crisis.
  • Cast a wide net to gain access to the best possible sources of planning information.
  • Use interviews, surveys, brainstorming, and stakeholder analysis to get the insight and information that will create strong project plans and risk response plans
  • Adopt an inclusive approach to soliciting planning input and feedback.
  • Forthrightly ask for the participation of passive individuals, rather than hope that they are with the plan and will give their best effort.
  • Establish an integrated change control system early in the project, and then keep the focus on communication to manage change when it first appears.

Summary

The intent of this paper is to improve project management competence by demonstrating how proactive communication can be applied in the earliest stages of a project. It is based on the Project Management Institute's PMBOK® Guide (2000 edition).

Project managers should find a proactive approach to communication helpful in their general professional development, as well as in meeting specific challenges. In either case, the author would enjoy hearing about it.

References

Project Management Institute (2000) A guide to the project, anagement body of knowledge PMBOK® guide, 2000 Edition, Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Covey S. R. (1990) The 7 habits of highly effective people New York: Simon & Schuster.

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 or any listed author.

© 2004, Jay Ress, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2004 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Anaheim, California

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