Completing a large-scale project on time and on budget is a challenge. It requires that staff from a variety of departments who have a wide range of talents, responsibilities and perspectives work in sync with each other, despite the demands of their work outside the project. It is no wonder that one of the biggest challenges for successful implementation of a project is project plan communication. To tackle the topic, we interviewed our lead consultants for their best practices.
As we synthesized their thoughts, 3 distinct chains or types of communication within a project rose to the surface. They include: 1) communication within the project team, 2) communication from the project team to leadership and 3) communication on the project out to the organization as a whole.
Regardless of which group is doing/receiving the communication and which method is chosen, the biggest key to maintaining good project plan communication is consistency.
Let’s look at each of these three “chains” of communication one at a time:
Communication within the team
We’ll start with the most obvious of the 3 types – communication within the project team. Why is it important? In the execution of a plan, communication within the team facilitates productivity. It is through communication that a team can get status updates, make corrections as needed in the work of the plan, and even correct and adjust the project plan as needed. When the team includes individuals from various departments or even locations, project team communication grows even more essential.
The primary tool for communication on a project plan is an effective project team meeting, either physically or virtually. These meetings take two general forms. The first is a short daily update meeting or check-in. This type of meeting is not always a necessary part of a project team, but can be critical success factor for teams on a sensitive or volatile project, or a team that is widely scattered within an organization.
The second type of project team meeting is critical regardless of the project scope or size – the regularly scheduled weekly team meeting. The keys for successful team meetings: maintaining a regular agenda, having a hatted facilitator to run the meeting and keep it moving, having a method to record action items and important notes from the meeting. Meetings need to be purposeful, not just a time to “hang out”. The team meeting agenda should address the elements that need to be discussed as a team to keep the project moving forward.
Electronic methods of communication can be effective for team members to stay in touch in between meetings. Email, instant messaging or texts, and internet based communication tools (a popular one we have seen is Slack), all facilitate communication while team members are back in their various departments and locations. One caveat on electronic communications: electronic is good for facts and status updates, but one-on-one communication in person or via phone is needed to resolve upsets and frustrations.
Communication from the team to leadership
Next up, communication from the project team to leadership. Typically, a front-line team is coordinating the work and implementing a project, which means the front-line is driving the bus. That is a shift from the way organizations are normally run. Therefore, the project team needs to make sure management is getting consistent messages that the team is successfully implementing the project, both to keep them informed and to keep them from falling into micromanagement. Communication from the team to upper management helps to assure their continuing support of the project. Most projects are about change, and 2/3 of change initiatives fail. One of the major reasons behind the failure is that upper management doesn’t provide needed support for the change to succeed. For management to maintain their support, they need to know that progress being made on the project.
This is a critical chain of communication, and one that is often missed. How best to communicate from the team to leadership? We have found through working on both successful and struggling projects, that a leadership steering committee is the ideal method for this type of communication. The steering committee has the authority to spend money and approve policy that the project team usually does not. They should receive communication and requests from the project team regularly, usually every 2 weeks, in a standardized format. Our project teams often present a one page summary of success, problems and requests (email us for a sample). The paper is printed, but presented by a team member(s) hatted to speak for the team, in order to answer questions and gather feedback to bring back to the team. The steering committee is made up of members of leadership and forms the bridge into the C-suite that the project team must have for the project’s success.
Communication out to the organization
Finally, communication on the project to the organization as a whole is important, and ideally this communication should come from the project team, via leadership. Regular formal communications that come from leadership to all staff, particularly staff members impacted by the project, do three things.
- First, the communication strengthens credibility of leadership because staff can see they are facilitating execution on a large, important project.
- Second, leadership’s communication of progress to all staff can create “heroes” within the implementation team and raise morale of the team members – particularly important since the team is typically doing the work of the project on top of their normal responsibilities and without additional compensation.
- Finally, communication reduces uncertainty – one of the biggest issues in any organization. Any large scale project will impact and involve change somewhere within the organization. And the threat of change – even positive change – mushrooms into uncertainty. Communication is the essential key to reducing or even eliminating the uncertainty that the project creates.
What tools need to be in place to communicate progress out to the organization as a whole? Remember – communication to all staff on a critical project is most effective when it comes from leadership, and a standardized tool for making updates is the easiest for leadership both to remember and to maintain. Whether in the form of a weekly printed update, an online repository or a company email, leadership should communicate with employees consistently using their chosen method so that staff knows where to go for information. It is important to keep the organization updated on project progress. Success stories should be communicated and celebrated each time there is an accomplishment to share.
What are the biggest struggles/problems with project communication?
One last question we asked our team at PGS was to identify the key struggles in project plan communication. Their answers grouped around 3 common problems.
The #1 struggle in projects large and small is simply holding to the commitment for good communication, i.e., putting in the time. When the project is running full steam, communication between team members, up the ladder to leadership or out to employees may be inconvenient. But it has huge payoffs down the line. People get anxious when they don’t know what is going on. Solution: commit to communicate and be consistent, even when time seems better spent elsewhere.
Struggle #2 comes from the onlookers and the micromanagers who ask for every detail of the work being done even though they are not on the project team. Projects or project teams get derailed when those outside the team ask for a constant, intricate level of information. With the project comes change, and with change comes the feeling of a loss of control, particularly for those not on the project team. The staff who are feeling the uncertainty will strive for every piece of information they can get, in order to regain a sense of power and control. Similarly, leadership who has had to relinquish control to the project team may fall into micromanagement to ease the stress of not being in control. Solution: Commit to your regular method and format of communication, and guide those asking for more detail back to that communication, i.e., don’t let those who are on edge lead you off course.
Struggle #3: holding meetings just to “hold meetings”. Without a clear set of tools and rules to assure that the team meetings are productive, the team flounders. Solution: Establish meeting guidelines and tools, and stick to them, in order to give team members the knowledge and clarity to get their questions answered and their work done.
Project communication is both essential and, really, fairly simple. It is a matter of knowing who to communicate with, how and how often, then setting up from the beginning of the project the systems and tools to communicate effectively. Lay out your communication plan in advance, and then work it throughout your project for a successful on-time, on-budget project completion.