Great communications are an attribute of great project managers

What makes the difference between a great project manager and an average one? Being a strong communicator could be a contender. Communications is an under valued and under taught skill in the domain of project management. Communication skills’ often gets overlooked in preference to methods competencies or an assumption is made that project managers are by default, good communicators. We all know great project managers who are naturally great communicators but many good project managers could consider upping their communication skills to reach another level of proficiency. For average project managers, or indeed those under performing, looking at communications competencies could be a good area to focus on when targeting areas of personal development. Furthermore, we, as IT leaders, can sometimes ignore the fact that as a soft skill, communications are set of competencies that can be taught to all who practice the dark art of project management.

Project Managers could initially consider three areas when wanting to improve their communication skills: –

1. Plan your communications strategy from the outset

Serious consideration needs to be given not just to the project communication plan but also for the project manager’s personal approach to communication to be followed and adapted during the duration of the project. This will mean far more than producing a cursory and templated list of communication activity included in many initiation documents. Every project will have different communication needs. Even if there is consistency and tenure in projects’ sponsors and end users there may be differences in the beneficiaries and ultimate end users of IT systems and services. There can be a tendency to focus communication on meeting the needs of the project sponsor and project board and this can leave the wider stakeholder community impacted by the project short changed. A possible reason for this is that the methods and templates are primarily designed to be consumed by a project savvy audience. Planning for communications to a wider stakeholder group requires more thought and flexibility in presenting sometimes complex information in a highly simplified and readable form and this can take time and skill.

2. Adapt your approach to communications on a per project basis

Working out communications that are appropriate, relevant and timely to a wide audience is a significant challenge and will undoubtedly require consideration of communication outside of the project organisation structure. Whilst a core part of any communication plan needs to be, by necessity, public and agreed up front, project managers need to think also about their own personal communication strategy and approach on a per project basis. This personal plan needs to include a balance between formal and most importantly the approach to informal communications. A plan that simply lists the frequency of highlight reports and project meetings is dangerously inadequate. Planning needs to include a thorough assessment of the communication channels, which are most effective for the intended target audiences, and the personal preferences of key project personnel. For example, if your sponsor or financer prefers face-to-face meetings then try and accommodate these. Similarly presentations at key project milestones can be effective. I am not arguing for “project by PowerPoint” but a thirty minute presentation to key project stakeholders that summarises a key project stage, such as initiation, will be effective in engaging face to face with a wider project audience. This may also provide the project manager, at an early stage, with a more balanced view of stakeholder influence and attitudes outside of the “steam room” that can be the project board.

3. Communicate appropriately with your entire stakeholder group

A long held theory on the effectiveness of communications holds that good communication is about content, body language and tone. A heavy reliance on communication by email or highlight reports will miss two of these key factors. Project managers should be engaging with key stakeholders in person and or by phone/Skype and informally and on a very regular basis. A reliance on using highlight reports alone as a key communication channel can be unproductive. If key project board members are kept aware of the broad direction of travel of projects and its risks then Product Board meetings can be far more productive by focussing on project issues that really do warrant collective attention. Far too often project boards can involve a step-by-step walk through of highlight reports, which could possibly be avoided if key project personnel were informally briefed on a very frequent basis.

4. Develop questioning and listening skills

This could be contentious but I suggest that (a) Project managers should consider developing their listening and questioning skills to a similar level of competency of a great business analyst and (b) Project managers who have a limited palette of listening questioning skills and technique can unwittingly introduce risk into projects. The best project managers consistently demonstrate incredible sophistication and astuteness in their listening and questioning skills approaching those practiced by the best barristers! Relying on prima facie updates from project team members without verification and validation together with openness, honesty and experienced interpretation, can result in a highly inaccurate picture being drawn by project managers about a project’s health. We all know that there is a lot more to project dynamics, health and outlook than that which is presented in formal project updates. Project managers need to get under the skin of project “behaviours” via continuous engagement with project stakeholders, both in the demand and supply side. It is too easy to see project communications sometimes as a one-way street whereby the project manager is simply aggregating project information absorbed by the project reporting machine rather than demonstrating project knowledge gained from multiple, formal and informal, channels.

5. Set the great communications bar very high during the beginning of the project

A key area of development and practice for project managers in honing their communications skills (and a possible change of approach) is during the project initiation phase. Whether they know it (or even like it) project managers are performing an (business) analytic role in scoping the project. High-level requirements are being phrased at this stage and simply being a conduit and scribe for half formed requirements from hard pressed end users and sponsors is risky. There is also a growing opinion that the initiation phase should include some serious workshop activity in thrashing out project scope and assumptions and I think that Project Managers that want to enhance their skills in listening and questioning should step forwards to facilitate these types of sessions before business analysts are engaged in the projects. I, personally, can’t under estimate this aspect of communication competency for project managers. I also think that this area may explain in part why some business analysts become highly effective and successful project managers without necessarily being project methods aficionados. Great business analysts always exhibit honed listening and questioning skills and this can underpin a successful transition to project management. It is worth project managers including a more formalised programme of soft skills training in this area or at minimum considering shadowing some good business analysts to understand the range of techniques available.

In summary

Communications, if done properly, can significantly increase the chance of overall project success. It can provide a real time and accurate assessment of project heath and can contribute to creating a healthy project culture in which technical prowess can flourish. As a soft skill, communications can be learned and honed even by the most experienced project manager. Improving communications provides an interesting development opportunity that can result in a step change improvement in project managers’ performance. In terms of time spent on communications. I subscribe to the 20/80 rule of successful project management. 20% of project managers time should be spent doing transactional based activities needed to control a project and 80% of project managers time is best spent on transformational type activities associated with leadership and delivery of the project – and communication could be considered the most important.

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