Communicate effectively at the start of a project

All the planning for large and complex communication projects counts for nothing unless competent project management is used to turn intentions into reality. Good concepts and strategy won’t deliver results if implementation is weak.

Project management tends to be process-driven and unexciting, but it is where results happen, and therefore project information needs to be managed competently as part of that process.

So we need to communicate effectively about (1) our own communication plans and to work on (2) communicating effectively about operational projects. In this article we will be looking at operational projects.

Authors William Dow and Bruce Taylor write in their Project Management Communications Bible that “communication is the key to keeping team members, managers and stakeholders informed and on track to pursue the project objectives.” Dow and Taylor believe that the lack of a communication plan is probably the biggest mistake on projects. In fact, they believe that 90% of the time communication is the main cause of unsatisfactory projects.

Yet many project managers don’t understand the need to communicate about their project. This is not helped by the project management literature, which tends to tuck communication well down priority list.

For instance, when I was working on a project in the Justice Department a few years ago, I found that the project management framework had three main stages: (1) Project Proposal, (2) Project Management and (3) Project Completion. Communication could be inferred in stage 1 in the “Consult with stakeholders” section, which was one of 10 sections. Stage 2 referred to communication in section 11 of 19 sections. Stage 3 didn’t refer to communication at all, although surely that’s the point when the ‘selling’ of the project completion to stakeholders should be happening. In my view, communication should have formally been planned and happening at almost every one of the many sections.

Three types of project communication

Project communication consists of three components:

  • Communicating project information promptly to stakeholders
  • Creating the right level of information for stakeholders
  • Collecting, circulating and retaining project information
  • One of the difficulties with projects is that team members communicate information to others and they tend to assume that everyone connected with the project has that information as well. Therefore project communication should be planned to ensure all the relevant people are in the loop.

When a project starts, the project manager should plan the communication activities that are needed. Usually the project manager decides what to send the customer/stakeholder. This can be an internal customer/stakeholder such as a senior executive, or someone external for whom the project is being conducted.

The problem with this is that the project manager hasn’t consulted with the customer or stakeholder to find out the communication they want in terms of content and timing. In view of this, the project manager should meet with them to agree on the content and timing of reporting. This will enable the project manager to develop a communication plan that can be sent to all stakeholders – customers, team members and senior management – containing the agreed information and the channels and timing that will apply.

Developing communication matrices

Having met with the project customer, the project manager can meet with the project team members and other stakeholders to discuss communication planning. The meeting can be used for (1) developing a matrix of the communication requirements of the project and (2) a matrix of the project roles of the relevant people and the various reports they should receive.

Agenda paper for first team meeting

All project meetings should have a written agenda prepared by the project manager. The agenda can be written on a PowerPoint slide and kept on a screen visible to the group or word processed onto agenda papers. Either way, a written agenda is mandatory. If this doesn’t happen, the meeting is guaranteed to lose structure and direction, and is certain to waste time.

When the team members meet together for the first time, the project manager should break the ice by introducing himself or herself with a little background information on their credentials and experience. All the other people should be asked to do the same. A sample agenda for the first meeting of the group is:

  • Introductions
  • Meeting purpose and goals
  • Development of communication requirements matrix
  • Development of roles report matrix
  • Communication tools selection
  • Development of communication plan
  • Meeting finish time, if needed
  • Next meeting

For the development of a matrix of the communication requirements of different stakeholders, on the vertical axis write the name or job title of the person, and then along the horizontal axis write down the names of the same people. Block out the boxes in which the person’s name is the same across and down, but note in each of the other boxes the communication requirements of each person from the other people. For instance, one person may be an internal stakeholder/customer, and he or she will want to get feedback on issues and concerns that the external stakeholder may have.

For the development of a matrix of the various reports stakeholders and project team members should receive, you just note down on the vertical axis the name of each person. Then on the horizontal axis write the names of the several reports. For instance, some reports may be prepared on demand for key stakeholders; other reports would be prepared daily, weekly, monthly or quarterly. It is a simple matter to check the respective boxes for each stakeholder and note the content that should be contained in each report for that person.

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