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Reinventing Communication [Book review]

Reinventing Communications Book Review“If we spend 90 percent of our time on communication, it makes sense to have a method to figure out if we are spending out time wisely and, if we are not, what we can do to improve communication,” writes Mark Phillips in his book, Reinventing Communication. That sounds sensible, so I was keen to read more.

Reinventing Communication isn’t a soft skills book. There’s nothing fluffy about it as it aims to follow a scientific approach. This is an interesting concept for something that has traditionally been seen as a project management soft skill – Phillips says it can be used as a performance management tool.

The new language of project communication

“This approach can help non-soft-skills oriented people think about the importance of communication and recognize the effect it has on project performance while providing a clear way for them to make their communication more effective.” Mark Phillips

The book is quite technical and there is a large new vocabulary to learn. He writes about Planned Communication (P COM), Actual Communication (A COM), and Communication Variance (COM V). COM V plus schedule performance indicates that a project is performing as planned with less than the planned amount of communication i.e. the team are efficient. As you can imagine, Phillips places a high value on EVM for communicating status as this fits with the analytical, data-based approach he advocates.

How practical is this?

Some of the ideas sound theoretically quite good but to a practitioner simply don’t seem workable. I’m not honestly sure, for example, how I would work in an environment where the project communications plan mandated the maximum number of emails I could send per week. How does that work in practice if a major issue hits and I need to do something about it? Phillips writes:

“We can also apply simple arithmetic and see whether the quantity of communication leads to a particular pattern of behaviour. For example, will sending 10 emails to my customer have them get back to me any faster? We can apply more advanced analytical methods such as studying word choice or the emotional tone of an artifact and see whether these make a difference in how people behave.”

We could, or we could just get on and manage the project. I doubt many project managers have time to do a controlled experiment about tone of voice in email, sending two different versions and seeing which group gets on with it faster. And how would you know if other factors were at play?

The book includes a checklist with steps to take to implement communications as a performance management system on your project. It’s step by step so this is useful, and it includes a reminder to translate the output of each step into measures. I understand the benefits of setting this up as it helps identify project problems early, based on observable and measurable phenomena, but the whole thing seems very clinical.

Phillips does acknowledge that projects are each different. There is no single right answer, because much of project management is defined by the people and environment. “We need to recognise that a project is a social environment,” he writes. Therefore you have to tailor project communications to account for the environment.

I have to confess that I struggled to stay awake while reading Reinventing Communication. That’s partly because I’m sleep-deprived with two babies in the house, but partly because I found the book’s theoretical style heavy going.

It’s interesting in an academic way but for practitioners? I’d like someone else to implement communications as a performance management tool on their project to give me real life proof that it works. If you try it out, let me know!

Reinventing communications book coverRight to reply

I asked Mark for his comments on this review and he said:

“One of the reasons behind the book was to challenge existing perceptions of communication as a soft skill so I was quite pleased to read that it did. I’ve tried to bridge the gap between the community that can execute effective communication as a soft skill (like yourself) and the community that could so much benefit from improving communication, such as engineers who became project managers or KPI/metrics focused managers. The idea behind the approach is to demonstrate the importance of communication through measurable data.

“Existing research into the importance of communication overwhelming shows how important it is in a general sense. I hope to empower project managers with the tools to prove its importance on their specific projects.

“Another goal is to show project managers how they can actually improve their communications, in a measurable way, without having to be masters of soft skills, which can be difficult for some people. I’ve done this by focusing on measurable aspects of communication, such as the total number of emails sent to a client in a week. For example, this aspect of communication, the total amount broadcast out, has been shown to make a difference in the effectiveness of communication. If a project manager consistently sends 10 emails to a client each week and doesn’t get the responses they need to meet deadlines, they can look at reducing the number of emails and seeing if that makes a difference. This approach can help non-soft-skills oriented people think about the importance of communication and recognize the effect it has on project performance while providing a clear way for them to make their communication more effective.”

Thanks, Mark, for taking the time to respond.

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Drexel logoThis is a guest article from Drexel University by Beth Sager.

As a project manager, communication is key to the success of your team. Whether your team is working on an in-house project or one for an outside client, knowing what to communicate and when to communicate will make all the difference and keep misunderstandings to a minimum.

Effectively communicating as a project manager isn’t difficult, but it does take a little work upfront. In the long run, it will save you time and many headaches for you, your team, and your client.

Know Your Stakeholders

First, make sure you know who your stakeholders are. Whether they are in the company or outside of your company, be sure you are talking with the right people. Your stakeholders may include individuals with very different needs. Some will be looking for a high-level view while others will want to know every detail. It is important to understand who needs what and to not over or under provide information.

Understanding your stakeholders or audience may very well be the most important step in effective communication.

Secondly, don’t assume that all team members are receiving the needed information. It is easy to think because someone is attached to the project that they will get the information they need. This isn’t always true. You will want to make a plan to ensure all relevant people are copied on communication when necessary.

Stay On-Topic and Communicate Clearly

Next, keep your communications relevant and to the point. Don’t get carried away with sending emails. If you do, they won’t be read. Also, you don’t want the reputation of being long winded and a time waster. Everyone is busy, so it is important to respect that. If the information isn’t necessary or can wait, then don’t send it. This isn’t the time to try to make yourself look important.

When problems do happen, be sure to have a possible solution before you bring it to the team. This will make you look like the problem solver you are, and your team and stakeholders will thank you for it.

Timeliness Matters When Setting Expectations

Finally, you want to make sure your team members have enough time to receive your message and respond to it. They may need to do a bit of research to find the answer you are looking for or to formulate a proper response or questions to ask.

Project management communication greases the wheels of your project. When used effectively, your project will glide smoothly through all of its phases. Don’t communicate effectively and you may find your project hits the brakes unexpectedly.

This article was provided by Beth Sager at Drexel University Online, an accredited university located in Philadelphia, PA. If you are thinking about advancing your project management career check out Drexel’s online MS in Project Management.  

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What do you need to communicate on your project?

Hand holding a megaphone promotion social media icons. Concept c“The successful project communicator is a good networker and builds effective working relationships within the project, across the wider organisation of which the project is a part and sometimes externally,” writes Ann Pilkington in her book, Communicating Projects. You need good communication skills in order to be able to do that, but what are ‘good communication skills’? Ann sets out some of the technical and soft skills you need to be able to communicate effectively on your project. Here’s my take on her conclusions.

Strategic skills

You need to be able to communicate as a “strategic adviser”, as Ann puts it. This includes:

  • Working at board level
  • Providing strategic counsel when asked (and, I imagine, sometimes when not asked)
  • Having advanced stakeholder management skills
  • Having advanced influencing skills
  • Understanding how to use research to inform strategy
  • Being able to speak in terms that the rest of the business understand
  • Building effective relationships
  • Drawing on best practice and the latest thinking to inform what you do.

Strategic communications are used for:

  • Supporting change
  • Building engagement
  • Generating feedback
  • Supporting the communication skills of other managers/team members
  • Advising upwards.

Strategic communication gets your project in front of the board and helps you get involved in strategic discussions that affect your project. This puts you in a better position to advise on the project in general but also on how communication should be managed more generally. You’ll need the respect of your board-level team if you are going to be successful in this capacity, and if you don’t have the gravitas to do it justice, bow out gracefully and get your project sponsor to do it instead.

Technical skills

Communication also has to happen at a more hands-on, technical level. This requires the project manager to have:

  • Good writing skills, for example the ability to produce clear project management reports
  • Experience at managing a range of communication channels (e.g. email, social communication, presentations etc)
  • An understanding of the management of design and print projects for preparing printed communications like leaflets
  • Attention to detail – nothing like a mailing out to people with incorrect names to undermine credibility in your project!
  • An understanding of the project management methodology and how communication fits in.

Technical project communication results in defined outputs like:

  • Posters
  • Emails
  • Newsletters
  • Magazines
  • Intranet and social media sites
  • Presentations
  • Status reports.

Project communications involves a wide range of techniques from being able to brief a designer for your desk drop leaflet to building a wiki to capture project lessons learned. Good technical writing skills will help you construct a story, tailor it to your audience, present it clearly and then follow up to see if your message has been understood. (Of course, you could pay my company to do it for you, if this isn’t your strongest skill.)

Overall, confidence in your ability is important as this will help you avoid wishy-washy communications or that feeling where you don’t know if it is good enough so you don’t do anything at all. Communication is often very tricky to get right and very easy to get wrong, so have confidence in your convictions, plan it properly and go for it!

Read my review of Communicating Projects.

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7 Steps To A Good Project Communications Plan

7 Steps for good comms planA communications plan helps you get the message across about your project. I’ve worked on projects where the comms plan was a list of dates and what newsletter would be sent out when. That’s OK for a project with basic messages and a small stakeholder group, but it’s often far better to take a strategic approach with a bit of proper communications planning, even on small projects. Here’s a quick guide to the important 7 steps in making a communications plan.

1. Understand the project environment

Your project isn’t taking place in a vacuum so it’s important to understand the overall project environment. Is it the biggest thing your company is working on, with lots of management oversight and people asking you to write status updates all the time? Or is it a small, tactical project that won’t affect many people?

And what about the culture of the business? Is there a culture of openly sharing status, even if the results aren’t that good? Or do project managers typically keep information to themselves as a misguided attempt to keep power?

Knowing what sort of environment you are working in is important for getting project communications right. You don’t have to write this stuff down – just think it through before you start and if it’s appropriate, have a discussion with others on the team to get a common view.

2. Identify the stakeholders

Who is going to be getting these project messages? You’ll probably have already done stakeholder analysis on your project, so get out that stakeholder matrix and check that you can communicate to all of them. And if you’ve identified any new groups, get them on the matrix!

3. Set your goals

What are you trying to achieve through your project communications? You’ll find it is a mix of things including:

  • Raise awareness of the project
  • Provide information for decision making
  • Inform people of project status
  • Get support for the project and/or secure resources

And probably other things. Write these down and get them agreed.

4. Define the approach

Confused is something you don’t want your stakeholders to be

Your goals form the basis of your strategic approach. If your overall communication goal is to raise awareness about the project, then your approach could be to make communications as far-reaching and inclusive as possible. If your major goal is to secure funding for Phase 2 of your project, then your communications will be more targeted and focus on the people who need to understand the benefits and who control the cash.

5. Define the messages

So what are you going to say? Ideally everyone on the team should be consistently repeating the same thing – the project benefits, for example. If you have one group saying one thing (“The project will finish in December”) and another saying something else (“The project will take 6 months unless there are any change requests”) people will get confused. And confused is something you don’t want your stakeholders to be.

Make sure everyone on your project team understands the importance of the party line. And knows what that is!

6. Create a plan

You know who you are communicating to and what the important messages are: now you have to plan to actually do it. Create a schedule of activities ensuring that key messages make it out to the right people at the right time. Book the relevant workshops, town hall meetings and presentations now, and if you need to put time aside to write Frequently Asked Question documents or similar then block that out in your diary now too.

Incorporate these key dates into your main project schedule so that you don’t overlook key dates.

7. Assess what worked

Communication isn’t over when you hit ‘Send’. Make sure you factor in some time to assess whether your communication activity was successful. This is as easy as asking the people who got the message whether they understood it and will take action as a result. Even better, wait a month or so and see if they can remember anything about your project then!

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