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Author: Paul A. Kinney

Don’t Play Project Telephone: Establish Communication That Reinforces Decision-Making

Communication is widely recognized as being among the most critical responsibilities of any program, project or portfolio manager, given prominent standing by the Project Management Institute in A Guide to the Project Management Body Of Knowledge® (PMBOK® Guide). However, even with extensive guidance in this critical area, there is less clarity regarding how to devise and implement an effective project communications strategy. This article provides fundamental recommendations proven critical to success at any level of complexity, whether a small project, a large program including multiple interrelated projects, or a troubled project in need of recovery. This guidance is also beneficial for continuous assessment across complex project portfolios.

A core communication goal is to enable timely decision-making. Specifically, channels of communication (that is, the flow of communications through the web of stakeholders) should mirror as closely as possible the channels of optimized decision-making. This may appear trivial as many recall the game of Telephone where a message evolves in passing from one person to another until finally returning back to the first person. But failure to apply this rule is a leading cause of many project and program problems. This is most evident at the project sponsor and steering committee levels. Consider the consequences of playing Telephone with critical status and decisions on a large-scale program.
Over a six-year period, this PMO leader assessed a portfolio of over 200 projects through biweekly scorecard reviews, risk assessments, and post-mortem retrospectives. The results demonstrated a high correlation between project success and regularly scheduled communications between the project leads and the funding sponsors. Project success was judged simply by completion of the project to the satisfaction of the project’s funding sponsors and key management stakeholders. The assessment also verified the leading indicator of project crises and failures was a fundamental lack of reliable correspondence with funding sponsors. Even though the majority of projects prepared and distributed regular status reports to other stakeholders, the ultimate project authorities were frequently insulated from reports of progress, issues, and changes, and were often unavailable for time-sensitive project decisions.

A communications breakdown with sponsors prevents timely and effective decision-making, and significantly contributes to project problems.

However, there were still many cases where projects suffered even with regular access to sponsors. Over the same period we reviewed our portfolio history to determine if other communication deficiencies were contributing factors. We targeted project escalations to compare the timeliness of crisis resolution with the structure and efficiency of communications before and during escalation of the evaluated projects. The reviews found the Telephone style of communication frequently inhibited resolution of critical project issues.

Informal communication channels do not ensure timely reporting or confirmation of the problems, findings, decisions, and solutions between decision makers and project teams.

To compensate for deficiencies, management stakeholders or project team members employed informal (most often verbal) Telephone chains of communication, frequently resulting in conflicting accounts of facts, inter-personal disagreements, increasing stakeholder dissatisfaction, as well as additional effort to regain alignment of decision makers and/or project teams.

Properly formalizing channels of communication ensures the flow of project status, issues and changes to mirror the flow of confirmed decisions significantly reduces reliance upon other ad hoc communication channels. But reviews also confirmed that in programs with large numbers of stakeholders, there was less understanding or appreciation of the importance for improved communication-decision alignment.

These experiences led to the following barometers of effective communication and direction supported by regular PMO oversight.

Target 1. Regular Access to Sponsor(s)

Effective communication begins with sponsors through regularly scheduled meetings and written reports between project leads and sponsor(s), where sponsor(s) are the ultimate authorities providing funding, direction and judgment of the success of the project or program. The same guidance holds for executive steering committees (ESCs), especially in cases where the program is driven by collaboration across multiple organizations, firms or vendors.

Target 2. Confirmation and Accessibility of Critical Stakeholders

Project leads should confirm directly with their sponsoring authorities about who the most critical stakeholders are for the project or program. This is most critical at project conception/inception, but remains important throughout the project lifecycle. If the sponsor is the judge of success, these key stakeholders form the jury.

Target 3. Coordinated Two-Way Communication Between Project Team and Critical Stakeholders

Project leads often need guidance to establish and monitor regular communications between project staff and critical stakeholders. The project lead should act as the moderator, preferably the recorder, of such communications, as this enables direct verification of objectives, expectations, and satisfaction. Effective two-way communication is most effectively verified through written communications back to the project team reflecting accurate and complete:

    1. Status, issues and changes from the team.
    2. Decisions and direction from sponsor(s) or ESC.
    3. Stakeholder meeting minutes and periodic stakeholder satisfaction surveys.

In applying this principle, individual project managers and newly formed PMO groups can focus initial efforts and monitoring on Target 1. This establishes the most critical channel and is fairly easy to monitor and report. With increased practice, project management groups can incrementally incorporate the remaining target levels or refine further to enhance communications standards. For agile project environments, communications can be streamlined to minimize burden, but should still include a level of written confirmation for major issues, actions, changes and decisions.

Much like nerve pathways link the brain and the body, effective communication channels establish a system of messaging and sensory feedback to drive more effective project execution and direction with efficient response to changing events. All roles are better informed of each other’s priorities, issues and actions, improving the project’s chances of survival. Applying this principle in concert with effective application of PMBoK® communication practices and disciplines can improve any project portfolio’s performance.

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