Effective project communication is essential

Great Project Communication Leads to Successful Outcomes

Introduction to Project Communication

Projects are hard enough to manage without issues of poor project communication getting in the way.  I’ve always maintained that project communication is job one for the project manager.  The project manager who fails to communicate effectively, efficiently and confidently on a regular basis with all stakeholders throughout the length of a project engagement is not likely to be successful – nor will the projects that he is charged with managing.  The project manager who fails in project communication loses the confidence and engagement of both his team and his project customer – and we all know that customer satisfaction is one major key to overall project success.

Because project communication is so critical to the success of the project, I’ve dedicated a series of thoughts on common project concepts and tools in relation to project communication to help us all focus on best practices as we try to drive home success and successful ongoing processes on our engagements.

Carrying out the Customer Interface

This is more of a general thought in the entire communication process than any one specific communication strategy.  If you subscribe to the same notion that I do – that the process of effective communication is the single most important thing that a project manager does – then you understand that how we interact with the customer is critical to the overall success of the engagement.

Just as important as the project manager’s communications with the customer are the individual project team members’ communications with that same customer.  The part that becomes hard is that as the project manager you’re responsible for ALL communication, but you can’t always police that which you are not a part of.  Nor do you really want to, but it does all come back to you.

So the questions then become:

  • How do we best interface with the customer?
  • How do we prepare our team to interact with the customer?
  • What actions do we take to oversee all communication?
  • What do we do when the communication goes wrong?

Project to customer interface

The primary function here is to practice frequent and effective communication with the customer.  Most of this done through the creation of informative and accurate weekly material: status reports, project schedules, issues and risks tracking sheets, status calls, and status call notes among other things.

But even the informal communication with the customer is important and must be done with care.  Always be above board with the customer, but also always be above reproach.  You never want to spread gossip, give inside information that is not appropriate, or speak poorly of your team, your company, the project, or customer personnel.  Always maintain a very high-level of professionalism.  It’s ok to be familiar with the customer, but don’t let your guard down … they’re still the customer.

Prepare the team

At the beginning of the engagement set the ground roles for the team in their communications with the customer.  Coach them on professionalism, the methods that are acceptable, and what communication approaches to use in different situations.

One more thing – in this age of social media – be sure to make it clear that no discussions with or about the customer should happen on Facebook, Twitter or any other social media space.  During the project that is too familiar and potentially unprofessional.  And once it’s out there, it’s there forever.

Overseeing the communication process

This one isn’t easy because communication is happening all the time and you can’t oversee everything.  Make it clear to the team that decisions need to involve you and most decisions need to come from you.  In fact, all official project communication needs to come from you.  However, you don’t want to slow progress, so ask that you be cc’d on all important project communication that doesn’t require your immediate attention.  Stay in the loop because when things are moving fast on a project, once you are out of the loop it’s hard to fix what might go wrong.

Fixing the mess

This is exactly where you hoped not to be, but it happens.  And you may have a mess to clean up or fix.  Go back to the effective communication and the practice of full disclosure with the customer.  Making them part of the solution rather than keeping them uniformed is almost always the best way to go.

And for project communication that gets out of hand … that’s another problem.  First, go to the source.  If it’s your team member, then discuss the communication issue with them and understand their side of the story.  Then take it to the customer together.  Working with the customer and the team to proactively correct a communication problem or misunderstanding will show that you are involved and the problem is being addressed.  This will go a long way in maintaining customer satisfaction and confidence.

Project Communication (Customer Interface Summary)

Communication happens throughout the engagement and without effective communication a lot can go wrong on your projects.  Poorly communicating one important requirement can cost tens of thousands of dollars – more if your project is huge.  It’s critical that the project manager is in charge of all communication, preps the team on effective communication and keeps the customer as well informed as possible in order to help ensure a successful project.


Conducting Meaningful Meetings

On projects, meetings are usually one of the three primary methods of project communication.  The other two are emails and phone calls.  Given that, conducting high-quality and efficient meetings is important not only to continued project success but also to team member productivity.  No one likes to waste time – and often on highly visible, mission-critical projects the project manager can ill afford to waste anyone’s time, let alone their own.

Conducting productive meetings

Meetings can be a very effective way to conduct business. They bring people together for a relatively short amount of time so that large amounts of information can be shared. As mentioned several times previously, you should conduct core team meetings regularly to promote a steady flow of information to and from team members. But you’ll find that there are many other times when you may need to call for a meeting. Meetings are a critical form of communication.

Unfortunately, many people view meetings unfavorably, in part because they feel that there are too many meetings and most are poorly run, so it can be a struggle to get people to attend. If you develop a reputation for running effective, no-nonsense meetings, you increase your chances of consistently getting team members there to conduct business. Understanding when to call a meeting and learning how to run one are key skills that do not get sufficient attention in many organizations.  Here are some tips about calling and conducting meetings – core team meetings as well as general meetings.  Determine whether a meeting is even required. You can avoid being viewed as “meeting-happy” if you follow these basic guidelines:

  • Don’t call a meeting if a series of phone calls will serve the purpose.
  • Don’t call a meeting to decide something that you can or should decide.
  • Don’t call regular team meetings any more frequently than necessary.
  • Don’t call a meeting if you’re reasonably certain there’s nothing new to discuss.
  • Don’t prolong a meeting if the group is through conducting the business at hand.

One clarification – don’t regularly cancel ongoing recurring scheduled meetings.  In the case of recurring (example: weekly team or customer meetings), they should still be held even if they are brief.  If you start to cancel regularly recurring meetings, your attendance will start to drop as your planned attendees will start to think that your meetings are not required or important. Be clear on the purpose of the meeting. Being clear on the objective of the meeting will sharpen its focus and therefore improve efficiency. Here are the basic meeting types and their purpose:

Progress – to assess status and accomplishments and to set more goals
Decision – to develop and agree upon a decision
Agreement – to present a case on a decision and seek collective acceptance
Information – to communicate information or decisions that have been made
Opinion – to collect viewpoints and perspectives from participants
Instruction – to provide direction, enhance knowledge, or teach a skill
Review – to analyze some aspect of the project, such as design

Project Communication (Meeting Summary)

Meetings are a key piece to the overall project communication process.  But they must be meaningful meetings – not time wasters.  Attendance and productivity will remain high if you have a reputation for conducting important, meaningful and effective meetings.  Following these topics discussed in this section will help get you there.

Communication Skills for Project Leadership

I’ve long talked about the need for the project manager to be an effective communicator.  I’ve professed that I believe it is the single most important characteristic of the project manager – their #1 skill.  If a person is not an effective communicator, I simply don’t see how they could possibly hope to make it as a project manager.

Developing the skills needed to effectively communicate takes time, practice, and feedback.  Here is a list of important communication abilities seen in successful project managers:

  • Ability to express themselves effectively in conversations with organizational management
  • Ability to express themselves effectively in conversations with peers and team members
  • Ability to express themselves effectively in conversations with subordinates and support personnel
  • Ability to speak naturally in front of a large group
  • Ability to prepare and deliver formal presentations
  • Ability to speak “off the cuff” effectively
  • Ability to negotiate
  • Ability to write clear and concise notes and memos
  • Ability to write technical reports and other technical material
  • Ability to listen effectively
  • Ability to know when to talk and when to be quiet
  • Ability to provide constructive feedback
  • Ability to foster open communication
  • Ability to correct others tactfully
  • Ability to gauge whether a receiver understands a message or not
  • Ability to use vocabulary appropriate to the audience
  • Ability to interpret nonverbal communication
  • Ability to project poise and self-confidence

One of the most important ways to improve your skills is to get into the habit of monitoring and critiquing your communication style continuously, asking yourself key questions, such as the following:

In interactive conversations:

  • Do I speak clearly and at the right speed?
  • Do I enunciate?
  • Do I project my voice appropriately (not too loud or too soft)?
  • Do I offer others sufficient opportunity to respond?

In oral communication:

  • Do I speak with confidence?
  • Do I have any distracting mannerisms?
  • Do I offer sufficient opportunity for reactions or questions?
  • Do I use media appropriately?

In written correspondence:

  • Is my choice of words clear and unambiguous?
  • Does the message flow in a way that others can easily follow my train of thought?
  • Do I avoid the use of slang and colloquialisms?
  • Do I use correct grammar?

It is ok to look to your project teams and even your customers for feedback on your communication abilities and style.  Look at it as your own personal lessons learned at the end of a project.  Give them a chance to critique you and do it with confidence.  You led the project and what they tell you can only help you to be a better project manager on future engagements.

The Project Schedule as a Project Communication Tool

The project schedule is so important to tracking the overall status of the project. It is such a critical part of any project so be sure you utilize it to the fullest extent with all tasks, resources, hours, dollars, etc. loaded into the schedule. You can then use it to enter or update tasks and dependencies weekly with revised percent complete information.  It’s all tracking, it’s all project communication, and it’s all good.

Along with the status call and the status report, the project schedule is a form of communication that needs to happen on a regular basis every week.  Just like team meetings and customer meetings that become irregular, if you stop producing updates to the project schedule and delivering them to you team and your customer, they’ll never feel confident that they know the current status of the project.  They won’t know if what you’re delivering to them is accurate and current, from last week, or just a best guess.

In the project kickoff meeting or during planning sessions on the project, you hopefully set team and customer expectations on the communication aspects of the project.  Hopefully, you even produced some semblance of a Communication Plan that documents when you’ve agreed to produce regular communication documents and hold specific meetings.  The key is to adhere to those as much as possible throughout the project.

By doing what you said you would do, by adhering to the plans and schedules that were documented and agreed to with the customer early in the project, you build a huge amount of trust and confidence with the customer in your abilities to manage their project and to be reliable.  So, back to the project schedule.  There is an incredible amount of detail in that schedule if you are using it to its maximum potential.  By producing regular updates and delivering it at the same time every week, you build confidence in your team, your customer, and your company leadership that you know what is happening on your project and that you are in control.

Here are my suggestions for using the project schedule during a normal project week:

  • Review notes from last week’s project status meeting and update the project schedule accordingly
  • Have an internal team status call (do this weekly on the same day every week)
  • Use the team information on task updates, issues, etc. to revise the project schedule.
  • Deliver a revised project schedule with the weekly status report at the same time every week – preferably about one day in advance of the weekly status call with the customer.
  • Hold the weekly status call and use the project status report and the project schedule as drivers for the communication on the call

Project Communication (Project Schedule Summary)

Having an up-to-date project schedule in the hands of your team and customer every week in advance of the project status call can definitely help your status call be more productive.  And your customer will have solid confidence in you that you and your team are on top of things and in control of the project. 

The Project Status Report as a Project Communication Tool

There is no question that the project status report is a key tool in the management of the project.  And, therefore, it is also a key communication tool on the project – something you will use as a communication tool throughout an entire project engagement.  Because it is something that is produced weekly, contains up-to-date status, and drives the weekly status call with the team and customer (at least in my methodology it does!), it is one of the most critical pieces to your project management puzzle.  Skipping it or slacking on its information is really not an option.

If you share my belief that the project status report should drive the weekly status call, then all relevant project status information should be included.  In fact, look at the status report as something that you – the project manager – could produce and give to just about anyone and they could then drive the project status meeting.  This serves two purposes:

  • It allows you to miss a meeting if you have an emergency or another project needs your attention
  • It gives you something that you can hand to your senior leadership at any given time and say “here is the current status (within days) of ‘x’ project”

Given that, then at a minimum, the project status report should contain the following:

  • Project title. Self-explanatory, but follow whatever format your organization requires while still making it obvious to you, your team, and your customer what project it is.
  • Project description. Be brief but include enough information so that senior leadership on either side of the project will have a general idea of what the project is about.  Remember, you want to be able to give this to your CEO periodically and have it be meaningful to them.  Don’t assume anything.
  • Contact information for key project personnel. This is important mainly for the project team members.  Quick and easy access to contact info for all major players on both project teams can be critical – you don’t want individuals to have to search too long for this type of information.
  • Quick view high-level status on project, budget, and schedule. This is another critical piece of information for the PMO Director, your CEO, other senior leadership, and your customer’s project sponsor or senior leadership.  Executives like dashboards – give them a place in the report to go to for a Green/Yellow/Red quick status view with some minimal text to back it up.
  • Recent tasks completed. Identify completed tasks for at least the past reporting period – which should be the past week.
  • Tasks in progress. Show detail information on the tasks that are currently underway so everyone knows what they should be working on and when it’s due.
  • Upcoming tasks. I like to show upcoming tasks for a four-week window broken out week-by-week.  This gives everyone on both teams a heads-up on what is happening in the next month and who’s responsible for each of the tasks.
  • Status of all change requests. Keeping a running status of all change requests – both completed and in-progress – is important information for the customer and your senior leadership.

Additional information that can be included:

  • Detailed budget status. Showing detailed budget information – including forecast information for the project – keeps everyone informed and ensures that they budget will never get too far off track before everyone sees it and it becomes a discussion point.
  • Issues status. You can track all issues separately or as part of the status report.  If you include it on the status report it makes it harder to skip the discussion of this key piece of information.
  • Risks status. Same as issues status.  Track it either way, but be sure it’s tracked and discussed often.

Status Report Summary

The project status report should be the one document you can hold up and say, here is my project and what’s going on right now.  The project schedule is great and also a must-have, but not everyone likes to read a project schedule – some customers are even very averse to reading one, but no one turns away a good, detailed status report.  Plus, regularly producing a detailed status report will keep your customer confident that you are in control and know the status of the project at any given point.

Final Thoughts on Project Communication

I simply cannot stress enough that communication truly is job one for the project manager.  If you cannot pull off the communication aspect – if you can’t lead meetings, stand up in front of 30 executives, key stakeholders and others who care about the project in hand and lead a kickoff meeting for the project you are leading, and if you cannot control formal meetings on a weekly basis by taking control and communicating efficiently and effectively, then you need not apply.

How you communicate with your team, with your customers, with 3rd party vendors and with your own executive management within the organization will help define your success (or failure).  If you can do that, you can be successful as a project manager.  Do it consistently and you can be a consistent success.  That’s where the successful project managers evolve from…and that’s where you want to be.


How should a Project Manager best interface with the customer?

The primary function here is to practice frequent and effective communication with the customer. Most of this done through the creation of informative and accurate weekly material: status reports, project schedules, issues and risks tracking sheets, status calls, and status call notes among other things.

How should a Project Manager prepare their team to interact with the customer?

At the beginning of the engagement set the ground roles for the team in their communications with the customer. Coach them on professionalism, the methods that are acceptable, and what communication approaches to use in different situations.

Why are project meetings important?

Meetings can be a very effective way to conduct business. They bring people together for a relatively short amount of time so that large amounts of information can be shared. As mentioned several times previously, you should conduct core team meetings regularly to promote a steady flow of information to and from team members.

What are important communication skills for Project Managers?

The ability to express themselves effectively with organizational management, peers and team members; the ability to speak naturally in front of a large group and deliver formal presentations; ability to negotiate; write clear and concise notes and memos, technical reports and other technical material; listening effectively; knowing when to talk and when to be quiet; providing constructive feedback; fostering open communication; and the ability to interpret nonverbal communication.

Why are project status reports important?

Status reports are a critical communication tool used throughout the project lifecycle. It is something that is produced weekly, contains up-to-date status, and drives the weekly status call with the team and the customer.