Last week, I introduced my blog on managing project stakeholders with a story about a struggling project that went awry because of stakeholder management problems. One major reason the project struggled was lack of communication. The team had failed to think through a project communication strategy. And while I am using the term stakeholders, we can’t forget that real people, with real feelings, thoughts, interests, strengths, and weaknesses are behind the term.
How will you keep those people informed? Developing project communication strategies early in a project is key. We have so many different ways to communicate now that it has gotten increasingly harder to do so. Email, websites, social media channels, snail mail, newsletters, telephones, chatbots, and collaboration software tools all offer opportunities, but you can’t do it all. Does having more communication channels make it easier or harder to communicate effectively? More and more, I find that people are exhausted by the various communication choices. And social media doesn’t help.
We have to remember that saying something (in whichever medium) is not the same thing as effectively communicating something. People often hear something very different from what we say. We need to ensure the correct message is heard.
In 2016, Dr. Susan Kuehn published her doctoral dissertation, “Exploring U.S. Business Leaders’ Strategies for Enhancing Team Communication,” in which she concluded that businesses are better off from implementing a standardized project communication strategy, building more effective teams, and increasing the emotional intelligence of project leaders. These are all great ideas, but how should businesses go about doing that? In this blog, I’ll outline some recommendations.
Standardize your project communications strategy.
When I built Smart Projex, I was criticized for the way the software dictates certain processes. But by standardizing what people call things – across an entire organization – it improves the communications. The same is true when we standardize what is done in “checkpoint” meetings, “standing meetings,” risk analysis, and budget creation.
Standardizing communication strategies across an organization also streamlines new project discussions. I’m not suggesting that we never re-consider our communication channels, but letting each project select whether it wants to post updates on Slack, Facebook, an Intranet site, or by emailed updates might be unnecessarily complicating your project start process. Should executives simply define some project processes?
Appropriately categorize your project stakeholders.
In last week’s blog, I also mentioned that I, as a pragmatist, opt for grouping stakeholders into logical categories. I tend to categorize my stakeholders into groups: implementation team, outside consulting team, subject matter experts, steering group or executive team, outside counsel, customer(s), advisory, auxiliary, or community. I’m sure there are many ways that you could do this, but the point is to group them in ways so that a clearly defined communication plan for everyone within each group can be developed.
Once you understand your groupings, you can do an impact analysis to better understand the implications of what you’re doing. This should drive the way you communicate with each group of stakeholders.
Understand where your stakeholder problems are.
It’s also important to understand which stakeholders could potentially have the greatest impact on your project, and that can’t be done by groupings. While you will uncover some of this information in your initial stakeholder analysis, it can change as the project gets underway. You need a plan for communicating with sensitive stakeholders, who, for whatever reasons, are more likely to want to derail your project.
Select project resources with high emotional intelligence.
There used to be a popular expression in hiring – You can’t fix stupid. I never particularly liked it, but I often thought it was true. Generally speaking, I think the same thing is true on emotional intelligence (EI). It’s hard to build EI in someone with none. I’m not saying that it can’t be developed. But the interest has to be there, and if you hire jerks, all of the EI training in the world won’t help. So, select people with high emotional intelligence.
Hire people with a growth mindset.
When you are interviewing new employees, ask them what they read on the weekends. Ask them what they do when they run into a word they don’t understand. You need to hire people who are interested in learning.
Get executive agreement on the transparency level that projects should strive for.
I’ve written before about the need to understand what data gets shared with the varying groups of stakeholders. This needs to be part of your communications strategy. To recap what I have said before, a few of the possible questions that executives may confront include:
- In a legal matter: Should the office of general counsel have open access to the matter files that the law firm is maintaining? What cost data details will a law firm want to openly share with its client’s office of general counsel? And, how might these decisions vary from client to client?
- For outside project consultants on a large matter: Who is really managing the project? The in-house team knows the in-house stakeholders and may be in a position to better identify risks. The outside team may have been hired for expertise, and be in a better position to determine how to solve the problems. It takes coordination, but are two or more people really going to be in charge? Is there documentation about who is doing what?
- In a public-private partnership project: How much data does the partnership want to share with the public, who is likely the ultimate client? Is there going to be complete transparency between the governmental group and the private group? Who will manage the software tool that the partnership selects to run the project?
Find a balance between self-managing teams and directed teams.
While I applaud the notion of self-managed teams, particularly in the IT world, there are typically other project factors that require attention. Managing the budget, the communications, and the project risks are examples. Hire project managers that can coach your project teams and let them take on some of these other management needs. Find a sweet spot between teams that can self-manage their work flows and the top-down direction that is typical of Waterfall projects. Build this process into your communications strategy.
Create a plan for keeping your ‘why?’ dead center.
I frequently mention the need for creating a compelling ‘why?’ for your project. It’s essential. But the challenge is to keep the compelling ‘why?’ out in front of your project team so that it isn’t forgotten. Don’t let it get filed in a drawer. Out of sight. Out of mind.
Focus on buy-in.
No matter how many calls you make, emails you send, or displays you put up in some visible place, getting buy-in on the goals, scope (inclusions and exclusions), critical deadlines, activity budgets, and the quality required for each activity is essential. People may not deliberately mean to sabotage your project by working 40 hours more on an activity than was projected. If the activity owner didn’t buy-in to the idea that the activity could be completed in 20 hours, or misunderstood the quality that was needed, your entire project may fall into the red zone before you have noticed.
It’s great to have all of these understandings documented in some clear fashion, but have your team members actually bought in to them?
Standardize your project language.
Do we call them activities, tasks, user stories, or work packages? It will greatly ease project communications if we have a common language. It will make your executive reporting more comparable and meaningful.
Do we call them project sponsors or product owners, project managers or scrum masters? What about issues, risks, and impediments? Can you standardize the language to make communications simpler?
A well-constructed communications plan will vary somewhat from project to project, but some project communication strategies can be standardized across your organization. And that step will save project teams some time, and lead to greater organizational success.
Need some help? Give me a call. Maybe I’ll feature you in a blog.