Four Essential Criteria for a Project Manager’s Communication Plan

Successful Business MeetingOf course, communicating with stakeholders is important in managing projects – and the statistics prove it. But it’s not really the communication you do that matters. It’s what you get back from the stakeholders that makes the difference.

Statistics can, of course, lie…but the number of statistics that show a co-relation between communication and project management are enormous. In organizations that are considered highly effective at communicating projects are 60% more likely to meet their goals.  According to a Project Management Institute white paper, projects with effective communicators as leaders are 60% more likely to be within budget and almost twice as likely to be on time.

Let me repeat that last statistic: Communication doubles your chances of success in meeting schedule.

As you might expect from those statistics, Learning Tree’s course on building high performance teams has a section specifically about overcoming communication barriers; Learning Tree’s Project Management Professional (PMP) exam preparation course devotes a section to efficiently communicating with stakeholders as part of mapping to the PMP Body of Knowledge.

What these statistics don’t describe (and the courses do) is why communication has this impact. The “why” is that communicating elicits feedback: When you communicate out to your stakeholders then your stakeholders communicate back to you. That feedback gives you two resources that you won’t otherwise get:

  • Proactive problem solving
  • Improved criteria for success

The nature of that information you get back tells you a lot about how you need to structure your communication with stakeholders in order to get the feedback you need.

How to Develop a Communication Plan Using Feedback

Every one of your stakeholders has a different view on the project’s potential problems and, thanks to their background, a different set of tools for creating solutions to those problems. If you structure your communication correctly then the feedback from your stakeholders will identify issues you hadn’t considered. At the very least, that gives you a chance to proactively address those issues. Often stakeholders will suggest solutions as part of their feedback; when stakeholders don’t include solutions in their feedback, they are usually delighted to be consulted as part of developing a solution.

Back when I was production manager working in a theatre company located in a university the custodial staff became my bestest friends. When I needed to anything with the physical plant (moving large set pieces from the workshop to the theatre, for instance), those guys knew everything about traffic flow, congestion, and peak activity periods. They also knew how to deal with those problems by leveraging knowledge that applied only to that university. Who knew that the hallways I needed would be emptiest from 9:15am to 10:15am? They did.

When it comes to a successful project, the only criteria for success is that the project meet the goals of its stakeholders. As part of the feedback you’ll be getting from your stakeholders, you’ll find indicators about what each stakeholder counts as “success.” Paying attention to the feedback you get from stakeholders over the life of the project will tell you how to frame the success of your project.

I worked with one department manager who many regarded as a problem to deal with. I gradually realized that she spent much of her time worrying about what the rest of her team was up to. For her, a project’s success really consisted of “always knowing what was going on” – the actual output of the project was almost secondary to her. I created successful projects for her by calling or emailing her frequently just to let her know “what was up.” In her case, the communication plan was the project’s success.

Four Criteria for Gaining Useful Feedback

If feedback is the critical output of your communication plan then, to get useful feedback, your communications plan must meet four critical criteria:

  1. Include all of the stakeholders
  2. Provide the stakeholders with all (and only) the information they want, in the format they want
  3. Provide the information early – before they stakeholders ask for it
  4. Be forward looking

Including all of the stakeholders ensures that you get a wide variety of input. If you fail to include all of the stakeholders then you’re restricting the guidance you could get. Ignoring stakeholders also increases your opportunity for failure by not meeting some stakeholders’ criteria for success. When making up your list of stakeholders you will communicate with, you need to ask two questions: Who might have information that will be useful to you? Whose goals do you need to meet for your project to be considered a success?

Providing stakeholders with the information they need enables your stakeholders to give you the feedback you need. Unfortunately, if you provide your stakeholders with information they don’t need then your stakeholders will start ignoring your reports (your stakeholders are just as busy as you are and don’t have time to look for what’s important to them). Further, if the information you provide isn’t in a format your stakeholders can use then you might as well not provide it at all: Some stakeholders will want a Gantt chart; some will want an Excel spreadsheet they can manipulate; some will want a list of upcoming tasks. It’s your job to provide each stakeholder with the information that will allow them to provide the feedback you need; It’s also your job to provide that information in a way the stakeholder can use it. One size definitely does not fit all.

You can’t provide information to your stakeholders too early. Think of all the times that, after something has gone horribly wrong, one of your stakeholders gave you the information that would have prevented the problem. For stakeholder feedback to be useful to you then you need to get that feedback early enough to use it. In order to get the feedback early enough to be useful, you need to get information to your stakeholders as soon as possible. To put it another way: You want to avoid ever having to say “If someone had told me that before…” again.

Finally, your communication must be forward looking so that stakeholders can be proactive on your behalf. If all you do is review past activities and don’t tell your stakeholders what you’re doing next then your stakeholders can’t give you feedback you can use as your project advances. Status reports won’t get you what you need.

Communication in project management is essential…but not because it’s important to your stakeholders. Communication matters because it gets you the feedback that you need to execute your project plan successfully. To do that, you need to communicate with everyone, communicate in a format that each stakeholder needs, communicate early, and let stakeholders know what’s coming. If you do that then those statistics I mentioned at the start will be your project’s statistics.

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