Tailoring Your Communication

The Right Level of Detail for Different Types of Stakeholders

Communication is the key to project success. In project management, effective communication relies on an awareness of the way stakeholders consume information and how they exchange ideas, facts and opinions while they plan, resolve issues, and make decisions.

 PM tools facilitate communication by consolidating project information and enabling multiple stakeholders to receive notifications and information regarding the state of a project and to take part in discussions. However, tools do not make up for skillful planning, executing, controlling and closing. An exceptional tool set paired with a poorly defined project plan and a lack of disciplined compliance to communication protocols can make things worse, faster.

Seek to Understand

Experts agree that communication involves multiple parties. Therefore, awareness of the way the others in your project's communication network behave, their expectations and their effect on one another is essential to effective communication.

To make the best use of your project management tool set as a center for communication, you must consider the degree to which stakeholders want to get into details, the likelihood of them accessing available information, writing skills, the time and concentration required for reading and comprehending, current communication styles and norms, technology and mobility issues, among other factors.

Focus: Level of Detail

In my article on how to use the WBS as a communication tool, the message was to establish a common language and to make use of the hierarchical nature of WBS to address the needs of stakeholders with different interests. In this article we will go further into the issue of how to give stakeholders the information they need using the WBS as a framework. We will focus on the ability to satisfy stakeholder needs by recognizing the level of detail they are interested in.

The details of tasks at a granular level may be vital to performance and to a project manager's ability to manage but are not of interest to a sponsor or senior manager who wants a quick understanding of how the project is doing in the context of a portfolio of projects.

Useful Information

Information is data that is organized and presented to make it useful. In project management, useful information is the foundation for effective decisions and relationships. Senior managers use information to decide whether to initiate change or to allow things to continue as planned. Project managers use information to decide where to focus attention to ensure that the project stays on course. Individual performers use information to understand their roles and responsibilities, objectives, targets, etc. The team uses information to plan design, and control the project.

Stakeholders want information that will help them do their jobs - to make decisions, direct action, and assess results.

The client and senior executive team - the project steering committee - wants to know whether the project is on track to deliver its expected benefits within cost and schedule constraints. They want increasing certainty as the project proceeds and to be informed of any newly discovered risks and issues that might get in the way. Further, they need information about an individual project in the context of their portfolio of projects. Why do they want this? So they can make informed decisions as to whether this project should continue as planned and so that they can inform others and manage expectations.

To satisfy this need, monthly (there are exceptions) reporting on five to seven major deliverables per project is a guideline. Compare planned vs. actual performance for the project as a whole and for each deliverable. Enable a deeper dive into the details, should the executive want to look into the reasons for a delay, for example. Note that when task data is updated daily, and summarization is automated, senior stakeholders could receive dynamically refreshed information at any time. As project control becomes increasingly automated, project managers must consider the impact and usefulness of on demand dynamically refreshed near real time information to senior stakeholders.

At more tactical levels, project managers, team leads, and functional managers need far more granular information more frequently and the ability to drill down to lower levels as needed. At minimum, weekly updates are needed. Dynamically refreshed near real time information, including notifications, can be very useful at this level.

Above the project level, the data captured within each project can be transformed into information used to assess overall performance and find opportunities to improve.

The Data

The greatest volume of data in a project reflect the current state of tasks and issues. Each task and issue must be described. Its status, including cost and effort expended to date, updated regularly. Making that data into useful information requires the effective use of the work breakdown structure (WBS) to create meaningful summaries.

 The WBS organizes the work (tasks) to be executed by the project team, with the understanding that each task has a deliverable. In most projects, a guideline is that the tasks at the most granular level of detail are no longer than 5 or so days in duration. A project may be made up of hundreds or thousands of such tasks. A well-made WBS will organize these tasks into groupings so that at each level of detail there is a meaningful deliverable. For example, the design of a product is a meaningful deliverable to senior stakeholders. Creating the design may involve tens or hundreds of individual tasks. Displaying them all in a single unstructured list or talking about them all at a status update meeting would not be useful to senior stakeholders.

Issues represent another large volume of data. Issues are like tasks in that they represent the work to be done to resolve the issue. They differ because they are not planned - they occur throughout the project. They must be tracked from the time they appear until they are resolved. The data that describes tasks and issues and their status must be retained for use in project retrospectives to assess performance and learn from experience.

Capturing this data requires that project performers regularly and accurately update their tasks and issues with current actual results, updated estimates and links to content information (reports, deliverables, discussions and decisions, etc.).  This is a challenge since individual performers, who are the source of the data, don't get much out of it. They already know what they are doing and are typically focused on the work in front of them. Hopefully, they find useful the feedback they get regarding where they are currently, what to expect regarding deliverables they are dependent on and where their tasks fit in the big picture.

 Make sure that the performers know that reporting on their work is part of their job. Entering task data every day or upon starting and ending a task is the goal. Tools that notify performers and their supervisors of shortfalls in recording performance data help to ensure compliance.

Making It Happen

PM tools can deliver useful information in the form of notifications, dashboards, and reports. They enable inquiry and retrospectives. But, they must be regularly fed the right data, organized in a meaningful way. Otherwise, they simply increase the speed of communicating less than useful information.

Create a deliverable oriented WBS that structures detailed tasks within activities, work streams, phases, etc., to set the foundation for analytical and high-level reporting while being able to identify and manage the individual tasks.

Categorize issues, defects, changes, etc. in a way that makes it possible to identify trends and focus in on opportunities for improvement while being able to manage the individual issues.

Continuously evaluate and improve the quality of your communication.

Questions or comments? Feel free to share them below!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: George Pitagorsky, PMP, integrates core disciplines and applies mindfulness meditation and people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. George authored Managing Expectations: A Mindful Approach to Achieving Success, The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict in Projects and PM Foundation. He is a senior teacher at the NY Insight Meditation Center.

Online 11/30/2017
George Pitagorsky
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