Communication: Fundamental to Project Success

Communication is the glue holding a project together. Consistent sharing of information can reduce role confusion, meandering project scope, and unforeseen challenges-all the typical hazards encountered by work teams.

Negotiating the Charter

The first major communication is the negotiated charter, outlining the project's goals, stakeholders and responsibilities, major milestones, budget and timeline. No undertaking should be officially launched before this "contract" has been approved by decision makers. When scope creep threatens the project-as it will-the charter serves as a reference point so that conscious decisions can be made about whether or not to change course and to ensure that implications for the schedule and budget are carefully considered.

Weekly Updates

Once stakeholders have a clear understanding of where the project is headed, weekly updates should be circulated to help keep it on track. The point is to apprise affected parties of both progress and obstacles in weekly status reports. These reports should include the following details concerning the previous week's activities:

  • On-schedule accomplishments
  • Unexpected events and the impact on milestones
  • Actions or decisions needed to remain on schedule

Color-coding the report as red (danger), yellow (approaching danger) or green (on course) is a quick means of informing recipients about the current situation.

Such "persistent and consistent" communication will fuel team-wide problem-solving and avoid delays. It will also shape management expectations, setting the stage for recommendations or requests for support as unanticipated roadblocks are encountered.

Remember not to depend solely on scheduled communications. Use your judgment to determine when an issue can't wait for a weekly meeting or status report. Pick up the phone, walk down the hall or send an email alerting the right players that a timely action is required.

From "Uh-Oh" to Conscious Decisions

A yellow color-coded status report signals the need for separate meetings to assess why the project is going off course. First gather the team to review the current situation, brainstorm possible solutions and to agree on the options to be presented to management.   Upon hearing the team's evaluation of the situation and recommended actions, executives may have additional insights. It may become necessary to adjust the previously agreed upon scope outlined in the project charter. What's important is that all affected parties share an understanding of any change in project direction and the implications for the schedule and budget.

Remember to Motivate

Project managers should also be cheerleaders, motivating colleagues when things get tough. Celebrate successes as they take place, and let management know when a team member makes an outstanding contribution. High morale spurs productivity.

On the other hand, if any individual isn't meeting deadlines and appears unfazed by peer pressure, it's time for a one-on-one discussion. Find out what's hampering performance and be available for coaching. If necessary, be prepared to reassign responsibilities.

From Theory to Practice

We recently trained a group of "part-time" project managersat an engineering firm. Some of their projects, which involved new product development that was key to entering new markets, had languished for a year. Some of the projects seemed too daunting to start, others lost momentum over time.

We focused on how to kick off projects, breaking them into manageable pieces, imagining the challenges, then brainstorming upfront contingency plans (see "Better Planning Can Improve Project Efficiency"). Next, we focused on standardized project documentation and the importance of consistent communication.

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