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Author: Barbara Karten

Communicating with Project Stakeholders – Tower of Babel

It sounds simple enough – talk to and communicate with your project stakeholders. First, who are the stakeholders?

We have sponsors, business partners, customers, users, teams, and vendors. A common rule of thumb is that a project manager spends 90% of his time communicating.

We have many different languages. When the project team is geographically dispersed internationally, team members may speak different languages (English, Spanish, Chinese, and others). These languages may use different character sets (ISO-latin, Chinese, Hebrew, Arabic). The characters may flow on the page left to right (English, Spanish), right to left (Hebrew, Arabic), or from the top of the page to the bottom of the page (Chinese, Japanese, Korean).

Once the project team selects a single default language to use for all project communications, we have different ‘languages’ based on area of expertise.

Project managers and sponsors are often focused on the project schedule and budget. The larger perspective may be that projects focus on increasing revenue (or market share), reducing expenses in the form of operating efficiencies, or aligning with corporate objectives.

Different stakeholders may be motivated by goals and status other than the schedule and budget focus typical of the project manager and project participants. Sales is likely to support projects that increase revenue, while operations departments are likely to support projects that reduce expenses. The accounting department may look at time-to-return-on investment (how long it takes to recover the costs of the project before the positive financial impact of the project is realized). The project business partner, in the form of sales and operations, needs to ensure that changes to project scope do not negatively impact the larger profit and loss picture. The project sponsor focuses on the continued alignment of project impacts as corporate strategic objectives change over time.

Subject area expertise, often called domain expertise, relies on domain specific vocabulary.

Hardware and software engineers have unique vocabularies. Hardware engineers talk in terms of circuits, components, systems. Software engineers discuss programs, system-level software such as operating systems, database management systems, and embedded systems, and application software.
Project life cycle phases also vary based on the industry. A generic project life cycle might include phases such as initiate, plan, execute, monitor and control, and close.

The PMI Construction Extension to the PMBoK Guide suggests that following project phases specific to construction projects: Project Concept, Early Works Programming, Regulatory Approvals and Permitting, Design Development, Procurement, Construction Works, Closeout, and Owner Occupancy,
Drug development projects are governed by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) life cycle phases including Discovery and Development, Preclinical Research, Clinical Research, FDA Review, FDA Post Market Safety Monitoring.

Business Analysts talk in terms of BABoK (Business Analysis Body of Knowledge) life cycle phases of Plan, Scope the project, Elicit, analyze, and communicate requirements, Design the solution, Build or buy the solution, Test the solution, Implement the solution, and Conduct post implementation review.
To further complicate this landscape, different cultures communicate differently. Some cultures will say yes in response to a question, indicating that they understand the question, not that they are in agreement. In many cultures, people are reluctant to say no; they communicate disagreement by saying things like ‘maybe’, ‘It might be difficult’, ‘I’ll try’ and other phrases that might not be interpreted as ‘no’ by a native of North America.

In other cultures, respect for elders and superiors prevent a subordinate from honestly sharing his opinion. This can be a significant problem if the project manager relies on this subordinate expertise on a technical matter. [A possible solution to this cultural challenge would be to query the subordinate in a one-on-one conversation without more senior people involved.]

Varied communication methods enhance or impede communication. A common rule of thumb suggests that 55% of communication is non-verbal. This suggests that we lose about half of communication when we rely on communication methods that preclude non-verbal communication such as phone, instant messages, and email. When you next start an email message instead of walking down the hall to talk with a colleague, consider the impact on the effectiveness of the email communication.

Different ‘generations’ have very different communication styles. Baby boomers are most comfortable communicating on the phone or in face-to-face settings. Generation X prefer email, and Generation Y (also called Millennials) rely on texts and instant messages. Integrating these different communication styles is a significant challenge. And with the progression of technology, the pace of communication has accelerated. Video games, twitter, facebook, and you tube have accelerated the speed of messaging and listener attention span – recently cited to be 7 seconds!

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So simple, yet so complicated…..

So, what can project managers do to address this ‘Tower of Babel’ with everyone speaking multiple, and different, languages.

  • Speak in the language of your audience
    • Many of our project teams are geographically dispersed, and cross many languages, cultures, and time zones. The project team must agree on a default language that everyone agrees to use. If the default language uses a character set other than ISO latin, we may need special printers to accommodate different character sets and the flow of words and letters (left to right, right to left, and up and down). If geographically dispersed sub-teams use a language other than the default language, we may need to add time to our schedule to allow the sub-team to translate information from their local language to the team default language.
    • Project managers should frame messages appropriately for various audiences such as sponsor, business partner, user, customer, business analyst, or other project managers. Project plan versus actual schedule and budget variances may be meaningful to project managers while the impact of schedule and budget variances on time to market and customer satisfaction may be more meaningful to a business partner and senior management. Financial stakeholders may relate better to the impact of delays on return on investment, and profit and loss statements. Use life cycles appropriate to the industry and jargon appropriate to the domain expertise of the audience
    • Project teams are often a blend of different generations including baby boomers, generation x, and millenniums. Each of these stakeholder groups has its own language and communication styles. Boomers grew up before technology was a ubiquitous part of our lives and workplaces and direct 1-1 communication was the dominant form of interaction. Generation X and Millennium grew up with a reliance on technology and may find direct 1-1 interaction more challenging. Boomers are often focused on work and advancement (live to work mindset) while Generation X and Millenniums value free time and broad-based experiences (work to live mindset). The variations suggest that the project manager use a variety of technologies to support project work, a flexible work schedule, a focus on meaningful work, and a blend of structure and discipline balanced with independent and interactive work.
    • Realize that cultures communicate ‘no’ in a variety of ways. Find ways to mitigate this and also to mitigate the reluctance of people in some cultures to communicate directly when managers and elders are in the meeting. Understand that the project team may include baby boomers, generation Xers, and millenniums – the project manager may need to use different vocabulary and communication methods to communicate the same message to these different groups.
  • Verbal commitments are easily forgotten and recall of past commitments is uncertain. Writing things down forces both the writer and reader to focus on the details and accurately translate thoughts into a written sentence or paragraph. This process creates an audit trail that the team relies on to clarify intentions and commitments
  • Closely aligned with documenting project decisions as they happen is use of the active voice. Active voice has a subject. For example, ‘the project sponsor committed $2 million for this project’ is a stronger statement than the passive voice ‘$2 million were committed to support this project.’ Often, we use the passive voice when we are not quite certain what we want to say. Use of active voice forces us to think through project decisions, and communicate more directly.
  • Sign off supports both written commitments and active voice. It is visible evidence that the ‘signer’ supports the project or document at the time.
  • WIIFM stands for ‘what’s in it for me’. Behavior follows the incentive structure. People behave in a manner consistent with their own personal interests. When we identify how a stakeholder benefits when a project is successful, we have likely engaged that stakeholder in a positive manner and have his support. Conversely, if a stakeholder is hurt in some manner if the project is successful, he is unlikely to positively support the project. Project managers manage the WIIFM for key stakeholders so that the interests of the stakeholder and the project are aligned.
  • When a task lacks single point accountability, there is often conflict among the participants as to who is responsible for success, or, more likely, who is to blame for failure. Everyone is pointing at everyone else to pin blame. I call this ‘Who Shot Sam’ with everyone saying ‘he did it’.
  • a colleague once commented that people come to project management chapter meetings to learn, but also to have fun and be entertained. The same holds for projects. Stakeholders want to learn and contribute to the project and team success, but they want to have a good time in the process.


Project managers must speak multiple ‘languages’, translate between stakeholder groups, and create a project environment in which each stakeholder’s contribution is maximized. There are many tools and techniques to accomplish this including obtaining written commitments, understanding the WIIFM, ensuring single point accountability, and having fun in the project environment.

Perhaps an oft quoted phase best captures the challenges of communicating in a project environment.

‘I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.’

As a proof point to the complexities, this phrase is variously attributed to Alan Greenspan, Robert McCloskey, Richard Nixon, among others.