Thursday, June 28, 2012

Conundrums in communications (part 1)

I have a bit of a love hate relationship with communications. They can suck up resource, they're fiendishly difficult to get right (I sometimes even wonder what 'right' even means) and I can't be alone in having been burnt on one or two occasions by a nanosecond's lapse in concentration on the topic. 

Conversely, they give the project team an opportunity to raise their profile, to champion their aims and objectives and, done right, they can be one of the more satisfying aspects of the job.

Here's a few headline manholes.

  1. You might saturate communication channels
  2. Someone else might saturate communication channels 
  3. Your stakeholders 'lose sight' of the communication plan
  4. Your stakeholders actually tell you they should have read the communications, but they're sorry they didn't and now they're in a bit of a mess
  5. You've racked your brains but you can't work out a way to ascertain whether or not your stakeholders have read, retained and understood your communications.
  6. You're facing universal stakeholder apathy (this is on a sliding scale from mildly disinterested to venomous mischief making)
At this point I could espouse the virtues of a carefully crafted communications plan or stakeholder engagement plan. But I'm not going to and here's why. If you're fortunate enough to have specialist communications input, or even just a chunk of resource to throw at communications you can spend all the time in the world on soft market research, repositioning key stakeholder groups and deciding the precise colour scheme to use across the breadth of your media interfaces. So not only will you have time and money to develop specific purpose built documents and strategies, you'll be able to underwrite the resources for them, manage them and (one assumes) see them through to a successful conclusion.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, you've fought like a tiger for the limited resource you've got, your fingers are bleeding from back to back authoring of the business case, mandate project brief, project initiation document, configuration management plan WBS and product descriptions and the sponsor is wondering when you're going to start delivering something. So you make a note somewhere that the communications plan will be included in the RAM on stage 3 of the project (or something similarly vague).

This all said, you might find yourself facing problems 1-6 inclusive, or some uniquely quirky issue particular to your project and needing a bit of communication lubrication. Below I include my suitably pragmatic salve to the issues above.

You have saturated your communication channels

The symptoms

Communications have become less effective, stakeholders are grumbling, you hear the words '...not another project blah email...' in the lift, Paradoxically, because people are starting to disregard your communications you have to send out even more. People are setting up email rules to junk your mail.

The cause

You've overcooked it. You might even simply be following the communications plan (that needs an update by the way).  You've got no temperature check or feedback loop in your communications so you keep on spamming the entire stakeholder pool whenever you feel slightly anxious that your message might be getting lost in the corporate soup.

The solution

Prevention is better than cure. You need to recruit communications stooges (confederates in the stakeholder pool or business) who will primarily assess your communications from the receiver end of the equation as well as being your eyes and ears in those environments. If you've missed the prevention boat, take a two week communications holiday while you recruit your stooges - that should kill two birds with one stone.

Someone else has saturated your communications channels

The symptoms

Broadly the same as before. You have the satisfaction of knowing that you are not directly responsible for the blunder, but the annoyance that you will have to directly fix it.

The cause

Could be a lot of things but two spring to mind which I cite specifically because you'll approach the matter differently.
  1. Poor email etiquette from co-workers. You're getting a lot of reply alls on emails or, other, similar blanket channels of communication are springing up. You're not managing them (in fact no one is), messages are getting garbled and coherence lost.
  2. Someone in the customer's organisation, the stakeholder pool or simply someone you need to do business with is suddenly and deliberate fielding a great deal of communications, most of which is making your day a good deal harder than it needs to be.
The solution

In the first case, you're going to need to get that someone some feedback on email etiquette or simply the fact that communications for project blah start and end with the project team. That'll probably get you fixed.

The second case is a bit more of a curve ball and is correspondingly a little tougher to fix. Remember the communications plan we were going to right in stage 3? You need to get that thing written promptly. Don't kick yourself - having it earlier wouldn't have done you any good. 

You're going to need to define your communications interfaces, media, authorised and approved communications providers and get the plan approved by your project board. You will of course ensure that you've specifically outlawed stakeholders exploiting project communications channels to prosecute their own agendas and you'll also include that breaches of the communications plan will result in a project issue being raised to the board.

I can't promise you this is the panacea to every stakeholder that decided their views superseded those of the project board or sponsor - but this does tend to either quiesce over active stakeholder communications or, in the event it does not, reduces your exposure as PM to the problem as you've got some structure and a readily available channel of escalation.

I'll see off the remainder in the next post. If anyone has any communications issues not listed, do add a comment - I can't promise to have an answer, but my readership is almost into double figures - we'll crowd source an answer!

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