Avoiding Communication Breakdowns

Communication is Job One for the project manager. If there is a breakdown, the responsibility has to fall to the project manager, and it can be devastating to the project. 

Have you ever been there – a breakdown in communication or key pieces of information falling through the cracks starts to cause an otherwise successful project engagement to experience timeline issues, delivery issues and budget issues? And worse – it may not be readily apparent that it is a communication issue that is causing the project to start to limp along. Unfortunately, that can take days or weeks to find out as more and more issues arise. 

What do you do? Well, fixing it is fodder for another article – maybe next time. Avoiding it altogether is what I would like to cover here. That is always going to be your cheapest route and the route that will cause you and the client the least pain and suffering possible on the project. 

Create a communication plan. I believe every project should have some sort of communication plan in place from the beginning. It doesn't have to be a formal, paid for deliverable on the project. If you're running a small project, it can just be an ongoing, revisable chart that identifies what meetings happen when, who the primary contacts are on the project, and includes all their key contact information. If it's a bigger project, and you want to make it a planning document deliverable (paid for or not), then you can put together a more formal document. I have a template on my site that you can use, but other free templates are readily available just by searching Google. 

Conduct good meetings with follow-up. Meetings are a key information sharing point. Information sharing and getting decisions made quickly are really the only reason to have meetings. So, conducting good, effective, and efficient meetings is critical to project and communication success. But beyond that the information must be accurate and understood by all. So always follow up each meeting with notes to those who attended and to those who should have attended – asking for revisions within 24 hours. Once you have feedback, make any necessary revisions of the meeting notes and resend. The end goal is to ensure that all parties ended the meeting with the same understandings, and everyone is on the same page until next time. 

Involve the team at every angle of the project. Your team is your full set of project resources at your disposal to deliver a successful project. Keeping them informed, on the same page, and aware of the tasks they are assigned to perform is key to project success. A strong focus on communication among the project team is critical. Do this through weekly project team meetings, daily project status communication emails or quick standup meetings, and close each discussion by summarizing to ensure common understandings and expectations for the next brief window of time. 

Keep the customer engaged. One way to keep decision-making happening and information flowing efficiently between delivery team and customer is to keep that project customer well-engaged throughout the project. When you lose that customer for extended periods of time to his other work, that's when you can get stuck interpreting requirements without all info at your disposal and potentially making less than informed decisions for forward progress on the project that the customer could otherwise assist you and the team through. Keep the customer engaged with assigned tasks and pre-defined expectations set. And always be pinging them for participation in weekly project status and review meetings. Be strong and stubborn with the customer...you won't regret it. 

Review, revise, re-distribute. Finally, the three R's. Review, revise and re-distribute. This mainly refers to the project schedule and status reporting. Keeping everyone informed through the project schedule and status updates is a key form of communication that will just automatically increase the likelihood of avoiding those communication missteps and breakdowns that can lead to mis-interpreted requirements, re-work, and missed deadlines. 

Summary / call for input
A communication breakdown can result in all sorts of problems: miscommunicated and mis-interpreted project requirements, re-work, missed deadlines, gold-plating of project work, poorly reviewed project deliverables being handed off to the client, budget overruns and missed timeframes among others. Avoiding these breakdowns needs to be a high priority and following these steps will help you get there.

Readers: what are your thoughts? What do you do to avoid communication shortcomings on the projects you manage?

 

Online 11/19/2021
Brad Egeland
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