It's hardly a well-kept secret: Communicating effectively is a central tenet of successful project management. During a recent seminar at Harvard University, 52 executives and managers reinforced this finding in their survey responses about communication skills in managing cross-functional projects. There are four communication best practices that form the foundation of successful project management.
Engage stakeholders. Projects often fail because requirements are poorly defined by uninvolved stakeholders. There is a proven two-step method to engage these stakeholders, all of whom have primary responsibilities other than the project at hand.
First, measure the stress that the new project will bring by examining four areas: a staffer's time away from his primary responsibilities, the degree of the change, the ability to absorb the change and the timing of the change. Second, incorporate into the project plan specific deliverables, tasks and resources to manage this stress. Without these two steps, stakeholders become disengaged and projects suffer.
Show empathy and support. Project sponsors and managers need to realize that all projects bring change -- not all of which is welcome. While some parties will benefit from these shifts, others will face loss of resources and authority. In concert with customers, project sponsors and managers should deploy a plan to minimize the negatives, accentuate the positives and make the transition as painless as possible (also known as the Hawthorne Effect). If you demonstrate genuine interest and concern, most project customers will respond positively.
Provide reporting transparency. Many seminar participants rued the fact that they often receive information about project status too late, when recovery options are few. When communication isn't timely, the process often deteriorates into finger-pointing. The end result: a lack of trust and a tendency to shoot the messenger.
In such an environment, people hide bad news. To achieve transparency in reporting project status, project managers must track and communicate projects' vital signs [see "Is Your Project Alive? Check the Vital Signs," August 2005 issue].
Execute a communication campaign. My experience shows that there is a flurry of communication at the beginning of a project when there is a lot of excitement about doing something new. Team members hold meetings, post banners and exchange high-fives all around. But soon they become too busy to attend meetings or celebrate milestones, and project boredom descends. The next wave of activity happens during project deployment; end users are informed of the new project with only a few days' notice, and all hell breaks loose.
But successful sponsors and project managers follow a different route. They develop a comprehensive communication plan early and make a concerted effort to keep stakeholders informed and engaged at well-defined intervals. Any successful communication plan should have an easy feedback loop, where the various constituents can provide input without jumping through hoops.
During the seminar, several participants reported that while these communication practices are often identified, they are seldom incorporated into IT governance procedures. CIOs should discuss these guidelines with their business colleagues and make them an integral part of the project, program and portfolio management process. The next step is to ensure that your project managers are trained, and key stakeholders are educated, in these important skills.
Gopal K. Kapur is president of the Center for Project Management in San Ramon, Calif., and author of Project Management for Information, Technology, Business and Certification. To comment on this story, email ProjectExpert@ciodecisions.com.