2 March, 2020

How to Get Project Communications Management Right… Every Time

‘Project Management is 80 percent Communication’ is something we hear a lot. If it’s true, this puts Project Communications Management at the heart of your PM practice.

And, I do think there is a lot of truth in that saying. As a result, project communications and stakeholder engagement are critical skills. We already have a big guide to stakeholder management. So, here is our survey of everything you need to know about Project Communications Management.

Introduction to Project Communications Management

This topic covers every aspect of the process of communicating on your projects. But we do have to be mindful about the potential for overlap with Stakeholder Engagement. Because that too involves communication.

For me, the best way to illustrate this overlap is graphically…

Overlap Between Project Communication Management and Project Stakeholder Engagement

The Three Components of Project Communications Management

The illustration above also picks up on one of the key factors of project communication. It has three components. That is, three primary audience groups:

  1. Your Project Team
  2. The Governance Tiers of your Project
  3. The Project’s Stakeholders
    (both internal and external to your organization)

As a Project Manager, you need to ensure that you, and the project in the round, communicate effectively with all of these three constituencies.

How the Big Three PM Organizations Handle Communications in their Guides

As I always do, I have looked at how the three main proponents of a predictive project management approach handle Project Communications Management. And, in this case, the conclusion is simple to draw, and stark.

The topic of project communications is where PMI’s Project Management Body of Knowledge (the PMBOK Guide) shines out.

  1. Project Management Institute’s PMBOK Guide
    The 6th Edition PMBOK Guide has Project Communications Management as one of its 10 Knowledge Areas. And so it treats the topic in much the same way as, for example, Risk Management, Cost Management, and Scope Management. The content is solid, though uninspiring. It’s just right for a basic level of understanding.
    Buy the PMBOK Guide, 6th Edition
  2. Association for Project Management’s APM Body of Knowledge
    If you’ve read our full review of the APMBoK, you’ll not be surprised to learn that coverage is light. But it’s also sophisticated and sign-posts readers to useful reading. That’s how the APMBoK works, so it also covers Communications Management in much the same way as it covers Risk, Cost, and Scope Management.
    Buy the APM Body of Knowledge, 7th Edition
  3. Axelos’s Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2
    This is the one that disappoints. Communication does not feature as any of the 7 Principles, Themes, or Processes of PRINCE2. So, the content on this topic is thin. This surprises me, because of the importance of good communication in the governance process.
    Buy Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2, 2017 Edition

Project Communications and Project Governance

Why do I say above that good communication is important in the governance process? Because it is through communication – and largely, formal and informal project reporting – that:

  • Decision-makers access the information they need to make sound decisions
  • The project remains transparent, which is important for good oversight and ethical behaviors
  • You create an audit trail that allows effective project assurance and a demonstration of sound process

What we Will Cover in this Guide to Project Communications Management

So, with the introduction out of the way, here’s what we will cover in this article:

Principles of Project Communication

The PMBOK Guide suggests that there are two parts to successful communication. I’ll add a third and note that this is equally important and separate from the others. Indeed, the PMBOK Guide recognizes this, with the third of its three Project Communications Management processes:

  1. Communication Strategy
    Plan how you’ll achieve the communication you need.
  2. Communicating
    The actions you need to take to get your message across.
  3. Reviewing the feedback you get
    So you can adapt your approach and try something different, if your communication is not successful.

What Makes Good Project Communication?

The principal criterion for good communication – anywhere – is a good match between the:

  • Message and Medium on the one hand, and
  • Target and Context on the other

We’ll come back to the topic of tailoring your project communication process to the type of project, towards the end of this article. Here, I want to recognize the organizational and wider context of your project.

Organizational influences

Organizations have a culture of their own. This is a mixture of the informal styles that prevail and the formal requirements and policies in place. And on to of all of that will emerge a constantly changing political environment. The best communication takes all of this into account. And it delivers a style that does not just gets the message across effectively. But it does so in a way that leaves everyone confident in the integrity and competence of the project team.

Wider cultural influence

You also need to be increasingly mindful that people on and around your project will come from a variety of cultural heritages. In an earlier article, Project manager and cross-cultural leadership expert, Samad Aidane wrote about:

‘What does Cross-cultural Leadership Mean for Project Managers?’

Face-to-Face Beats Any other Form of Communication

Clearly, face-to-face communication, in a shared language, is best. But it’s not always possible, and there are alternatives:

  • Remote in-person
    – phone, teleconference, web-call (Skype, Zoom, etc)
  • Written
    – text, illustrations, numerical, tabular
  • Combined
    – for example, chat streams like Slack

There are plenty of technologies to support all of these. But, we don’t need to cover them here.

Communicating with Remote Project Teams

And neither is there space to cover the wider challenges of communicating with a remote team. So, here’s another article you may like to bookmark. It covers some of the challenges of communication when your team is geographically dispersed. That article is ‘Managing Remote Teams: How to Meet the Challenges’.

The Right Level of Formality

Part of your social and political calculation will always be the right level of formality to optimize the impact and efficacy of your communication. This can range from:

  • Informal, via
  • Formal, to
  • Official – and therefore regulated by policy or law

In all of these, there are a number of considerations, beyond the message itself and the medium you use. These are the meta-messages that carry information at a political and psychological level. Examples include the:

  • Tone you convey
    The tone of voice – either oral or written – conveys subtle levels of assertiveness, for example.
  • Choice of words
    Different words can mean much the same thing but the choice you make carries implications.
  • Non-verbal signals
    In-person, this is about body language and gesture. Remotely, its about choices like the stationery you choose and how you format a document.

The PMBOK Guide gives advice on Good Communication

I’ll leave you to read the introductory section to Chapter 10 (p.363 in the print edition). It’s all good, basic advice. I want to pick out one of the points that it covers. It is listening that allows you to understand the other person, and what they mean. And it is understanding them that allows you to communicate effectively. As Stephen Covey says in Habit 5 of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

Seek first to understand: then to be understood.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R Covey

My own recommendations for books to read are in the article, ‘Communication Skills for Project Managers | The Best Books’.

The PMBOK Guide’s Three Project Communications Management Processes

The PMI’s PMBOK Guide, 6th Edition sets out three Processes within the Project Communications Management knowledge area:

  1. Plan Communications Management
  2. Manage Communications
  3. Monitor Communications

We’ll cover all three of these below.

Plan Communications Management

This is the most thorough section of the PMBOK Guide 6th Edition. In addition to updating a full range of planning documents:

  • Project Management Plan
  • Stakeholder Management Plan
  • Project Schedule
  • Stakeholder Register

…the primary output is your Communications Management Plan.

Communications Management Plan

During the Definition stage of your project, you’ll need to start work on your communication management plan. How you will manage project communications. This will form part of your wider project management plan and cover all aspect os project communications management:

  • Strategy
  • Planning
  • Structuring
  • Implementation
  • Monitoring

Section of the PMBOK Guide makes a helpful checklist of what to include. Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2 gives an equivalent table at Appendix A5.2. We also have our own Project Communication Plan template and checklist in our:

In summary, it could include:

  • Objectives and scope of the plan
  • Budget
  • Information to communicate
  • Who to communicate with
  • Processes for drafting, approving, and issuing a communication
  • Tools and media available
  • Timing
  • Responsibilities and resources
  • Record keeping and archiving
  • Escalation processes
  • Project dictionary (where there are specific terms)

Communication Plan

At the heart of your Communications Management Plan is your Communication Plan, itself.

Modes and Methods of Communication

As I said above, face-to-face communication is the gold standard. But the range of possible tools, methods, and media available to you is astonishing. It covers everything from posters to hand-written notes, and email to multimedia presentations.

Some of these are best suited to communicating effectively with each of:

  • Individuals
  • Small groups
  • Large groups
  • Public and Mass communication

Selecting your medium and approach well is at the core of good communication.

Specialized Forms of Communication

The Association for Project Management’s APMBoK draws our attention to some of the more specialized forms of communication we need as project managers. The PMBOK Guide makes passing reference (in section too:

Some of the books I recommend in the article, ‘Communication Skills for Project Managers | The Best Books’ cover these topics.

You may also like this video…

Manage Communications

The theory here is far less important than the practice. You have a plan: work it!

We’ve written a lot about the Stakeholder engagement aspects of project communication (Around a dozen articles on different aspects). The one to start with is this one: ‘Project Stakeholder Management Knowledge Area: A Guide to Stakeholder Engagement‘.

We have also covered the topics of Project Governance: ‘What has Project Governance Ever Done for Us? [Ans: A Lot]‘.

And, for project Team Communication, I recommend: ‘Great Team Communication: The 10 Commandments‘.

You may also like this guest article, from Jeilan Devanesan, ‘Visual Communication for Better Project Results‘.

Project Management Information System

Whatever aspect of your Project Management you want to focus on, a well-structured and properly implemented Project Management Information System (PMIS) can be a huge asset. This is a single tool – or a suite of tools with tight integration – that can store, manage, and serve a large range of project information.

The usual uses that people focus on are:

  • Schedule management
  • Cost management
  • Procurement management
  • Resource management
  • even Risk Management

But a PMIS can be a powerful project Communication Management tool too. It can:

  • Make project data, information, and documentation available to team members, governance bodies, and stakeholders
    And do so in a way that controls access, so different people can access only information that they need – or are entitled – to see
  • Host your Project Communications Management Plan
    And integrate this with other aspects of your project plan
  • Hold your communications plans
    Scheduling messages and recording feedback
  • Act as a virtual meeting portal and virtual team room
  • Some will even integrate with local and internet-based social media and publishing platforms

Monitor Communications

We monitor so we can control. Project communication is one of the least predictable aspects of a project. It’s hard to see more than one or two steps into the future. So, no matter how well you plan, you will need to adjust your plans around the way people respond to your communications.

If you want to be an effective communicator, it is vital that you listen to responses and take responsibility for how others receive your messages. This means being constantly prepared to try different approaches to communicate.

And the result of that, of course is a constant round of updating your project and communications plans… And maybe also your risk and issue logs!

Tailoring Your Project Communications

All of the main methodologies recognize the fundamental truth that:

The value of a methodology is in how you tailor it to the needs of your project.

This is as true with project communications management as with any other discipline. Often these days, I find people assume tailoring is all about the spectrum from:

  • predictive, planned (traditional) Project Management
  • through a variety of hybrid approaches, to
  • incremental, iterative, adaptive (agile) Project Management

And it is certainly true that this is important. But there is far more to tailoring that this. In determining the best way to develop your project communications management plan, you need to think about things like:

  • Existing Systems and Processes
    • What tools are already available?
    • And what are the costs and benefits of using or not using them?
  • Stakeholders
    • How closely do they need to be involved in your project?
    • Where do they sit (physically and organizationally)?
    • What are the ranges of different:
      • cultural heritage?
      • language comprehension?
      • background knowledge?
  • Technology Adoption
    • What are the new technologies that you can use, which your stakeholders are going to be comfortable with?
    • If you want to use something new how will you build competence and trust in the new tools?
  • Security and Confidentiality
    • What constraints limit your choices around communication?
    • And what process will you need, to ensure you respect those constraints?
  • Governance Structures
    • How will your communication choices bear on effective governance?
    • How quickly do you need to convey information?

What is Your Experience of Project Communications Management

As always, I am keen to hear about your experiences, opinions, and questions. So, leave a comment below, and I shall respond to every contribution.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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