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Project Communication - Starting Out Right

By Hans Jonasson, PMP

I’ve been working with projects for 20 years now, and have been teaching project management for over 7 years, so I’m quite fluent at drawing a network diagram, or calculating a critical path, I can create a budget (both top-down and bottom-up), draw a decision tree, and even (on a good day) explain earned value so that it makes sense to a few people.

However, I have never found any of those topics to be the biggest obstacle on any of my projects. The stuff that causes me the worst heartburn on my projects are people (you know, like customers, management, staff etc.). If I could just run my projects without having to deal with conflicts, communications problems, poor attitude (i.e. opinions that don’t match mine) and so on, I think I’d always be on time and within budget!

Some people are just naturally great communicators, for the rest of us it takes work. There are many different pieces going into good communication, but a good starting point is the communications management plan (as defined in PMI’s PMBoK Guide). Once completed, it will give you a great checklist to make sure you communicate when and what you are supposed to, but that’s not necessarily the strongest benefit of it. If done right, building the communications management plan, can be a great relationship builder, with the customer, with management and even with your staff, and that’s the focus of this article (I know… great communications skills when it takes over 250 words to get to the point).

So, how do you go about creating this plan. Well, the technique described by the PMBoK Guide is stakeholder analysis. Kind of big words, for a common sense type activity (which is maybe why it is often done poorly). So here’s a process for doing this:

  1. Figure out who cares (or should care) about your project.
  2. Determine who else you will need information from.
  3. Decide what information you need.
  4. Ask the stakeholders what information they want/need.
  5. Create a draft (sometimes called straw man) for your communications need (sometimes referred to as a communications map)
  6. Review the draft in a meeting with as many of your stakeholders as possible.
  7. Create your communications management plan from the input you get in the straw man review meeting.

Let’s look at these steps in a bit more detail. The first and second step is really just trying to figure out whom you should communicate with. It’s normally easy to identify stakeholders such as the customer, the sponsor, your management, but it might be less obvious that you need to communicate with your peers, government agency, different organizations who might be impacted by your project. Techniques that can be useful here include Brainstorming, Reviewing past projects and their lessons learned documents, and interviewing. At this stage of the project, it’s better to include than exclude. Once your scope is firmly defined, some of these stakeholders might fall off.

Step 3 and 4 is focused on what information is really needed. While under communication can be a serious problem on a project so can over communication. Ask yourself (and the stakeholders) WHY?. If you don’t know why you need something, chances are that you should stay away from it.

Then, my favorite steps, 5 and 6, create a draft and review it with the stakeholders. This can be as simple as identifying the organizations and draw what communication is going back and forth (See figure1 below).

Figure 1. Communications Map

If you review this during facilitated sessions, you are likely to learn a lot about your stakeholders, they are likely to buy onto the project planning process a lot better, and, most importantly, you can find out how they prefer to communicate and what should be your best communications strategy. Some of your stakeholders might prefer an Email once per month; other might need a one-on-one meeting with a detail analysis of your status. This session (or sessions) is an excellent place to sort out all of this.

Now at this point of time, it should be fairly easy to transfer what you know into a communications management plan. This can be done in table format showing the what, when, where, how and who. Make sure that you keep this as a living document, since your communications needs (and those of your stakeholders) are likely to change as the project goes though its phases, and the organizations around you evolve. Good Luck!

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