Communication is the core element of stakeholder engagement in projects. All projects, even the smallest stakeholder-neutral project, depend on some form of communication. No project can exist in complete isolation from its stakeholders.
Project managers recognise the need to do communications planning and to have a communications plan. Where the problem appears to lie is in how well communications are designed to meet the specific needs of the project and its stakeholders. Too often, there is a reliance on generic practices and standards, without sufficient challenge or questioning of the appropriateness of the approach:
- “The reporting approach is standard, so we just copy it in from the last project ”
Or the mechanism of delivery is based upon past practice or assumptions about the stakeholder group rather than a real understanding of the circumstances of the audience:
- “We felt we had informed the local community of the building developments that the City Council would be doing because we sent building plan notices written in the local languages. It took a while for us to realise that nobody read these bulky letters—most didn’t even reach the recipients.”
Or the approach is driven by the skills and comfort zone of the project manager:
- “I always send the change updates out by e-mail—that’s what everybody does, isn’t it?”
Or the project team is just so pleased to get any chance to engage with the stakeholders that they have given insufficient thought on how to follow-through the engagement:
- “We were able to get the stakeholders in the room for the start-up meeting. There was lots of excitement and energy but after that, we just weren’t able to get time in their diaries.”
Or the communication was driven by the technology rather than the audience need:
- “We can generate all our reports on the enterprise project management system now, so we started sending our automated status reports every Friday afternoon. After three weeks, there were so many complaints about e-mail boxes being bombarded with reports that we had to turn it off.”
Or the communication was simply not with the right people:
- “We set up community engagement meetings right in the midst of the community. The responses were aggressive and unhelpful. It took us a while to realise that most of the people in the room were not from the local community but were interest groups from outside the community trying to influence the decisions made.”
Good communication involves providing the right information to the right people at the right time—using a method that works for them. That just doesn’t happen by chance—it takes thought, planning, and excellent execution!
Purposeful communication planning
The PMI Body of Knowledge describes communications planning as determining:
- who needs what information
- when they need it
- how it will be given to them and by whom
The language used really does emphasise the transfer of information from the project to the stakeholders. It’s more about what we tell the stakeholders than about how we engage with them.
The nature of project communications will vary with the nature of the project. In stakeholder-neutral projects, where the stakeholders are primarily role-based, the focus of communication is likely to be on broadcasting (transferring information). Further up the continuum, the process is much more participative.
The PMI process assumes that the primary purpose of communications is to ensure the project provides relevant, accurate, timely, and consistent project information to all the appropriate project stakeholders.
This is a good starting point, but there are other reasons for communicating with our stakeholders. For communication to become purposeful, it is important that these are understood if we are to have any chance of formulating the right communications strategy. Aside from the four communication questions—what, when, who, and how—to truly understand the purpose of communication, we must, of course, ask one further overarching question: Why?
This is the first in a series of blogs published on purposeful communication in projects.
It is based upon extracts from: