Why is effective communication important in project management?

Most project failure statistics will point to some key elements such as lack of properly established requirements or executive stakeholder support. I firmly believe that it boils down to one and one thing only in more than 90% of the cases: lack of effective communication at different levels of the project organization. Let’s look at how impactful we can make our communications to avoid derailing our projects in the future.  

In order to have good communication within our project organization, we must first look at the communication model and clearly understand each person’s role in it. I know, I am bringing you right back down to the basics, but that’s where we need to start to establish a solid baseline.

What is communication?

Communication is the sending and receiving of information between two or more participants. Communication can take on many forms, verbal, written, implied through things like body language and involves a sender and receiver.

The impact of poor communication

When was the last time you confirmed that the intended person of your communication understood what you meant and that they were equipped to make a decision? I would guess that it did not even cross your mind that you had to do this. Without a clear understanding, the receiver cannot act, and this can cause a lot of your communications to go to the “pile.” What’s the pile, it is where not so good messages go to die. Sooner or later the receiver knows that you will need or want something and lets you come back and ask again as the first request was not completed and sits on the “pile.”

This additional loop adds time, frustration and can create some not so healthy patterns between a sender and a receiver. Now imagine that this is the case for most if not all of your communications on your project? Hence why some PMs constantly go: why do I really need to explain myself again? Does anyone know how to do things? Do I have to do everything myself? Do I also have to think for them? So, how do you improve communication to ensure it’s more effective?

The sender’s responsibilities

It is the sender’s responsibility not only to send a message that is clear and not ambiguous to the receiver, but it is also the sender’s duty to ensure that the message was understood. Here’s our first problem. We do not check for understanding. I don’t mean putting a flag on an e-mail that lets us know if the message was opened, here I mean if the message was understood and can be acted upon by the receiver.

The receiver’s responsibilities

From a receiver’s perspective, it is clear that one must allow them to ask questions, and confirm their understanding.

How to improve project communication

Communication tips for senders

  1. When crafting your message think of the message not from your point of view and what you want to get from it, but from your receiving party’s perspective. What can I include to ensure that I get action or traction from this message? What can I not put in that might confuse someone?
  2. Once completed and sent, give it a bit of time (a day or two often does the trick) and follow up on your initial message with a second confirming if the person is still okay with the request and asking if they need anything else to assist them. That closes a loop. Yes, it will take you a bit more time and effort, but it will save you a whole lot of aggravation in the long run – no need to dig from the “pile.”
  3. Don’t make your message close-ended. Allow the receiver to come back and ask if the communications lack content or information they need to process it. Not everyone is at your level of understanding, and it often needs that back and forth to clarify the need.
  4. Another trick around ensuring better returns on your initial communications is to watch for tone. I often find that people who perceive tone or between the line meaning to communication, which is not actually there, will be more reluctant to commit to an answer. Let me give you an example.

Communication tips for receivers

  1. It is always a good idea as the receiver of a message to confirm receipt of the message. This is especially important when the actions required of you will take time. A quick response indicating you received the message can prevent the sender from thinking you did not receive the message or that you are ignoring their request.
  2. Before responding or sending a response to the sender it is always a good idea to re-read the sender’s message from their perspective to ensure you fully understood the message.
  3. If the sender’s message is unclear, the receiver also has a responsibility to ask questions to clarify. Asking questions ensures that the receiver is able to respond or take the necessary actions to effectively meet the sender’s request and reduces the need for back and forth messaging due to misunderstandings.

People often tell me, after having met me in person, that my e-mails are really not representative of me as an individual once they’ve gotten to know me. I tend to be very business-like and to the point in an e-mail which can make the whole message take a tone which I never mean to take. I also will use potentially curt words which leaves people feeling a bit offended.

I truly do not mean it in this way, but it does come out that way. I do know this about myself, and I work hard to stop this, but once in a while, it creeps up. My strategy for years now has been to put the e-mail to “rest” in draft mode and to come back to it in a little while so that I can review it, this time not for content but for tone. I have also used coworkers, friends and family to re-read some of my messages to ensure that the content is without underlying tone and sounds friendly.

A lot of people have this issue when it comes to e-mail. Another way to deal with this is to use other means of communications. E-mail is an easy way out of communications, it is simple, easily accessible but not always the best means of conveying a message. A novelty, try picking up the phone or having a chat over a partition wall… see if these will work better with some people of your team or recipient of your intended communications.

Whatever your communication mode, remember that at the end of the day it is between two people that need to work with one another towards the same goal. Ensuring that that goal is clear goes a long way to getting the work done.

Find more content on Communications in projet management!

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