Project Management Institute

Ten barriers to communications

The authors of this paper have worked in the telecommunications field for a combined total of 34 years and have seen the evolution of communications technology. They recall the days when a 2400-baud modem connection was fast and snail mail was the only possibility. Why then, with the explosion of new communications technologies in the past decade, do we still have problems communicating? In this paper, we begin by taking a look at the top 10 communications barriers as seen by project managers in the telecommunications industry, then go on to answer the question of how to best deliver the intended message to an audience.

Each technological advance has brought additions to our vocabulary; indeed, the telecommunications industry has its own very unique language. When this language isn't understood, communication's effectiveness diminishes. Communicators need to use words correctly, clarify assumptions, and understand the audience to whom they are delivering their message.. Within telecommunications, acronyms can exacerbate this barrier. AnThe effective project manager needs to be aware of how language can act as a barrier to communications. Within telecommunications, acronyms can exacerbate this language barrier.

Some common-sense communications techniques, when ignored, can also become barriers. Body language sends a very strong message that may contradict the spoken word. Rumors can have a significant impact on any organization, especially a project team. The project manager needs to be aware of these issues when communicating with the project team.

Advances in communications technologies can become either enablers or barriers to effective communications. There are many tools at our disposal: email, conference bridges, and web-based sites to name just a few. As project managers, we must consider how to best use each of these in our project. When properly used, these tools can be great assets to a project manager.

Choosing the right (or is it correct?) words. In telecommunications, as with other industries, there is a unique language. A lottery, for example, is not an opportunity to win money. Even in telecommunications, the term “hotline” can have different meanings. It can mean a phone that dials only one number. In wireless, it means directing a wireless phone to a prearranged number (usually customer service when the account is overdue). ManyOther words have unique meanings; if one of the parties in a conversation doesn't understand the intended meaning, the intended message will not be delivered.

As a project team, we may have team members who come from outside the industry and may not be familiar with the unique language, slang, phrases, and acronyms. Five years ago I began working for a wireless carrier. I had experience in the technology, but not in the industry. In the first few months of work, I often had to ask for clarification of terms. NOT IF SHOULD PHRASE IN 1st PERSON (I)?

The board of directors for the Information Technology and Telecommunications Specific Interest Group (IT&T SIG) has members from the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, South America, and Europe. Even though we conduct our board activities in English, there are times when clarification is necessary. For example, in New Zealand, they describe a customer or member of a group as a “punter.” The first time I saw this phrase used in an email, I asked for clarification because I thought the phrase had something to do with rugby or football.! AGAIN 1st person???

One solution a project manager might employ is the use of a dictionary containing project specific words. The dictionary can be included in the project plan or other project documentation. If using a web-based project tool, the dictionary can be posted there.

Recently, one of my project managers was delivering a project overview to a number of stakeholders. This project contained some new terms with which the audience was not familiar. Early in his presentation, the project manager defined all the terms he thought would be new to the audience. Because the audience had copies of the slides, they had ready access to the definitions.

Clarifying Assumptions. Always communicate initial assumptions about the situation, skill levels, and environment. For example, is are IT and IS the same technical field or skill? An IT professional might not think so, but many believe that both terms refer to software development. When discussing the IT profession, effective communications requires that you clarify that you are referring to the Infrastructure Technology (IT), such as routers, hubs, or switches, that make communications possible, not Information Technology (IT), which refers more to the application or software components of technology.

Initial assumptions are influenced by an individual's personal history. For example, cultural background, language, educational background, experience, position or level, department, company politics, words/acronyms used, project background or knowledge and biases all influence assumptions. The Project Manager (PM) is rarely able to hand pick the team; getting background information and feedback from respected sources about each core team member as well as supplemental or interfacing team members is an important step in determining the variety and mix of the team. This will assist in defining the communications media types, frequency of use for each type, and how items are handled within each.

We all know the old adage “You Know What Happens When You Assume!” We also know not to make assumptions without communicating that assumptions have been made, but it happens in every project. Everyone also knows not to say, “I assumed,” so you get comments like “I thought,” “my understanding was” or the direct approach of arguing the point of understanding or interpretation. Assumptions will never be eliminated, but mitigation of assumptions is necessary. There must be something in place to keep assumptions from having an adverse impact on the project. Effective communications requires the project manager to state the mission or key objects, milestones or crucial deadlines and provide clear a concise list of terms and stated assumptions, with the understanding that additions are warranted and even expected. Team members come and go throughout the life cycle of a project; when a project manager incorporates assumption mitigation for new members, the impact of new members bringing assumptions that might derail—or add nonproductive time—to the bottom line is minimized.

Understanding the Audience. Many communications expert recommend communicating at an eighth-grade education level. While this may be practical for general topics, in Telecommunication's project management it is more important to set audience expectations up front. In a complex telecommunications project discussion, one needs to ensure the audience has the proper background and perspective.

Effective communicators must also understand that they own the information being exchanged, as well as any misinterpretations by the audience. It is important to understand the audience's receiver skills. People are eitherare visual, autocratic or kinesthetic—the respective senses being exercised are sight, hearing and feeling. Because of the different senses being used, buzzwords such as “Can you see where we are going?” “Does this feel right?” or “I hear what you are saying.” can help the communicator be better understood by the audience. If, for example, the entire team is visual, you should use the white board more during meetings. For an autocratic audience, you could exclusively use conference calls and they would all have a good chance of getting the same message. It is important to keep in mind that how you communicate your message affects how the audience interprets the message you are trying to communicate.

To some audiences, however, what to communicate is more important than how to communicate. Management and stakeholders want summary information and items whichitems, which concern them, such as budget, schedule, quality or scope of delivery impacts. They don't care that you replaced X number of sick team members with temporary resources, with no impact to the budget or schedule. They don't care that you implemented your contingency plan of adding specialists to provide appropriate skills or additional resources, even though it helped the project team get through a complex technical aspect of the project—again, without any impact to the schedule or budget or quality of the deliverable for this phase. When communicating your message, remember the level of detail necessary; refrain from providing unwanted or unnecessary details.

CDWAM—Clearly Define What Acronyms Mean! The telecommunications industry is wrought with acronyms. In Newton's Telecommunication Dictionary, the acronym SMS stands for both Short Message Service and Service Management Software. This acronym also has been used to refer to Software Management System, or even Shawnee Mission South, a local Kansas City area high school.

Newton's Telecom Dictionary has over 200 acronyms that begin with the letter ‘A’! (Newton, 2000). In written communications, a writer should define the acronym the first time it is used. In formal documents, such as a project requirements document, all acronyms should be defined the first time they are used; they should also be included in a comprehensive list as an index to the document.

In a recent PMI Leadership meeting, one presenter put up a slide filled with acronyms. He then proceeded to discuss the slide, explaining each acronym. When he did that, the meaning of the slide became clear. This speaker recognized the fact that many people in his audience would not understand the slide without his clarification.

It becomes more complicated in verbal communications. While it is more cumbersome to stop to define each acronym, that may be necessary. When your audience gets a glazed look in their eyes, you have probably hit them with too many acronyms. I recently had this experience when assigned to a project to implement Wireless Local Number Portability. I joined an existing team and found myself struggling to understand a new set of acronyms with which the rest of the team was already become familiar. 1st person??

If the project team is using a web-based tool, another document to post there is a list of acronyms. This would give the project team easy access when they need to find the meaning of an acronym. Some companies take this a step farther, posting a list of companywide acronyms on their intranet. This technique allows full access to the list, not just to project team members.

Watch Body Language. Nonverbal cues need to match the words that come out of your mouth. For instance, you might say yes, but shake your head no, or tell someone that everything is OK, but slam things around on your desk. Nonverbal cues impact the delivery of the message. Ensure that you maintain eye contact with the individual or group of individuals to whom you are speaking. As has been previously mentioned, any group is comprised of different individuals. Each individual receives information differently; body language plays its part to impact delivery and receipt of the information.

Body language includes a wide range of actions. It can include the position you are in at the meeting table, whether you meet individuals at the door of your office and sit at a separate table with them as opposed to staying behind your desk. It includes using hand gestures, facial expressions, folding your arms when listening, whether or not you maintain eye contact, trying to read email when someone is speaking to you, or whether you answer your phone in the middle of a conversation. Understanding the influence your body language has on the message you are sending, or the separate message it sends by itself, can help reduce miscommunication. It is hard to convince a team member that you care about them and their career, if you allow distractions while you are engaged in a performance, mentoring or personal issue discussion. Attentiveness and eye contact, as well as ignoring distractions, such as emails, phone calls, or other people's interruptions, are key supporting body language activities for one-on-one communication exchanges.

Avoid Spreading Rumors. With mergers a part of the environment in telecommunications, rumors abound concerning the next possible merger. These rumors have a negative impact on the project manager as his or her team gets distracted by the rumors and loses focus on the job.

These rumors may be about the project. Consider, for example, the impact a rumor about the project being cancelled could have on a project team's productivity. Members would have be nolittle motivation to move forward with work that needs to be completed. It could, in fact, become a self-fulfilling prophecy; team productivity drops because of the rumor, milestones are missed, missed; status reports start showing a project in jeopardy. Ultimately the project sponsor decides to cancel the project.

As the project manager, it is our job to keep the project team motivated. When rumors arise, we need to address them and provide the team with facts. In some instances we may not know all the facts. In those situations, we need to provide what information we know is factual and dissuade the team from speculating beyond that.

Be Aware of Email and the Loss of Personality. The printed word does not carry the nonverbal cues that a spoken conversation does. While an author may be laughing as he or she composes an email, the recipient may not see the humor and react in a manner not intended by the author. For example, when the recipient reads the phrase “You're bad!” they may interpret that they are not good, when in fact the meaning is that they are not just good, they are VERY good. Especially in telecommunications, making sure everyone is of the same understanding is essential.

Email also has a whole host of issues such as, timing, delivery, response non-delivery, attachment problems such, version mismatches, transfer file corruptions, download speed concerns and viruses. Understanding these unique issues and the potential for misinterpretation and/or non-timely receipt of information is very important. One way to minimize file attachment issues is to state up front, during project planning, what tools and versions are required, including virus protection software and create a set of templates to be utilized throughout the life cycle of the project.

Email is good for general information and follow-up, as well as documenting decisions, answers to questions and changes in direction, budget or project timelines. Email is also useful when providing reminders, meeting notices with accompanying agenda, minutes from meetings, updating notices for contact or distribution lists and notices that project documentation has been updated in a project accessible location or shared drive/eRoom type communications vehicle. Email time stamps decisions and provides supporting documentation for decisions and is often used to as re-communicate why path B was taken over path A at time X in the project. This is commonly known as the project manager doing “CYA.”

Email should not, however, be used for initial communication of any critical path impacting information exchange, issues escalation or team member responsibility change. In general, email should not be used for anything requiring immediate responses; an immediate response is something that cannot wait until tomorrow or until Monday to be addressed or answered.

Some general rules for email include;

Use “To:” line when you expect responses from people. If the email is informational, include yourself in the “To:” line, then put others in the “CC:” line. Don't send an ESCALATE/RSVP email to an entire group. Send it to the decision-makers.

The subject line is like an agenda for a meeting. Be clear, concise and direct.

•   Use some group identifier such as PMI-ITT: to start the subject. This will allow sorting, making response more timelytimelier.

•   Use the Subject line to describe the email topic and/or attachment/format. Be specific!

•   Use “RSVP” to start the subject when requesting responses that are time sensitive.

•   Use “ESCALATE” to signify a critical decision is required. In the body (text area) describe the problem or decision required, date required; suggest a day/time to have a call if necessary! An example is (PMI-ITT: ESCALATE 2 Track Openings or (PMI-ITT: ESCALATE PMI Europe actions/decision required).

•   Use “FINAL” to start the subject when distributing an attachment or email notes, which includes the requested feedback.

The attachment should consider the audience's tools equipment and skill set. Compress files using tools such as Zip for speed of transfer. Ensure the audience has the appropriate software and versions to review the attachment. Rich Text format is a good generic format to use for Word.

When replying to RSVPs and ESCALATEs, respond to the requestor and the To: list. The requestor owns the topic, as well as the responsibility to distribute the final version (post feedback) or decision. If neither RSVP or ESCALATE is in the subject line or you are included as a CC only, then NO response is necessary.

Make Communications Timely. As a project manager, we may get involved in working with our team to resolve a critical issue, but forget to communicate a message to our sponsor about the issue. If communications aren't timely, they can lose their effectiveness.

The project will dictate the frequency of the communications. In some instances, communications need to be daily. Working in the rapidly growing wireless industry, this type of project is not uncommon. When my company was in the height of launching its network, there were daily communications reporting new market launches. This communication was essential to coordinate the activities surrounding the launch. The network engineers had to ensure the cell sites and switches were working. They would hand off to the back office groups to ensure billing and provisioning wasere in order. Next, the retail channels would ensure everything was in place to sell. Only at this point would the PR team start the advertising for that market segment. 1st person???

For a project like this, with as many as 10 markets at some point in the pipeline at any time, prompt communications was essential to ensure each team knew the status of every market and which markets require their attention.

Include the Right Audience. It is important to send the right message to the right audience at the right time. In the example above, the message needed to be delivered in a timely manner. It would also have been ineffective to send a message to PR with technical details that would not be understood. PR just needed to know everything was in place for them to start their task. If there were a problem, they would need to know how it impacts the timeline, but not necessarily the details of the problem. It is important for a project manager to know the different audiences and how to manage the expectations of each.

There are many different audiences. It is important to understand what needs to be communicated to whom, at what level of detail, by when and how often. Including the right audience within a specific communication distribution or meeting, starts by building a contact list, which generally begins with a Single Point Of Contact (SPOC) list for all of the impacted departments. Associated with the SPOC list, outlining the organizational reporting structure is vital to the including the right audience theme. Once the scope of the communication and, subsequently, the scope of all audiences that require communication is defined, then categorizing and prioritizing the audiences is crucial to effective communications.

Building the audience categories or types requires that the project manager analyze the level of management being communicated with, which most impacts the level of detail, type of information, purpose, frequency and media chosen. Most often there is an upper management audience commonly known as a steering committee. Steering committee level communications are typically summary or bullets on MS PowerPoint presented face-to-face on a monthly basis for the purpose of providing project status, seeking approval/direction for next steps and critical path issues and answering questions for management. Prioritizing the various audience communications process is an important aspect of time management. Stakeholders and management need less frequent communications, but become the top priority when it is time to communicate with them. The immediate project team needs frequently and timely communications, but generally with a lot less preparation. The only time the project team would be considered in the communication prioritization process is when getting an issue or roadblock mitigated; mitigation is then important to project progress or to the information being communicated to another audience. The project team is always the communications priority until it is time for another audience to receive an update or information exchange.

Use the Proper Tool. A favorite question for potential candidates during interviews is asking in what situations they might use email, phone, or face-to-face communications. The objective of the question is to determine whether the candidate understands the strengths and weaknesses of each of type of communications.

Email is a very effective tool for communicating to groups of people such as with an executive status report. The report can be written to the target audience and distributed. The sender should include a feedback loop so that readers can ask questions.

Verbal communication is more effective for other messages and audiences. As a project manager, the best way to kick off a project is by having a face-to-face meeting. This is especially true when project members do not share the same work location. A kickoff meeting will bring all the team players together so everyone can have match faces with voices, and build some rapport with team members they may not see again during the project.

In a recently completed project, our team was composed of members of our billing vendor in Cincinnati, a telecommunications carrier in Louisiana, and my team in Kansas. The project started with a kickoff meeting, bringing key project members together (in Louisiana of course, since it was December). The team locked themselves up in a room for two days, working through the project requirements and spending the evenings socializing over Cajun dinners. The type of discussions and interactions that took place would never have happened on a month of conference calls or through an Internet chat room. This was the only face-to-face meeting that occurred until the post-mortem, six months later. One of the post-mortem conclusions was that more face-to-face meetings should have occurred during key milestones in the project to create better understanding between the groups during the execution phase of the project.

While it would be ideal to bring the project team together every week for a meeting, geography and budgets can make this impossible. Conference calls have become very popular over the past few years as a way to bring a project team together for discussions without the time and expense of travel.

As a member of the Information Technology & Telecommunications SIG, I am part of a board that has members in four continents. While we do meet face-to-face twice a year, we rely on conference calls as a way to conduct SIG business. Our calls are used to discuss key issues, plan upcoming events, and provide status on projects. We can hold these discussions on a regular basis at a fraction of the cost of our face-to-face meetings.

An evolving new tool is the web-based collaboration tool. This is a great resource for project teams. These sites allow the project team to post key documents for the team to access, including the ability to update and track changes. A site typically includes a chat room, allowing the team to “voice” their opinion on a topic and be part of a threaded discussion. Another useful feature is the ability to poll, that is, vote on a topic.

The IT&T SIG board uses one of these sites. It is a very effective way to hold conversations with team members in different parts of the world. When a new document or topic is posted, there is a mechanism to send email notification to the board. The site indicates any additions since the last time the site was accessed. The site can also be accessed through any standard web browser. When using a hosted service, the site is very easy to manage.

Communications is essential for effective project management. This paper has addressed the potential barriers in communications based on the experience of the authors in the telecommunications field. In order for a project manager to be an effective communicator, they must be aware of the language being used, the background and experience of the intended audience, and what tool is being used to deliver the message. When these factors are taken into account, the project manager has a much greater chance of delivering the message as intended.

Having a good relationship is important when communicating. We all make mistakes occasionally, but if we have established a good relationship with the person with whom we are communicating, theyothers are more likely to overlook the mistake and understand the message.

References

Newton, Harry. 2000. Newton's Telecom Dictionary. New York: CMP Books

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.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
October 3–10, 2002 · San Antonio, Texas, USA

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