Project communication management
by Michael S. Terrell, PMP
For some project managers, communicating effectively is natural and easy. For others, effective communication is a learning experience. Either way, we spend considerable time in verbal as well as formal and informal written communication. Whether these communications involve exchanging status information or setting project objectives, project managers must ensure that the information is transmitted and received effectively.
A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) defines project communication management as “the processes required to ensure timely and appropriate generation, collection, dissemination, storage, and ultimate disposition of project information.” In this Information Age, project managers have more data at their disposal than at any time in the past. As our technologies mature and advance into the next century, we will be bombarded with more and more information and it will come to us quicker than we can probably imagine. This rapid influx will force project managers to develop skills to deal with information overload, which can result from receiving too much or conflicting information and from not being able to transmit data effectively. Such problems can be characterized as communication management issues.
It is imperative that project managers develop the general management skill of communicating. It is equally important for them to effectively manage project communications. Effective communication management uses five steps to help project managers actively listen to customers and teammates, and then involve them in developing solutions that meet the project's objectives.
Michael S. Terrell, PMP, has been involved in project management for over 18 years. He is employed at Duke Engineering & Services as the assistant site manager of the Yankee Rowe decommissioning project. He is a professional engineer and inventor, and has published several papers.
Project communication management applies the general management skill of communication within the boundaries of the project being managed and the responsibilities of the project manager. Even though these five steps are listed as discrete actions, they are neither time consuming nor laborious—just good tools that anyone can use.
Listen Intently. Project managers receive many types of communications. Written as well as verbal communication needs to be “listened to” intently, One definition of listen is to “hear with thoughtful attention.” Anything that is done intently is done with strained or eager attention. Thus, the project manager needs to focus on the particular communication, being careful not to be distracted.
Numerous articles and books have been published that give advice to project managers. One such article, by Douglas Ross, PMI, “Applying Covey's Seven Habits to a Project Management Career,” appeared in the April 1996 PM Network. In this article, Ross aptly points out, in the fifth habit, that we should “seek first to understand, then be understood.” Ross emphasizes that active listening is the key to becoming the communication “differentiator” that Stephen Covey writes about in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People [Simon & Schuster, 1989].
Effective verbal communication begins with hearing a message in the way the sender intended it. A significant portion of miscommunication begins with improperly received messages. As Ross points out, active listening involves summarizing and rephrasing what you hear to gain clarification and understanding of what has been said. Intently listening means you avoid distractions, focus on the sender of the message, and hear not only what is being said but also how it is being said. Look for body language and listen to the tone; they may give insight into why the message is being conveyed.
Written communication can be either formal, such as contracts or scope statements, or informal, such as memorandums, progress reports, and schedules. Writing style and the use of visual aids play an important part in written communications. The project manager needs to sort through the myriad of information that is received and apply the “hear with thoughtful attention” technique to written as well as verbal communications. Once convinced that the message has been correctly received the sender can move to the second step— thinking clearly.
Think Clearly. Ready. Fire. Aim. Have you ever been guilty of this process? Those of us who are results-oriented often begin to formulate and even express our opinions or solve perceived problems before we have thought about the information we have just received. In fact, some of us even begin our responses before the message is completely transmitted. When we do so, we jump the gun—we fire—and severely hamper our ability to manage communications.
When you receive a verbal communication, wait until the person is finished before you begin. Don't interrupt except to gain clarification, then ask the person to continue. Make sure the person knows you are trying to understand, not argue about, what is being communicated. When the person is finished speaking, pause for at least three seconds before you proceed. When you first try this delay, it may seem like an eternityy but it gives you a chance to process the information you have just received.
Thinking involves exercising judgment or inference. If we take the time to consider the message we have just intently listened to, we can begin to gain a clear insight into exactly what is being communicated and, possibly just as important, why it is being communicated.
When you receive written messages, be sure to notice who else has received the communication and note any referenced or previous correspondence. This will help identify the context of the message. One technique I have used with written messages is to read the message, think about a response, and then read the message again before responding to it. If the message involves an emotional or critical response it is sometimes helpful to draft a response then set it aside so you can reflect on it before sending it. If you forward a message to someone else for response, remember to copy the sender when forwarding a note and always attach a message letting the parties know your expectations.
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Whether the communication is verbal or written, be careful not to bias your thought process with your own opinions. Opinions or experiences with the message transmitter can cloud judgment, lead to the wrong conclusions, and even cause misinterpretation of the message. Sometimes a person who is unassociated with the issue can be a good source for an unbiased opinion. Be careful not to divulge confidential information or become the source of rumors if you employ this technique.
When dealing with reports, it is often helpful to glance at the entire report before digging into the details. This will enable you to get an overview of what to expect and help home in on the important information.
Discuss Openly. Not every message needs to be discussed. Some messages are clear and concise, and follow-up discussions are not necessary. However, some messages, for various reasons, need follow-up discussions. Discussing openly goes beyond active listening techniques. It involves probing the message's objective and potential impact on the project's objectives. Gaining clarification is the project manager's goal in this stage of the communication. The clarification that is being sought is not focused on what has been communicated or why it was communicated; those questions should have been answered in the first two steps. The project manager is now trying to determine how the project's objectives will be impacted by the communication.
When a communication involves changing the current direction of the project to better meet the objectives, the project manager needs to think about how it can be cost-effectively and efficiently incorporated into the project scope. A good practice is for the project manager to discuss the proposed change with the messenger and even with the project team to get ideas on how best to implement the idea. This approach reinforces to the team the message that their involvement in the project is appreciated and valuable.
If the communication involves a change that negatively impacts the project's objectives, the project manager should consider what could be done to moderate the request to fit the project objective or scope. Follow-up discussions with the messenger, in this case, need to be one-on-one and focus on how the issue affects the project scope. The goal should be to moderate the request to fit the project's objectives without offending or alienating the messenger. If you can get the messenger to discuss the pros and cons of the issue and talk himself into the “right” solution, without being told what the “right” solution is, you will be in a win-win situation. Ask the messenger questions that encourage creative problem solving: “How can we implement this idea without delaying the schedule?” or “What can we do to minimize the budget impact of this idea?” These types of questions don't directly reject ideas but direct the discussion toward ways to modify ideas to keep the project's objectives intact.
Develop Sensitivity. One definition of develop is “to bring into being or make active.” The appropriate definition of sensitive, in this case, is “to be susceptible to the attitudes, feelings, or circumstances of others.” The implication is that the project manager must realize that the messenger's communication may be biased. This bias could be more important than the message itself. Therefore, the project manager may need to look beyond the message and focus on the circumstances surrounding it. The project manager must seek to understand the message in context.
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Open and honest discussion with the messenger is essential to understanding the context of the message. It is especially important when the project manager needs to minimize negative impacts to the project's objectives. If the message needs to be rejected or modified for the good of the project's objectives, the project manager needs to ensure that the discussion focuses on the message and the potential harm to the project's objectives, not on the messenger. Extra care should be taken at this point to ensure that the messenger does not feel rejected. Rejecting the message without offending the messenger is essential to keeping effective relationships between project team members, valuable stakeholders, or customers. This is a time when the project manager needs to focus on mentoring or coaching. A mentor or coach tries to develop understanding and support in the project team members, helping them see the objectives of the project and the potential negative impact of the message.
Respond Quickly to Needs. “Just do it.” The first four steps—listen intently, think clearly, discuss openly, and develop sensitivity—are associated with receiving and understanding messages or communications. The last step—respond quickly to needs—involves action. After the message has been received and understood, prompt action is appropriate. Nothing is more frustrating than knowing a message has been communicated, understood, and then not acted upon.
In many cases, a simple “thank you” from the project manager is all that is needed. Don't assume that your team members, sponsors, or customers know you appreciate the information you have been given. Thank them, so that they will continue to give you information. A project manager who is an information “black hole” is not effective. Eventually, people will stop communicating freely if they suspect the information is not being received or appreciated.
When action on your part is required, don't wait unnecessarily; do it! If delay is necessary, explain it. The communication should not be considered complete until acknowledged by either word or deed. Sometimes a short delay is appropriate, particularly when the communication involves a complicated issue or when input is required from others before responding officially to the message. If this is the case, let the messenger know you are evaluating the information or seeking input from others.
Be careful not to take responsibility for action if someone else on the project team needs to act; especially, the messenger. Look for opportunities to delegate the issue to the messengers; after all, they may be seeking permission to take action.
In all cases, try to respond to the needs imparted in the message. People communicate to express needs, which may include sharing information, suggesting improvements, seeking approval, or just venting frustration. In your response don't discount the message or the messenger. If information is being shared, respond with an acknowledgment that communicates that the information has been received and is appreciated. If the message is a suggestion for improvement, provide a thoughtful response that invites additional input and assistance in implementing the ideas in a manner that enhances the project's objectives. If permission is being sought, encourage risk taking. If the message represents a person's need to vent frustration, respond in a way that allows the pressure to be released constructively, and guide the person into effective problem solving to help evaluate the cause of the frustration.
AS OUR INFORMATION technologies mature and advance into the next century, it is imperative that project managers develop communication skills. It is equally important for them to effectively manage these skills. Project managers must depend on skill in influencing to effectively manage communication, thus facilitating project objectives without suffering information overload. Following the five steps to effective project communication management will help project managers develop the techniques necessary to understand and manage the multitude of communications they encounter effectively and efficiently.
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October 1999 PM Network