Effective Communication in Project Management

You can’t be a good project manager without being an effective communicator. But between juggling all the stakeholders invested in a project, managing personal preferences of your team, and relaying information between departments, effective communication in project management can be a challenge. Regardless, communication is critical to ensuring everyone is on the same page when it comes to timelines, expectations and resources. Your communication plan ensures the client for the project agrees with what you are doing, your organization will provide the resources you need, and all stakeholders understand when – and how – you will update them.

Project communication is among the 10 key knowledge areas listed in the PMBOK® Guide – Sixth Edition, which includes communication planning, management and monitoring.

As projects have grown increasingly complex while organizations have become flatter and modes of communication more varied, effective communication is critical.

Obstacles to Effective Communication

While communication is clearly important, project managers must effectively overcome barriers to good communication. According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), these obstacles often occur in three major areas:

  1. Political – Organizational politics are often rooted in the upper levels of an organization. Project managers can best circumvent these issues by understanding all project stakeholders (even those who aren’t immediately apparent) and addressing issues directly and in the moment.
  2. Cultural – Cultural barriers can occur between different teams, organizations (such as a conflict-adverse organization trying to communicate with one that encourages differing opinions) or between regions. This may be a language barrier or social norms.
  3. Linguistic – When different departments contribute to a project, each brings their various terminology and jargon. Project managers must work to overcome departmental jargon to ensure everyone can understand. This can be particularly challenging in highly technical areas.

Without a clear communication plan and defined channels to use for communication, project managers may flounder at one of these obstacles.

Factors in the Communication Process

To effectively manage the communication process, project managers must clearly understand all elements in the process. This includes:

The sender and the receiver: There is no communication without someone to deploy the message and someone to receive it. The sender needs to bear the receiver in mind when they are crafting the message, because the receiver will respond to the message based on his or her personal reactions. For example, a project manager may tell an internal stakeholder about a project delay in a different way than he or she might tell the customer. But the customer may still decide to cancel the project based on the message.

The medium: Selecting how the message will be delivered is just as important as what it will say. While project managers have a variety of mediums available, including email, text message, phone call or in-person meeting, the receiver and the message itself may dictate which is appropriate. For example, an internal stakeholder may not interact with her email frequently, so the project manager should make a phone call to provide a critical update. Or, a project may be going so smoothly that the project manager simply emails a routine update to the customer.

The message: Of course, communication requires a message: the information actually distributed through the communication. This might be a soft copy email to report that the project is on track or a hard paper copy meeting agenda reporting the same thing.

Feedback: The feedback given in communication can vary widely. It may be as simple as confirming the message was received, or it may be more complex if multiple people are involved. Feedback can also be positive, neutral or negative. For example, the project manager sending an email reporting “the project is on track” may receive some quick positive feedback from her customer. But the project manager calling his stakeholder to announce a critical project delay may hear the receiver express displeasure, and ask to schedule a follow-up in-person meeting to solve the problems.

Noise: Communication is rarely as straightforward as one sender deploying a simple message to a receiver who clearly understands everything. Instead, multiple people receive communication and individually filter it with their own beliefs, values and emotions. Sometimes, recipients are not receptive to the message; other times, they send feedback the original sender misinterprets.

Context: Communication is always deployed in some kind of context, whether that is a formal project status meeting, a casual email or a friendly phone call. The context of the message can also influence the feedback. For example, if the project manager sends a casual email on a Friday afternoon with the following message: “Our project just missed a major milestone and our timeline is delayed. Have a great weekend!” the customer is likely to be more upset because of the context. That same message, delivered in person during a scheduled project update, may be received differently.

Building a Communication Plan

To overcome communication barriers and plan carefully for all components of communication, project managers should create a communication plan at the beginning of their project. This plan should address:

  • Who needs to be communicated with: This might include internal project stakeholders, the customer and the project team.
  • What needs to be communicated: The project team, for example, will likely need much more frequent and detailed updates than the client.
  • How frequently you will communicate: A critical stakeholder may want weekly updates, while the customer agrees to monthly reports and the project team meets daily.
  • How you will communicate: Will this be in person, over a conference call or in an email? Will this communication be part of an existing meeting or scheduled separately?

Other Best Practices

Project managers can help the communication process overall be more smooth by organizing a few additional elements at the outset of a project, including:

  • A list of stakeholders, their title, their frequency of communication, the channel and any specific notes.
  • Establishing which team members are responsible for gathering the information necessary for communication.
  • Any technology that may make things easier for the team. For example, using an internal chat system may help the project team communicate more quickly with one another.
  • Hire or staff your project with good communicators.
  • Vet your communication before delivering to make sure each message provides value, is clear and is accurate.

By approaching overall project communication with a plan, designing communication to avoid barriers and enhance clarity, and respecting the value project communication has for the success of the project, project managers can boost their effective communication and enjoy greater project success.

PMBOK is a registered mark of the Project Management Institute, Inc.

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