Communication principles – OPEN

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Topic 4.1: Communication principles

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So how does knowing this make you a better project leader?

Well, for one thing it shows the importance of clarity in communication.

Each of these elements represents a point at which the communication could be distorted or fail.

At all times you should keep your messages simple and easy to understand, staying mindful of the context they exist in and the noise that might disrupt them.

More importantly, being an effective communicator depends as much on your ability to listen as it does on your ability to talk or write.

This is something we will explore in more detail further in this Unit.

Given the constraints on a project manager’s time, their goal should be to communicate as effectively and efficiently with stakeholders as possible.

Effective communication is providing information in the right format, at the right time, and with the right impact.

This does not mean, however, that things only ever need to be communicated once.

Redundancy – the need to repeat and reinforce messages – may be necessary if a message needs to be widely broadcast and/or is highly critical.

Reactively redundant managers pester team members after the event with increasingly irritating messages via the same channel.

For example: once a milestone is missed, the reactively redundant manager begins sending daily emails asking for information.

We all know how annoying this is

Good project leaders are proactively redundant when communicating – they repeat and reinforce key messages using multiple channels in anticipation of an event or requirement.

For example: a phone conversation is followed up with a confirmatory email, and a quick text message to check-in in the lead-up to a deadline.

Efficient communication refers to finding the balance between under- and over-communicating information.

Cast your mind back for a second to the power / interest matrix – what risk do you see in under-communicating (not telling enough) to our highly powerful and interested stakeholders?

Aristotle once stated that nature abhors a vacuum. In physics, this means that nature contains no vacuums because the denser surrounding material would immediately fill the void.

In our setting, this means that the absence of information (under-communication) will often lead to stakeholders making unsupported assumptions and leaping to erroneous conclusions about your project.

They also tend to ‘worst-case’ scenarios, assuming that you would have told them if there was good news.

The related risk with under-communication is that people will not have the information necessary to make good decisions.

As stated earlier, the more assumptions we use to fill our information gaps, the greater the margin of error (or lesser confidence) we will have in our estimates.

Under-communicate at your peril!

If you are unsure where the balance lies, you should always tend towards over-communication; yet over-communication comes with its own risks too.

In this instance, you may be investing resources (time and money) into communicating things people don’t want or need to know – resources that could be better spent on managing other aspects of the project.

Beyond the obvious risk of annoying stakeholders, you also risk making people blind to your important messages – those ones you really need them to act on.

Think about your own inbox… do you read every word of every message your mother sends you three times a day? Has it ever got you in trouble?

Over-communicating information may also risk inviting input and contributions from stakeholders who have no legitimate value to add.

This can result in you doubling again the resources you spend on communication in managing these new expectations.

Err slightly toward over-communication, but don't over-do it!

Did you ever play that game where you each take a turn whispering a message down a line of people and hearing how confused it was at the other end?

Well as a project manager, you should also be aware that the number of potential communication channels or paths is an indicator of the project’s complexity.

There is a mathematical formula for this (where n represents the number of stakeholders):

A project with 10 stakeholders (n=10) has 45 potential communication channels.

A project with 100 stakeholders, on the other hand, has 4,500!

Therefore, as you increase the number of stakeholders, the risk of communication complexity increases exponentially.

Because each of these channels has its own context, noise and constraints to dialogue, a key component of project planning is to determine and limit who will communicate with whom, and who will receive what information.

You do this by setting delegating limits to people’s authority to communicate certain information.

Now some might see this is as a barrier to free speech and the free exchange of ideas; this may actually be counter-productive from an innovation perspective.

Nevertheless, the opportunity for miscommunication to occur within projects is often under-appreciated, and this can distract from the work at hand and frustrate project objectives.

Even free speech has its costs

For that reason, it is vitally important that clear and consistent messages are passed within the team and to external stakeholders, something that is within our ability as a project manager to control.

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