Project communication--foundation for project success


Project management is not just putting together a project plan using work breakdown structures, calculating critical paths, and developing charts and timelines. Even the best project plan will not be successful without project communication. Effective, regular project communication requires planning and tailoring to the appropriate recipient of the information. Effective project communication ensures that all relevant parties can contribute to the project to their fullest extent to meet and exceed expectations.

The purpose of this paper is to describe an approach for planning and establishing a project communication system. While many project managers are well-versed in task and deliverable oriented project planning activities, a systematic, consistent, and repeatable approach to planning and, ultimately, monitoring and control of communication is often overlooked. Furthermore, communication plans should focus on the control aspects of the project, and not on the task-based communications between individual project team members in completing project deliverables – a common mistake that can result in complex, unmanageable communication plans. Are project plans and communication plans a duplication of effort? This question is further explored in the paper.

A Project Communication Framework

The Project Management Institute's A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge defines project communications management as including “the processes required to ensure timely and appropriate generation, collection, dissemination, storage, and ultimate disposition of project information.” (PMBOK® Guide, 2000, p.117) To further expand that definition, project communications management must ensure the development and implementation of an integrated communication system to collect, generate, and disseminate relevant project information to all interested parties. The underlying key to such a system is the effective planning of communication related activities.

Furthermore, activities associated with effective project communications management must occur throughout all five project process: initiation, planning, control, execution, and closing (PMBOK® Guide, 2000). As depicted in Exhibit 1, there are several steps that occur in an integrated communications management system.

During Project Initiation and Planning

Identify stakeholders & their information needs. During this stage, the project manager answers questions such as: Who are the individuals interested in the status of the project? What type of information is required by each of the interested parties? What level of detail is required by each of the interested parties?

Identify project performance metrics and other key elements of status reporting and communication. During this stage, the project manager answers questions such as: What measurements are critical to the project stakeholders? What measurements will best communicate that status of the project?

Create a project communication plan. The project communication plan contains information about: the individuals who will be sending and receiving project information, the types of information to be disseminated, the frequency at which information will be disseminated, the method by which the information will be disseminated, and the source of information.

During Project Execution and Control

Gather and analyse status information. The project manager ensures that information about accomplishments, costs, issues, and risks (including planned activities and variances from plan) are collected from project team members.

Compile project status information. Status information is analysed and compiled into reports or presentations.

Disseminate project status information. Through various methods of communication (written or verbal, formal or informal, vertical or horizontal), status information is disseminated to project stakeholders.

Monitor stakeholder information needs. As new stakeholders are identified, or information needs for existing stakeholders change, the project communication plan (and, thus, the execution of the plan) must be updated and revised to reflect the changing environment.

Project Communication Framework

Exhibit 1. Project Communication Framework.

At Project Closing

Communicate project results. The level of success of the project is compared to the originally established project success measures or metrics and communicated to stakeholders.

In summary, the project manager and project team members must be active during all five project management processes to ensure effective project communication. However, the key to ensuring adequate project communication is the activities completed during the project initiation and planning stages. The following sections focus on just those areas.

Creating a Communication Plan

A communication plan must, like all project plans, answer the questions: Who will do what when and how? Further expanding, the communication plan addresses these questions:

Who will be initiating the project communication?

Who will be receiving the information?

When will the information be disseminated?

What is the critical information to be disseminated?

How (with what method) will the information be disseminated?

The number of stakeholders that must be informed about project status and other information will determine the type of project communication system to be defined. With fewer stakeholders that work closely together, the need for formal communication will be smaller. With a large amount of stakeholders who have tangential needs of the project, the communication plan has the potential for significant complexity.

Who will be initiating the project communication?

Does the project manager have to do it all? Absolutely not! The project manager's role in managing the project is to ensure that a communication plan is defined and implemented. Clearly, in many cases the project manager will be initiating project communications. However, the more the project manager can involve others in the communication process, the more likely the project will be successful. Why? Because in participating in the DOING of the communication, each individual is increasing the level of buy-in to the project. Furthermore, the more individuals involved in goal-oriented communication, the more likely that the desired message will reach the intended recipient in the desired manner, resulting in the desired action, decision, or participation.

Who will be receiving the information?

Consideration must be given to ensure that communication needs of all of the stakeholders have been addressed, in a manner that meets their information needs in terms of both content and frequency.

Identifying Stakeholders

A stakeholder is an individual or group who has any level of direct or indirect interest in the progress and / or results of the project. A stakeholder may be interested in the progress and results of the project because they must: be informed, make decisions about the project, provide advice or consultation, execute actions, approve results or deliverables, finance the project, or provide other resources to the project. Stakeholders may also be those that can create obstacles for the project by withholding resources, blocking decisions, or otherwise preventing or negatively influencing the progress of the project. A non-exhaustive list of possible project stakeholders is shown in Exhibit 2.

Potential Project Stakeholders

Exhibit 2. Potential Project Stakeholders.

In general, stakeholders can have the following information needs during the course of a project. Informational needs are those for stakeholders that do not have direct influence on the progress of the project, but who must be informed about the progress, perhaps at regular intervals or at key milestones. Decision making stakeholders are those who make operational and /or strategic decisions about the progress of the project; these individuals are not usually involved in the day-to-day events of the project, but make technical or management decisions at key crossroads. Consultative stakeholders provide input into the project, usually are subject matter experts (SMEs), but do not actively participate in the execution of the project. Furthermore, these individuals do not have the final say on the outcome of the decisions to be made – decision making and approval are done by others. Executing stakeholders are actively involved in the execution of project activities; these are usually members of the project team, various subteams, external contractors, or other staff members. Approving stakeholders approve changes in timelines, scope, or budgets; these are often the project sponsors.

Note that stakeholder needs may change over time – during initial strategy phases a stakeholder may have an approval and decision making roles for policy and planning decisions, while during implementation, that same stakeholder may have only an information receiving role.

When will the information be disseminated?

How often should you be sending information to your stakeholders? Is the executive sponsor going to get enough information if you inform them once every 3 months? Are they really going to read a status report you send them every week? Finding the right balance for each audience is critical to ensuring that the information you provide gets used appropriately.

At regular periods      Weekly frequency may be best for operational tasks, the working group or project team. On high-visibility projects weekly communication may be required for upper management. Monthly reporting is best for summary reporting to project sponsors, managers of project team members, upper management. Quarterly is often used for executive management, standards committees, other interested parties in related departments who do not have a direct stake in the project.

At key milestones      Once a significant accomplishment has been achieved, share your success with key stakeholders – especially if your regular communication with them is infrequent.

At other trigger points during the project, for example, when key decisions must be made or issues must be resolved. Don't wait for problems to grow or decisions to be delayed because you are waiting for regular, scheduled communication. If the issue is significant, communicate immediately!

Don't hesitate to change the frequency of communication during the course of the project. Often more frequent communication is useful at the start of the project to ensure that a formal process is being followed. Once regular project progress can be proven, formal communication may not be required as often. On the other hand, if you are finding the project in a crisis mode, you may want to increase your frequency of communication to ensure that all parties have the most current information about the status of the project.

What is the critical information to be disseminated?

The types of information to be disseminated can include project status and issues, as well as project metrics. For each of these, consideration must be given to the level of detail to be provided to each recipient. Use of the work breakdown structure can be of assistance in determining the level of detail on which to report and communication. For example, the more senior the recipient of information, the more likely that less detail is required; thus, the summary tasks and subprojects in the work breakdown structure would be appropriate as a basis for communication.

Project Status and Issues

Project status information may include time based reporting about the progress of the schedule – including major project deliverables, planned and actual start and end dates; significant accomplishments – which may include major project deliverables, but may also highlight key decisions or other steps taken toward major project deliverables; planned accomplishments - based on the project schedule and planned deliverables, the most important tasks to be completed in the next reporting period(s); cost reporting – including comparisons of actual cost with the budget, estimated budget at completion, trends over time; issues and action items – a running list of open and closed items, including who the items are assigned to; unmitigated risks and action items – a running list of unmitigated risks, with identified potential impact to the project, and actions to be taken to reduce the likelihood of the risk occurring; and a change control log – a listing of all of the newly submitted and approved changes.

Project Metrics

Performance metrics are the key measurable indicators of a project that can be used as a tool by project managers, client and senior management to evaluate the performance of the project. Project success measures or metrics must be identified during project initiation as a part of scope identification. The primary types of project performance metrics are time, cost, and customer satisfaction as relates to either the product of the project (for example, impact to the business/organization) or the process of the project.

Time-based performance metrics can be based on duration or effort. Use of the work breakdown structure is encouraged for definition of phases and key milestones. Key milestones should be limited to ensure that only significant milestones are tracked and that the metrics reporting process does not become cumbersome due to an extensive list of key milestones. Project managers are encouraged to carefully consider which milestones and activities will be reported on in status reports.

Cost-based performance metrics must be based on the initially approved budget (or subsequently re-baselined budget, following approval of change requests). The components of a project budget should be defined and agreed upon by all project sponsors.

Customer satisfaction can apply either to the project itself, or to the product of the project. For example, the product of a project can include the delivered technology system, related process improvements, changes in the organisation structure, and infrastructure improvements, which can be measured by metrics such as improved transaction processing count per hour, reduced headcount, and others. Metrics about the project itself can include those related to scope management (for example, number of change requests received, approved, rejected), quality of interim deliverables (number of bugs reported in first, second, third test cycles), or responsiveness of the project team (time of response between new change request identification and completion of impact analysis).

How (with what method) will the information be disseminated?

A variety of communication methods can be considered, with characteristics of these communication methods ranging from oral to written; synchronous to asynchronous; Internet enabled, other technology enabled or not technology enabled at all; one, few, or many individuals involved in the targeted communication as senders, receivers, or other participants. New technologies, in particular Internet-based tools (Giffin 2002), have capabilities and limitations. In fact, this is true of any selected communication method.

Potential communication methods can vary widely. They can include meetings, reports, emails, phone calls, voice mails, conference calls, video conferences, workshops, voice mails, intranet web sites, discussion groups, one-on-one conversations, presentations, and many others. The project manager and project team must tailor the choice of communication method to the recipient and the desired message.

Communication Plan and Project Plan – Two Sides of the Same Coin

Similarities between the project and communication plan

The project plan embodied in the work breakdown structure and further developed with techniques such as network diagrams, Gantt charts, and resource utilization matrices has significant similarities with a communication plan. They both address the question “who will do what when and how?” However, here the similarity ends.

Is the project plan different than the communication plan?

The activities defined in the work breakdown structure (and thus the project plan) are a “deliverable-oriented grouping” (PMBOK Guide 2000, 209) of work packages and activities. By comparison, the communication plan should focus on the communications that the manager must ensure for monitoring and control purposes as well as for purposes of buy-in and support within the stakeholder community.

The task-related communication that occurs when an individual turns over one document to another individual for review is not something that should be included in the communication plan. After all, it should already be reflected in the work breakdown structure, as part of the review and turnover of the document. Duplication between the communication plan and project plan is not recommended, as it complicates execution, monitoring, and control.

Exhibit 3 below gives additional examples of communications that should be a part of the WBS, and others that rightly belong in the communication plan. The examples are based on a project executed by a wedding planning firm; the project is planning and organizing a wedding on behalf of a client. Note that the tasks listed as part of the WBS are communications related, that is, they transmit information from the sender (wedding planner and couple) to the recipient (invited guests) and vice versa. However, they are directly related to the deliverables of the project –the wedding itself. Compare and contrast these activities with the control-oriented communications found in the communication plan – communications to ensure that all stakeholders are informed about the progress of the project.

Examples of Deliverable Oriented and Control Oriented Project Communications for the project “Planning a Wedding.”

Exhibit 3. Examples of Deliverable Oriented and Control Oriented Project Communications for the project “Planning a Wedding.”

Effort is another area where the differences between communication plans and deliverables-oriented project plans differ. Guidelines of creating deliverables-oriented project plans often include rules of thumb for decomposing work packages into activities. These rules of thumb can be effort based, for example, “don't decompose an activity into fewer than 8 hours of effort” or “decompose an activity as far as it can be delegated to another individual.” These guidelines are intended to avoid complex project plans, where micro-managing of individual tasks is required. However, most communication related activities identified in the communication plan are, in fact, shorter than the proverbial 8 hours. Furthermore, regular communications are repetitive and cyclical in nature. For the purpose of simplifying the project plan, these communication activities usually do not get included in the project plan – their home is the communication plan.

Integrating the two in a comprehensive plan for success

Creating the project and communication plans in parallel improves the quality of both. As the communication plan is developed based on the project plan, the following questions can be asked to ensure completeness. Are there any stakeholders that should be informed about project progress at the conclusion of a phase or subproject? Based on the duration of the entire project, is the frequency of planned communication appropriate? Should the communication approach change from one phase of the project to the next? Do the stakeholders change from one phase to the next?

Similarly, in creating and finalizing a project plan, review the communications plan to identify tasks that should, perhaps, be included in the WBS. Such cases may occur when marketing and sales activities of the project have been overlooked during the initial WBS development, but have been identified as part of communication planning. They may warrant inclusion in the WBS because they do, in fact, directly impact the deliverables of the project, or require sufficient resources that consideration must be given to timing and resource utilization. Change management activities are also frequently uncovered during communication planning, but warrant inclusion in the WBS.

As tools for project planning, deliverables-oriented project plans and communications plans complement each other. No project planning is complete without both views of planned activities.

About the Author

Ilga Berzkalns, PMP, is a project management and training consultant with international experience. She has managed a wide variety of process improvement projects –as well as information technology related projects – in the areas of strategy development, software evaluation and selection, ERP system implementation, data warehousing, and organisational structure establishment. Her clients have included Abbott Laboratories, SBC Ameritech, A.C. Nielsen, McDonald's Corporation, as well as numerous other firms, governmental institutions, and NGOs in the United States and Northeastern Europe. Ms. Berzkalns is faculty member of the American Management Association. In addition, Ms. Berzkalns is an adjunct faculty member of the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga and the Riga Technical University Business School in Latvia.

Ilga Bērzkalns, PMP
Birch Hill Consulting
[email protected]


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© Ilga Bērzkalns, Birch Hill Consulting, 2003.



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