It’s hard to overstate the importance of communications on a project. If you simply let your team know what needs to be done by when, they will find ways to get it done. Of course, project communications go beyond the immediate team. In order to effectively implement changes you’ll need to keep others informed as well. It’s human nature to guess what is going to happen. When people don’t know what’s going on, they make up stories about what they think is happening. Then they share them with their friends and co-workers as a means of validating their stories. Simply put, if you don’t proactively provide information you will lose control of the information and spend twice as much time dispelling rumors.
Building a Simple Communications Plan
Like many aspects of project management, communications planning can be very complicated and time consuming. Projects with significant impacts outside the performing organization, such as launching a new consumer product, may require an entire marketing campaign. Fortunately, most projects can do well with a simple communications plan. Better to have a simple, methodical plan that’s followed than a complex plan that can’t be implemented.
To build a simple, effective communications plan you’ll need to ask yourself five questions:
- What do my stakeholders need to know?
- Who needs to be informed?
- Why do I need to communicate with each stakeholder?
- When do I need to communicate with each stakeholder?
- How can I most effectively communicate each message?
When you generate a list of what needs to be communicated, it will help you determine to whom you need to communicate. Answering the question about to whom you need to communicate will often point to other messages that would be helpful. When you think about why you need to communicate a particular topic you may realize there are more people who will want to know about that topic. Because the answers to these questions are so interconnected, start by answering the first three questions: what, who, and why and then review the questions again.
What to Communicate?
The “whats” to communicate will vary from one project to the next, but there are lots of “whats” that are important for most projects. Here are some example “whats” that are common to many projects.
- Status Updates
- Open Issues
- Project Risks
- Task Assignments
- Project Schedule Updates
- Customer or End User Impacts
- Budget Updates
- Expected Project Benefits
To Whom Will You Communicate?
If you’ve already identified and analyzed your stakeholders, that’s a great place to start when answering the question of who will receive the project communications. Some typical communication recipients are:
- Project Sponsor
- Customer or End User Representatives
- Project Team Members
- Steering Committee Members
- Department Representatives (IT, Finance, HR, etc.)
After you’ve decided what you need to communicate, it often becomes obvious who will benefit from each communication. The reverse is also true. Try running through the list of key stakeholders and asking “What would this person (or group) want to know about the project?”
Why Are You Communicating?
For each of the intended communications, ask yourself why it is important. What are you trying to convey with each planned communication? Is it simply an update or is there some action the recipients will need to take? Asking why will help keep your messages focused and on target.
When to Communicate?
Once you’ve generated a solid list of topics that need to be communicated and you understand to whom each message will be delivered and why, you should be able to answer the question of when the communication should be sent. Generally the “whens” come in three different categories: one-time communications, recurring communications and exceptions.
One-Time communications are messages that need to be delivered at a specific time in the project. They tend to be tied directly to project deliverables, milestones and activities. Some examples are project kick off meetings, notifications of planned system downtime, messages about procurement activities, and customer notification of changes.
Recurring communications tend to be delivered on a specific, routine time frame, such as weekly, monthly or at the end of each phase of a project. Recurring communications are normally status updates, performance reviews, or reminders of upcoming project activities. Some example recurring communications are rolling schedule look-aheads, routine reviews of open issues, and regular status reports.
Exception communications go out when things aren’t going as planned. Because these communications deal with unplanned activities they can be hard to anticipate. Despite that, it is a great exercise to talk with key stakeholders early in a project to understand under what conditions they would like to be notified of project variances.
How to Communicate?
With a list of what needs to be communicated, to whom, why, and when, you can decide the best method of communication. These are sometimes referred to as communication channels. Here are some of the basic communication channels that appear in communication plans:
- Phone Call / Teleconference
- Web Conference
- Face to Face Meeting
- Written Report
Selecting the right channel for your audience and your message can make it much more effective. E-Mail is a great choice for simple messages distributed to large numbers of recipients. Written reports are fine for some recurring updates, such as status reports. Phone calls are a good choice when a subtle or important message needs to be conveyed to a small number of people. Face to face meetings are appropriate when bad news needs to be delivered or key decisions must be made.
To keep your communications plan simple but effective, build a table that answers all five questions outlined above. Each row of the table identifies a message or topic to be communicated. By having columns that prompt the questions what, who, why, how, and when you’ll be able to build a simple but complete plan that fits on one or two pages of paper.
To make your plan really successfully tie the communications activities into your schedule and track them as closely as any other project task. Doing so will drive a methodical approach to regularly communicating with the people who need to know.
The Impact Makers Difference
In June Impact Makers will host a seminar introducing clients, professional associates, and friends to Agile management and Kanban. We are happy to be partnering with Daniel Vacanti to offer this seminar. Mr. Vacanti is an Associate at David J. Anderson and Associates, the organization that developed Kanban! Sign up for our email list to receive more information.