By Davida van der Walt and Dirk Lourens
In today’s world of instant data access, project managers are being bombarded with the necessity to spend more and more time with their business partners, shareholders and other parties outside the actual project management team. These actions, together with internal communication requirements to their sponsors, steering committees and company boards, often lead to a situation where there are not enough hours in a day to communicate with their own project teams! The project manager is so busy satisfying all the power players, that he/she ends up neglecting the very people who must make it all happen.
According to PMI (2013), amongst those organisations considered to be highly effective communicators, 80% of projects meet original goals, 71% deliver projects on time and 76% within budget. For poor communicators, 52% of projects meet original goals, 37% deliver projects on time and 48% within budget. However, only one in four organisations can be described as highly-effective communicators (PMI, 2013). PMI calculate that one in five projects fail as a result of ineffective communication.
In this article, we briefly discuss a project communication model, consider barriers to communication and focus on some real-world communication problems.
Project Communication Process
In the project environment, communication is done to share information, clarify requirements, monitor progress, get team members aligned and it is a call to action. With projects typically on tight schedules, ineffective communication can easily lead to schedule slippage, rework and cost overruns. To better understand the barriers and problems associated with communication, we need to start with a basic project communication model, as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: A Communication Model for projects
Communication specialists would normally describe the communication process as consisting of seven or eight steps, but we’ll do a shortened version.
The Sender: The sender, or the communicator, develops an idea to be communicated. It is also known as the planning stage, since the communicator plans the subject matter of communication. The sender develops the message and encodes it into a perceivable form that can be communicated to others. In the final step, the sender transmits the message through the chosen communication channel.
Communication Channel: The communication channel, or medium, implies the means of transmitting the message to the receiver. Once the message is fully developed, the next step is to select a suitable medium for transmitting it to the receiver. The medium of communication can be speaking, writing, signaling, gesturing, texting, etc.
The Receiver: The receiver is the individual, or group, that receives the sender’s message. The message can be received in the form of hearing, seeing, feeling or a combination of these. Decoding is the receiver’s interpretation of the sender’s message. Here the receiver converts the message into thoughts and tries to understand it. Effective communication can occur only when both the sender and the receiver assign the same, or similar, meanings to the message.
Feedback Loop: The final step of any communication process is feedback. Feedback means receiver’s response to sender’s message. Feedback helps ensure that the receiver has correctly understood the message from the sender. Feedback can be in the form of verbal or written response, or it can be the performing of a task as requested.
‘Noise’: Barriers to proper communication, also called noise, are discussed in more detail later on.
Lines of Communication
Project managers, in conjunction with the project sponsor, need to establish three clear lines of communication once the project has started, as illustrated in Figure 2. Managing, and continually improving, these lines of communication can dramatically increase your chances of a successful project.
The main lines of communication that are critical for project success, are an upward line to senior executives, a lateral line to authorities and other stakeholders and a downward line to the project team itself. When communication is delayed or neglected to the project team (the downward line), various unintended results start to surface.
Figure 2: Main lines of communication (adapted from Charvat, 2002)
How much is enough?
The art of communication is all about:
- Communicating the right messages;
- To the right audiences;
- At the appropriate time;
- In the right format, and;
- Using appropriate channels.
Getting everything just right is obviously not easy. However, estimates of how much time a project manager should spend on communication varies in the literature, but is typically given as between 80 and 90%. The Project Management Institute (Whitaker, 2016) believe it should be 90% and that at least half of this time should be spent on the project team, or the downward line of communication.
Barriers to Communication
Barriers to communication is also referred to as noise. Some of the barriers to effective project communication are briefly described below (adapted from Venkatesh, 2015):
Physical Barriers: Since communication is a two-way process, any physical hindrance between the sender and the receiver of the message will contribute to ineffective communication. Physical barriers include distance, noisy areas, environmental factors and the wearing of hearing protection.
Personal Barriers: Anything which can widen the psychological distance between the sender and the receiver of a message has the same effect as a physical barrier. Personal barriers include, for instance, difference in social values, culture, racial bias, gender bias, attitude, time pressure, age difference and communication skills.
Language/Semantic Barriers: Even for speakers of the same language, the same words and symbols carry different meanings to different people. Difficulties in communication arise when the meaning intended by the sender is different from the meaning understood by the receiver. Obviously, communication is futile when the language used by the sender is unfamiliar to the intended receivers.
Positional Barriers: Position in the hierarchy of an organisation is one of the fundamental barriers that obstructs free flow of information. A superior may give only selected information to his subordinates so as to maintain status differences. Subordinates, on the other hand, tend to convey only those things which the superiors would appreciate. Such selective communication is also known as filtering.
Project Organisational Structure: This barrier is usually not so pronounced in project organisational structures where the communication lines are relatively short. If the structure involves several layers of management, the breakdown or distortion in communication will arise. It is an established fact that every layer cuts off a bit of information and takes additional time.
Lack of Attention: Lack of attention to a message makes communication less effective and the message is likely to be misunderstood or ignored. Inattention may arise due to the receiver being overworked or because of the message being contrary to his expectations and beliefs. The failure to read notices, minutes and reports is a common feature of work overload.
Premature Evaluation: Some individuals have the tendency to form a judgment before listening to the entire message. This is known as premature evaluation. Premature evaluation distorts understanding and acts as a barrier to effective communication.
Emotional Intelligence: The lower the emotional intelligence of the sender and/or the receiver, the lower the expectation of effective communication. When emotions are strong, it is difficult to understand what motivates the other party. Emotional intelligence and attitude of both, the sender, as well as the intended receiver, obstruct free flow of transmission and understanding of messages.
Resistance to Change: Human beings, by nature, tend to stick to the familiar, old and customary patterns of life. They may resist change to maintain the status quo. Thus, when new ideas are being communicated to introduce a change, it is likely to be opposed or even ignored.
Trust Barriers: One will freely transfer information and understanding with another only when there is mutual trust between the two parties. When there is a lack of trust between the sender and receiver of a message, the message is not followed. Credibility gaps, in the form of inconsistencies between saying and doing, also causes lack of mutual trust, which acts as an obstacle to effective communication.
Real world Communication Problems
Poor Integration Management
It is estimated that for a $5 billion capital project, there are, on average, 2 000 interfaces; 10 000 agreements (plus multiple revisions); and 100 000 task related transactions. Each one of these interface points may lead to misunderstanding, conflict, changes, costs and delays on projects that will tear your project team apart. Good communication will unite your team as an integrated team, facing the same direction, and, most importantly, understanding what the project wants to achieve, the risks involved and understanding each other’s roles.
Work breakdown structures, Gantt charts, responsibility matrixes and all the other tools we have to plan, schedule and integrate, give us a planned road to travel, but lack the personal appreciation and understanding brought about when a project team communicate face-to-face on a regular basis, highlighting bottlenecks, pending interface points and potential responsibility grey areas. The project manager is the catalyst to facilitate and promote opportunities for such communication sessions. If he/she is absent or overworked, keeping senior management and other lateral communication going, team members will most probably retreat into their comfort zones, relying on e-mails and official project documents to show up problem areas. A safe approach, but time consuming and not conducive for meeting project and business objectives.
Insufficient Team Recognition
During progress and planning sessions, communication tend to focus on next tasks, next milestones and problem areas. However, people want their successes to be recognised, not only their failures. Recognition motivates people. According to Dapulse (2016): “Working in a vacuum is evil. The more everyone knows, the better they can work as a team. Your hard work should remain as a trophy of your accomplishments.”
Their philosophy is to use software that turns the status of a task to green when completed; they want teams addicted to turning things green. In traditional project management tools, when you complete a task or a project, it’s automatically archived. They think this is wrong. Completed work therefore stays on their progress reports, giving people recognition and accountability for their work.
This recognition within a project team is driven by the sponsor and the project manager and his/her senior staff. If they are busy running around keeping stakeholders satisfied, the project team may lose motivation and team spirit. Give your project manager the time to be the leader and chief communicator for the project team.
The art of translation
True communication, which means two-way communication that is understood by both sides, remains a challenge. This is often as a result of lack of clarity of messages and the incorrect level of detail and the sharing of the incorrect level of detail as per the needs of the audience. Project managers need to learn the art to communicate effectively and succinctly with executive teams. Similarly, project sponsors need to master the art of translating the grand strategic vision into practical language that can be understood and internalised by project teams. Such an understanding will motivate and energise project teams. Both the sponsor and project manager need to be effective at translating business vision into measurable and well-defined project objectives and scope.
According to IPA (2015), the most powerful leverage point to improving capital project performance is the interface between the business and project (i.e., engineering) functions. However, the link between these two functions is often weak. It should always be remembered that the only reason any project comes to life is to satisfy a business need or opportunity.
Georgius (PMI, 2013) highlights that everyone needs to understand the long-term objectives of a project so they can know how they’re contributing and how they’re making an impact. This includes the business and project objectives. The project sponsor is responsible to always keep the team focused on the business objectives, whilst the project manager should clearly communicate the project objectives and how they will support the achievement of the business objectives. Needless to say, a solid partnership is required between the project sponsor and project manager.
Project Meetings lack the bigger picture
Kick-off meetings are the forums where project leadership will communicate the business and project needs, objectives and project risk profile to their project team. This usually only happens at the start of a new project phase. This sets the scene to get the “real work” of work breakdown structures, Gantt charts, work packages and tasks, started. Every engineering discipline, contractor or subcontractor will only focus on their work scope, and depend on the already mentioned project documentation to guide them through the quicksand of inter-relations and interfaces.
Good communication means that the business objectives and the risks involved must be repeated at every opportunity – at progress, coordination, planning meetings to ensure that the context of the work is understood by all. Most of project decisions are made by ordinary project members on a day-to-day basis without the luxury of having senior members of the team present. Knowing the business objectives of the project, potential conflict can be defused before it becomes an issue. Whenever change becomes necessary, understanding the bigger picture will improve and accelerate decision-making.
During the project execution phase, progress and planning meetings need to be attended as one project group and not as separate groupings i.e. per design discipline, procurement, construction, operations and maintenance. Communication among such a diverse group will help that communication, understanding and feedback is at an optimum level. It will also make most interfaces more tangible, as progress and scheduling, requirements and delays are being discussed. Interface points then become living realities, not only a point on an interface chart.
Merrow (Klaver, 2012) highlights the need for more business education for project professionals. Similarly, from our experience, it has become evident that business also needs education on project realities. Too often business pushes a fixed agenda, which is not realistic from a project execution perspective. This is where the project sponsor should step in and communicate extensively with business to educate them on project realities.
In this day and age, social media is a necessity. All generations seem to adapt to this new way of work. It must, however, never be forgotten that social media cannot replace face-to-face interaction. Social and electronic media lends itself to misunderstanding and incorrect translation of messages. It is a great mechanism for quick communication that is not of a sensitive nature and where the message is simple and clear. Where uncertainties can surface, revert back to interpersonal communication.
Communication starts with understanding your project stakeholders. Both internal and external to the project team and owner organisation. Knowing what power stakeholders exert over your project and what their level of interest is (either positive or negative), can help you decide on a strategy for engagement and communication. Stakeholders in the right upper quadrant of Figure 3, should be actively engaged, and using interpersonal engagement and communication. The project team inevitably fits into that category!
Figure 3: Engage the right stakeholders, in the right way at the right time.
If you wish to learn more about stakeholder management on projects, which includes communication requirements, please refer to the OTC Toolkit for Stakeholder Management.
Charvat, J.P., (2002), Project Communications: a plan for getting your message across. Available from http://www.techrepublic.com/article/project-communications-a-plan-for-getting-your-message-across/. Accessed on 16 June 2016.
PMI (Project Management Institute), (2013), Pulse of the Profession In-depth Report: The high cost of low performance – the essential role of communications. Available as Pdf download from http://www.pmi.org/learning/pulse.aspx. Accessed on 16 June 2016.
Dapulse, (2016), Create transparency and empower your team. Available from https://dapulse.com/features/. Accessed on 28 June 2016.
IPA (Independent Project Analysis), (2015), An interview with Margaret Walker. Available from http://www.ipaglobal.com/featured-capital-projects-business-professionals-interview-of-the-quarter. Accessed on 28 June 2016.
Klaver, A., (2012), Speed kills, Available from http://projectmanagermagazine.realviewdigital.com/?iid=57297&startpage=page0000019. Accessed on 28 June 2016.
Venkatesh, (2015), Top 11 barriers to communication, Available from http://www.yourarticlelibrary.com/management/communication/top-11-barriers-to-communication/53345/. Accessed on 14 June 2016.
Whitaker, S., (2016), PMP® examination practice questions – 400 practice questions and answers to help you pass, 3rd ed. Apress, New York, NY.
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