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I’ve lost track of the time I’ve wasted trying to figure out what others mean in their project communications. And, it’s costing someone money. It doesn’t matter whether I bill the time to my client or absorb it. When your employees are wasting time trying to figure out what others mean, it’s time that cannot be directed to more profitable ventures. So how can we get people to focus on creating clear project communications?

I’ve tried multiple approaches; none have been very successful. It’s hard to change people. When others don’t care about proofing emails or thinking ahead about what they’re trying to say, we shouldn’t be surprised when we get unclear project communications. The lack of clarity however could have substantial impacts on your project.

Take this example of a project activity for a non-profit fundraiser: acquire all alcohol for the event. This is often a pretty important activity for fundraisers. People may not care what color your tablecloths are, but they do care if there is nothing to drink that they like. So here are some questions:

  • What kind of alcohol are you serving?
  • Will you want keg beer or craft beer?
  • Do you want a full bar, and what does that mean?
  • Are you including any lesser known alcohol offerings, such as tequila?
  • Are you expected to acquire the mixers?
  • Is there a signature drink for the event?
  • Do you need more smaller bottles (for multiple bars) or fewer larger bottles?

The list could continue.

It’s important to recognize that projects often face a lack of clarity – particularly in the earlier days. This makes it even more important that your communications don’t confuse the matter more.

The first challenge is to know what kind of communications we’re talking about. If you’re talking about the official project plan, and a lack of clarity about what people are supposed to do, you have a huge problem. If you’re talking about written status updates from one person, that’s a different matter.

There is no magic bullet here, but I’d encourage you to focus your team on improving their project communications. Here are a few suggestions.

Use team meetings to discuss and write clear descriptions for work packages.

It is much easier to gain clarity around the issues posed in the alcohol acquisition activity by discussing it in a team meeting. The goal is to really think through all of the questions that will arise before you send someone off to the store, and they come back without the needed drinks, or with the wrong wine selections.

The same is true if you are building a new software feature. Talk through the requirements with your client before you start writing code. Make sure you are challenging the customer to think about the end game.

Hopefully you can begin the project with a clear understanding of what is needed, who will do it, what the quality is, and any critical deadlines. Things may change, but you will have a starting point.

Call a face-to-face team meeting and review some communications that need clarity.

If you’re seeing a pattern of unclear communications, it might help to meet as a team and review the list. Challenge people about what they wrote, and why it’s confusing. Agree as a team that it makes more sense to think about what you are writing from the perspective of others and ask yourself if what you’re writing is clear. This suggestion draws on peer pressure to keep everyone committed to the goal of clear project communications.

When written communications are particularly bad, try to determine the root cause.

Is the problem with typos and/or grammar? It’s hard to make someone spend time proofing work (particularly if they’re incredibly busy) if they aren’t interested in doing so. And the problem is even worse if they are in charge.

Independent contractors may be especially gifted writers, or not. And you may be paying them by the hour. Do you want to pay them extra money to fine-tune their writing, or are you content with less than perfect communications?

Is the problem because the writer is not using his/her native language? I was talking to a friend recently who is working in the medical world, and a new hire from another country was having a rough time trying to keep the file documented with updates that made sense to others. Can a colleague mentor him/her and review the file updates for a while?

Is the problem because the writer doesn’t get to the point? This is a different problem. Some people are circular thinkers. Others are linear thinkers. Some quickly get to the goal line and have to be challenged to fill in the gaps for others. While others never seem to get to the goal line. This may be a situation where a team-building session could be had with a consultant who can help everyone understand other communication styles. Can you focus on the objective of improving project communications as a team rather than focusing on individual weaknesses?

If you want more tips on improving communications, check out this blog on managing project communications.