It’s easy to build a communications plan and think the job’s done. You may get a tick in the box from the project auditors but executing the plan effectively is key to a successful outcome. Poor communication is cited as one of the most common factors contributing to projects that fail to deliver.
The key to good communication is combining effective delivery with good message management. Take the time to understand the specific needs and interests of each stakeholder and tailor the communication accordingly.
The consequences can make all the difference to your project. At a leading world-wide hotels group the project team didn’t put a lot of resource into communication because they knew they were doing a good job and felt the results would speak for themselves. Seven months in, the project was canned by the board because stakeholders didn’t believe it would be successful. Perception, as they say, is reality.
Making the effort isn’t enough in its own right – getting the message right is critical. At a heavyweight pensions and investments company a project team were integrating systems across three divisions. Recognising the cross border nature of the project they invested heavily in communications activities. Methods were agreed, accountabilities placed, communications carried out rigorously. The problem was that the message they were giving out was not seen positively by two of the three divisions. They tried to get the project shut down and after a series of torpedoes, they were successful.
On the other hand, we’ve come across project managers who are great communicators but have been unable to manage and deliver a project. One global investment company had an overseas project running for 21 months without any commitment to a deliverable or any value being generated!
Top 10 tips for effective project communication
1. When setting up the project team see if you can secure some resource from your company’s comms professionals – most organisations have a PR or internal comms team and it helps to make them part of the team from the outset. If they cannot supply any resource to the project team, get their advice on the overall comms approach and input to your comms plan.
2. Define clearly who is accountable for communications (if you don’t happen to have a dedicated comms person on board then responsibility generally sits with the project manager) and be explicit about the nature of the responsibility and the success criteria against which performance will be judged.
3. Although one person needs to take overall accountability, it’s also important to co-opt all members of the project team as project ambassadors with a remit to continually promote the project to their personal networks and to keep people up to speed. You can provide them with tools to support this such as summary cards with key messages to help them get across the key points quickly and effectively.
4. There are two types of communication: general communication to keep the broader organisation aware and positive about the project, and specific communication to targeted audiences with more detailed messages about how the project will affect them. Most of your resources will go on the latter. This has to be two-way communication with opportunity for the relevant stakeholder groups to give input and feedback, otherwise they will feel ‘talked at’ and disenfranchised.
5. Establish upfront the key messages about the goals and benefits of the project and reiterate these in all communication so that every update is put in context and reminds people of the relevance to the business.
6. Never use project jargon in communication to people outside of the project team, it will confuse and alienate them.
7. Keep all communication short: remember, your project is very important to you but just one of 1,000 things going on for your audience.
8. Be honest: if your project suffers problems don’t just go to ground or try to bluff it out – the rumour mill will go into overload and you will lose control and credibility. Stay in touch and explain the issues, what you’re doing to fix them and what the impact will be.
9. Use all of the comms channels you possibly can: from posters, intranet sites, email updates, newsletter articles and public briefings for general communication; to tailored briefings, guest spots at team meetings, regular 1-1 updates, Q&A sessions and so on for communication to specific audiences. Use your imagination: for example, if you need to raise the profile of your project you could consider tactics like giving out short information flyers alongside cakes with the project name iced on them for a memorable impact.
10. Keep communicating even in quiet phases of the project when there isn’t much to report, to reiterate that you are on track. If people don’t hear from you they will either forget about your project or get their news from ill-informed hearsay. Don’t give them the chance!