Unveiling the root cause: Poor communication causes most project management failures

June 1, 2020

Have you noticed there is hardly any information available in the communication profession on the skills required to successfully manage projects? Yet poor communication causes most project management failures.

The academic literature hardly contains anything, and PR courses neglect this important aspect of our profession. Yet we are required to manage projects of varying complexity, often simultaneously and usually under time pressure.

What’s more, most of the time the experts fail to grasp the importance of communication to the success of projects of any kind.

I have observed this myself. Over the years, I have seen the way the world’s top management consultants like McKinsey & Co and various project management planners have almost totally ignored communication in their published material. And then they only remember it as an afterthought – to be put in place after the ‘real work’ has been done.

Fortunately, experts are slowly starting to realize that communication is the most important element of projects.

In their book, Project Management Communications Bible, authors William Dow and Bruce Taylor note, “communication is the key to keeping team members, managers and stakeholders informed and on track to pursue the project objectives.”

Supposed reasons for project failure

The authors, who are vastly experienced in project management, including major work for Microsoft, point to the results of an industry survey in 2007 that attributed reasons for project failure as follows:

50% Poor requirement definition
17% Inadequate risk management
15% Poor scope control
14% Communication problems
3% Lack of qualified resources
1% Other

Real reasons for most project management failures

Then the authors give what they consider the real reasons for project management failures:

2% Poor requirement definition
1% Inadequate risk management
1% Poor scope control
90% Communication problems
1% Lack of qualified resources
2% Other

(This adds up to only 97%; 3% seems unaccounted for in this summary, but I’m sure you get the idea.)

Poor communication the root cause of most project management failures

The authors believe poor communication is at the core of nearly all project management problems.

An example: during every significant project someone always asks for a report on the project. Usually a report is run off as quickly as possible and people turn back to the project. But a strategic approach should be taken with all such requests for reports. Rather than providing the report immediately, think about asking some important questions:

  • What information does the report provide?
  • What are you trying to achieve with this information?
  • Who needs the report and how will they use it?
  • How often is the information needed?
  • How quickly do you need the report developed?
  • Do you have the budget to develop the report?
  • Does an existing report already provide the necessary information?
  • Which other stakeholders can be included in the distribution of the report to satisfy their needs?

By clarifying the needs of the people requesting the report and other stakeholders, you can save time and money.

Next time someone requests a project report from you, pause to consider these questions.

This approach also works with other requests from internal customers. When someone from senior management contacts you to say, “We need a newsletter” or “We need a new brochure” or “We need an article on …in the newsletter,” don’t just take their request at face value. Probe with similar questions to the above list to establish what the real need is. Most of the time they actually need a much more strategic response than the production of simple communication collateral.

Avoid scope creep

Scope creep is a common risk in projects, with communication implications. It happens when unauthorized changes are made to the originally approved scope of a project. Internal sources can cause these changes, such as when a member of the project team at any level, or a senior manager, pushes for adjustments to be made during a project’s life cycle. Clients may also informally request changes to the agreed project because they forgot to include some work in the original contract. If scope creep is allowed to happen it can cause a project’s timelines and costs to blow out, even to the point of causing the project to be abandoned.

Project managers should ensure the project scope is well-defined, and a change control process is in place. The project communication plan needs to document and describe how the project team will communicate project information throughout the life of the project so that all participants know which changes are approved. This article, “How to prevent & manage scope creep,” explains scope creep in more detail, and provides good advice on solutions to the problem.

Further reading

You can read further about this topic in my article, “Communicate better to improve operational performance.”

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

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