We all know the theory: Communications are critical to project success. You have probably heard advice such as communicate something “five times in five different ways” for it to stick, but why is it so hard?
If people would just listen—or read what we send them—then communications would be easy, right? This may seem a reasonable assumption, but because we are part of the system, we are also part of the problem.
Getting information from one person’s head into another’s is a long chain of events with conversions and noise within the process. Like rolling a ball downstairs hoping it will land in a cup at the bottom, there are lots of things that can go wrong along the way.
Communication and Project Failures
Effective communication is essential for project success. PMI research suggests communication breakdowns account for 30% of project failures. Some online discussions attribute 100% of project failures to communication failures.
The variation in percentages stems from how we classify issues such as changing project objectives or poorly articulated requirements. Some people classify them separately from communication failures, others as a type of communication breakdown. Either way, communication is a critical skill for any project manager, but we rarely discuss the process.
The Communication Chain
Several widely used models of communication offer insights into the process and challenges involved. Shannon and Weaver created a popular one called “The Mathematical Theory of Communication” that looks like this:
Let’s say we want to announce that the demo of our new rocket has been moved from Thursday to Friday because rain and strong winds are forecast for Thursday. In the model, we represent the sender (1); we decide to send our message via email and compose the following message body: “The launch is delayed until Friday for weather issues. Same venue and timing.”
The wording of the email is how we encode our thought (2). The medium of written text delivered via email is the signal we send over the channel (3). People receive the signal (our email) and decode it to extract meaning out of it (4). From this process, the receiver interprets the message (5). They may provide feedback (that also gets encoded, transmitted and decoded).
Opportunities for Error
As we all know from dealing with people, just because we have a thought and try to convey it to others, that does not mean that thought will make it through the process intact. As an example, Lucy, who uses a look-and-guess method of reading, sees “The launch is delayed…” and she panics, stops reading any further and immediately assumes the entire project is behind.
Pablo, who’s job it is to make the propulsion system weather tolerant, sees this as an attempt to shame his work publicly. Bill has been too busy relocating frogs from the launch site to open all his emails recently, but he will be ready for the launch on Thursday.
These examples illustrate some possible outcomes and additional elements of the communications process. The words that we choose that have a single, clear meaning for us may be interpreted differently by others. Our communications also occur in an environment with noise and information loss. Finally, the sender’s and receiver’s context matters, as does their intent. These elements have been added to the image below:
The sender context (6) impacts the encoding and channel chosen, as too does the receiver context (7). The encoded signals are sent through channels with noise and a possibility for corruption or meaning loss (8).
Language can be imprecise, and the possibilities for misinterpretation are almost endless. A simple “How did you find the meeting?” question could be answered as “long and boring” or, “I looked up the room location on the floor plan and walked there past the cafeteria.”
Faults with encoding, channel choice and decoding are widespread. Throw in different cultures, generations, technical jargon, and acronyms with multiple meanings, and it’s a wonder we get anything done sometimes. We are rolling lots of balls down the stairs, but not many are landing in the cup.
Once we appreciate the opportunity for communications to miss the mark, we can craft more robust messaging systems.
- Prioritize: We can check our encoding and structure the message so the most critical information is conveyed first. Maybe we start with “Due to inclement weather, the launch is moved…” if we know the cause of the delay will be scrutinized. Also, assume not all of our communications will be read to the end, so move the critical information to the front in case people only scan it.
- Choose your channel: Long lists of instructions are not best conveyed via a phone call. Text messages are great for on-the-go synchronization, but maybe too informal to send critical news to stakeholders you interact with infrequently. Delicate matters are best-handled one-on-one in person or on the phone, where there is the opportunity for immediate Q&A.
Think about the type of information and message you are conveying and use the right medium. Consider visuals. Schedule information might be best shown with a timeline; geographic data with a map or floor-plan.
- Don’t be afraid to duplicate and use multiple channels: Our brains are all wired differently, and we all have unique preferences for both format (sound, visual, written) and medium (F2F, email, video, project website). Typically, it is safer to over-communicate and send things in multiple formats via different channels to ensure the message gets through.
Be careful, though, that our messages do not get muted or hidden for creating too much chatter or noise. Electronic tools make it easy to hide conversations, so clearly label duplicates and what is new or noteworthy.
- Seek confirmation and feedback: Registered mail services exist for when we need to know if a letter was delivered. Some of our messages are significant enough that we should confirm they were received and understood. So, maybe we follow up after communicating a plan with a phone call to confirm receipt, check understanding and ask if there were any questions.
Likewise, we should ask if we are communicating enough, appropriately and successfully. Communication plans help define the sets of information, format and delivery frequency at the start of projects, but this is not a once-and-done process.
We should be checking in periodically with people to ask if the communications are working, if people have what they need, and how to improve. Phase gates, steering committee meetings, demos and retrospectives are all opportunities to inspect, learn and adapt our communications approach.
- Turn to technology: We live in a time of unprecedented information transmission and data-filtering technology. We have more tools and channels for communication now than ever before, yet things still get mixed up and missed out. While these tools can add to the sense of “overwhelm” and channel choice, they can also be used to create safety nets and save time.
We can create reminders to check in with key stakeholders. We can forward messages from platforms we do not like to ones we prefer to use. Tools can aggregate information from multiple sources and distribute messages to many recipients through numerous channels. By mastering some essential communication tools, we can increase our coverage and free up time for thinking about how best to craft our messages with less chance of misinterpretation.
Mind the Gap
Once we realize there is a significant gap to overcome between getting a thought from our heads to those of others, we are halfway to building robust and reliable communication systems. We must not assume our messages will be opened, read, interpreted or regarded with the importance we assigned to them.
Heck, I am surprised you even made it to here in this article! So, expect gaps, design your communications with redundancy, make them visual and compelling, then maybe—just maybe—enough people will get the message.