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?
From our interviews with project managers, and the stories they tell us, we have identified six generic communication purposes. The ‘six-whys’ are discussed in the following blogs, along with how the purpose (the ‘why’ question) impacts the communication approach used.
Communication as information-giving
Most project managers will be familiar with communication as information-giving. This includes regular communication (such as status updates) as well as specific communications (such as project briefing sessions) required by the context of the project and the needs of the stakeholders.
The role of the stakeholder defines the nature of regular communications. The RACI model helps us to identify the ‘Responsible’, ‘Accountable’, ‘Consulted’, and ‘Informed’ roles. Information-giving communication focuses on the ‘R’s, ‘A’s and ‘I’s. Each of these roles will require different information, often delivered in different formats. ‘Responsible’ and ‘Accountable’ stakeholders make decisions and take actions from the information provided. Understanding the nature of those decisions will help the project identify how best to communicate with these stakeholders.
It is often the communication needs of ‘Informed’ stakeholders which prove to be the trickiest to diagnose. What does it mean to be ‘information’ from their perspective? How do we avoid over-communicating or under-communicating? Seeking feedback on the level and appropriateness of information is an important part of ensuring that information-giving communication remains relevant and useful.
Case 5.1 The pitfalls of regular communications—when the regular becomes the routine
Every week, 45 status reports were sent out to all the members of the portfolio steering group. Each project consisted of 3–4 pages of text and diagrams, each in the same format.
A review was initiated to provide advice on whether reporting was working and to identify improvements. Unbeknownst to the steering group, the project office removed four projects each week randomly from the steering group pack. A check was made after six weeks, and nobody had missed the reports, or commented at all on their absence.
At first, the reaction from the project teams and the steering group members was anger. “How could anybody do such a thing?” “What if the project was in trouble?” Then they saw the issue. If nobody missed the reports, then what impact were the reports really making? How useful were they?
As a result of the study, it was decided to share the reports out across the steering group—not all projects to all members. A steering group manager could then pass on a report to another manager if they felt it was useful to do so. This reduced the number of reports sent to each steering group member to just six. It also placed an onus on the manager to engage with the report and take action (selectively redistribute the reports if required).
The project managers took on board the need to ensure that key messages or actions required were highlighted in the report. This demanded more imagination and a move away from always using a completely standardized report structure. The occasional difference in style and approach was used to signal the need for attention. The project office continued to monitor the reports for quality, but also encouraged innovation in the reports and used the process to identify and share good communication practices.
In Case 5.1, we see the kind of problems that can occur when regular communication becomes routine. The sheer number of reports was too many for the steering group to engage with, and the routine nature of the reporting process had reduced its effectiveness as a communication process.
Case 5.2 The steering group: information-giving or information-seeking?
The steering group meetings had been running well, but the project office noticed that there were an increasing number of absences by managers, or they would send a subordinate in their place. This was reducing the effectiveness of the meetings, and often resulted in delayed decisions because of absent members of the steering group.
The project office met with managers to find out why this was occurring and what actions would help. Two common themes emerged:
The project office realized that the steering group meetings had turned into status report meetings. They were duplicating the written formal reports and had lost their purpose as a forum for resolving issues and bottlenecks across the portfolio.
The project office, working with the steering group and project managers, revitalized and refocused the aims of the group. Before the meeting, those projects which warranted discussion and debate were selected for the agenda. Where managers were not needed, they were given the chance to opt out, and where a person was crucial to a decision, they were informed of the need for their presence.
This put a lot more responsibility on the project office and project managers to be clear about exactly what decisions and discussions were required in the meetings. Where decisions could be made by one or two members of the steering group, these communications were taken offline and handled outside of the steering group in small meetings facilitated directly by the project manager and sponsor.
Case 5.2 captures three important learning points around information management. Is it necessary to give all status information on all projects to all members of the group? This would seem to be an example of over and unfocused communication. The primary purpose of the steering group is to consider across-portfolio implications and resolve issues, so that should be the purpose of the communication.
The second point is not to confuse information-giving with information-seeking. If the members are attending the steering group for information, you have lost the steering component. The purpose of the steering groups is not primarily information-giving. There are other, more effective, mechanisms available for the project to do this.
The third point is to do with group sizes. The bigger the group, the less valuable the meeting. Of course, there will be times when information-giving involves large groups, but it raises risks. Where there are many stakeholders with different agendas, different levels of understanding, and different perceptions, and with the limited ability to engage with large groups, there will always be a risk of misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the information received. Communication to large groups must be clear and unambiguous, or must be accompanied by other communication mechanisms to check and confirm understanding.
Communication as information-giving must focus on the needs of the audience. These needs are not always apparent, particularly where the aim is simply to keep stakeholders informed. If regular communication becomes routine, then it is likely that its usefulness will reduce over time. Reviewing and re-checking the effectiveness of communication is always an important part of the communication process.
This is the second in a series of blogs being published on purposeful communication on projects.