How to Prevent and Solve Project Communication Issues

project manager office meeting

Proper, effective and efficient communication may be the single most important ingredient to project success. I feel strongly that project communication is the most important part of a PM's daily responsibilities and overall good communication is the responsibility of every stakeholder. Drop the ball on communication, and you might be looking at rework, a missed deadline, expenses pushing the project over budget and customer concerns or misunderstandings that can drive a project into the ground – faster than you can ever imagine.

There is no magic wand to wave that will ensure a project won't suffer issues. Even a project that starts out with a formal communication plan in hand and a PM dedicated to staying on top of all communication channels at all times may still suffer from communication breakdowns.

Review status regularly as a team

Since a tightly knit, cohesive team is usually tantamount to success, it would make sense that a team that communicates well, accurately, and frequently is also more likely to experience success and be more productive. Therefore, scheduling team meetings, communication, and task and status reviews regularly is always going to be a good idea. Keep in mind, it doesn't always have to be a meeting. Daily updates via email can be enough to make your team feel like they know everything about the project at any given minute. One of my business analysts on a project – who was also working on three other projects with three other project managers – told me that he received more emails from me than the other Project Managers. He said he always felt like he knew my project status much better because of this, and he knew what tasks he should be working on at any given time.

Keep meetings regular

Regular meetings = a stable stakeholder environment = communications that are comfortable and open. If you are conducting – as you should be – regular project status reviews with the customer or weekly project team meetings to keep the crew focused and up to date, keep those meetings no matter what. Even if there isn't much to say at any given meeting, still conduct it... even if it ends up being a 5 minute talk about what everyone is doing this weekend. You never know when some piece of key project information may slip through the cracks when a meeting is canceled that should have otherwise been held. Plus, when you start to cancel meetings, people who would normally be in attendance may feel that your meetings aren't as critical as others they could be attending and your attendance and participation levels may drop. You've then lost key participants and decision makers, which can be disastrous for the project, and it's often very difficult to rein those individuals back in.

Follow up on key communications

Always, always, always follow up. Making sure everyone is on the same page after meetings, brainstorming synchs, troubleshooting sessions or after any customer communications is critical to moving forward in the right direction. Follow up with notes and ask for a 24-hour turnaround response with any feedback or changes from those involved in the discussions. If something has changed, redistribute your communication with updates and everyone will be back on the same page again.

Summary / call for input

Communication is Job One for the project manager, in my opinion. Keep communication in order, and you've taken huge steps to ensuring project success and top team performance for your customer. If you are experiencing any communication issues on your project, try to identify any communication gaps that may be clouding the team’s comprehension of scope and requirements or, where people aren't aligned after the meetings you're conducting, try the tips above as a way to get things back on track. A strong line of communication with the project client is also a very good way to keep customer satisfaction high and hopefully secure repeat business from your stakeholders.

Readers – what are your thoughts on project communication issues? What do you commonly see as communication problems on the projects and how do you best avoid or mitigate them?


brad egeland
Brad Egeland is a Business Solution Designer and IT/PM consultant and author with over 25 years of software development, management, and project management experience. Visit Brad's site at www.bradegeland.com







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How to Communicate Project Status to Clients



Here’s something we don’t often think about when working with an external client. Our client probably has no idea of project-management methodology and they most likely don’t know Prince2 or PMBOK or any of the ambiguous vernacular we project managers use. Things like agile, burn down, critical path, earned value, epics, float, scrum, sprints, variance, and work breakdown may be intimidating terminology to non-practitioners. Yet, this is often the language we use when we communicate with them.


Occasionally, our client may be 100% assigned to working-on and managing our project. In cases like this, they may be comfortable with the project management process, however, it is more likely that this person has been assigned to the project because the project is somehow within the broader scope of their responsibilities. Additionally, overseeing the project may only be 5% of that person's overall duties. So, although the project may be strategic to him or her, it is probably not their primary daily function. That is why we shouldn’t expect them to be adept at understanding project management methodology or the terminology of our practice.


Clients like this want us to remember that they are not experts in project management, but that they are professionals with full time jobs in their particular field of business - manufacturing, finance, healthcare, transportation, etc. They hired us to be the expert in project management. They want us to communicate and report to them in a way that they can understand; and in a way that is not intimidating and filled with technical project jargon. Our client will have to answer to somebody higher-up in their organization, and that person will also need to be briefed on where your project stands. Clients want us to remember that they have to roll our project reviews and status reports up to their executives in a way their executives can digest them.


In a previous post we wrote about how Project Managers should communicate with their own managers and executives when providing status reports. Many of the same principles apply when communicating with external clients. Here are the top 3 must-dos when communicating with clients:

1. A picture is worth 1K words

Most often our clients are busy people who do not have the time to read text heavy, detailed communications. Graphs, charts and other project visuals can give the client a lot of information. They are also easy for clients to share or distribute within their organization. Including visuals in your communications such as a schedule or small scoreboard will help them understand your report at a glance. Alternatively, if visuals are not possible, presenting your key data on a slide that consists of bullet points and percents will make it more viewable and shareable.

One of the best visual ways to present project status to clients is to use a Gantt chart that also contains percent complete for each task, just like the one below. It was created with Office Timeline Online which is an easy Gantt chart maker.


2. Less detail is better

We are quite competent at producing richly detailed reports and communications. We are, after all, in a detail management profession, so communicating everything from budget and schedules to sprints and resources, is natural to us. Also, delivering this much detail may seem like we are demonstrating control and accountability. A smarter approach is to just provide a summary of key data that gives the status or health of the project at that particular moment. Of course, you will have the rich detail in case your client wants to drill down, however, it is better to start with a high-level summary and then bring in the detail when asked.

3. Watch your language

When communicating with clients, do so as if you were talking to a non-technical person in your organization, perhaps a marketing person or an admin. When preparing reports or client communications, you should assume that it will go beyond your immediate client, to a wider audience, or that your client will need to digest your report and roll-it up to their management. For these reasons, it makes sense to clean out any heavy terminology that we use in our daily work, or that our project management tools and applications spit out. Instead, communicate in a clear, neutral way that is easy for non-project audiences to understand.

Much of this comes down to being respectful of our client’s time and priorities. They are busy people, working on other important things. They do not have the time to try and digest long communications, nor may they have the capacity or desire to understand the project management world and the cryptic language we speak. Adapting our communications styles to fit their needs will make us more valuable professionals and it will increase the visibility of our work at the customer.


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Project reporting: be brief, be brilliant and be gone.


Less is More

I was once given this advice when preparing executive business reviews at a large corporation, “be brief, be brilliant and be gone.” I took me several years and my first management role, before I truly understood the wisdom of that advice. In enterprises, reporting flows uphill from the trenches all the way to the exec corridors. For this flow to happened, at each point along the way, reports need to be distilled, consumed and the regurgitated up to the next level.

When it comes to reporting your project to management and execs, many project managers fail to understand this perspective as they prepare project status reviews. The biggest mistake we make is to create reports with too much detail. Since our day-today work is detail-oriented we tend to think that our managers want to see this same level of detail too, and there lies the most common mistake in project reporting.

Our managers are under pressure to keep their executives informed about all the projects under their watch. To do this they depend on timely project status reports from around the organization, and they need to quickly consume them so they can keep their bosses informed and current. Your manager may only have allotted between 1 – 2 minutes to review your report and may become frustrated if it does not give them a sense for the overall health and progress of the project in that short amount of time.

Key Data Only

Your status report need to be succinct and concise so it can be consumed without much effort. It should be prepared in three levels. The first and most important level of reporting should immediately provide your manager a sense for the healthiness of the project. They should be able to assess this quickly based on a few key data points. This data should include:

  • Your rating of the project’s status:
              - Red: Project forecasted to be delayed.
              - Yellow: Project has potential problems which may cause delay.
              - Green: Project on schedule.

  • Actual % complete of the project at the time of your report vs. the planned % complete
  • How many days, weeks or months the project is ahead or behind the plan
  • List of top 3 critical issues the project faces

The second level of reporting should provide your managers more progress data on the plan, if they want to drill-down a little further. The best way to do this is to provide a high-level project schedule where you can break-out the progress of the key tasks. This will include:

  • % complete for each of the key tasks
  • Actual start date and finish date vs. the planned start date and finish date for each task
  • Flagging the critical milestones

The final level of reporting should provide your manager additional data on the key issues you have reported. They should be listed in order of priority with the most severe issues listed first. This part of your report should still be presented as data points or very short sentences, and not paragraphs, so it is simple for your manager to consume quickly. It should include:

  • Owner of each issue
  • Ageing report showing how long it has been open
  • Estimated time of resolution
  • Action report

Best Practices

There are several best practices with regard to status reporting. The first is to minimize your content by reducing it down to data points wherever possible. Doing this can be challenging particularly as you may assume management wants to see a narrative covering some of the details and nuances of the project. Avoiding long sentences or paragraphs in your report will help scale it down to the raw data, which will make it easier for management to consume. Train yourself to think about presenting just the most important data points, like a scoreboard, rather than writing a story.

Using charts, tables and visuals is a good way of distilling status reports down into something that is easily consumed by management. Presenting reports in a visual way makes it easier for managers to digest your project information quickly. It also provides them something they can share with their bosses or roll-up into their business reviews. Creating a single PowerPoint slide which can be shared or presented or included in other slide presentations is a good technique for communicating with managers in the enterprise.

Being consistent and rhythmic in your reporting is critical. Providing frequent status reports will instill management’s confidence in you and in your ability to control the project. This confidence will serve you well if/when you have to downgrade a project’s healthiness rating or raise key blocking issues. Proactively communicating status reports creates channels for dialogue and gives you the opportunity to showcase your work. Most importantly you are communicating with predictability and discipline so management is not chasing you for progress report.

Benefits

If you mix brevity, with key status data and communicate it in a consistent, predictable manner, your management will be pleased with your reporting. This does not mean they won’t engage or seek further details, but it does mean there will be no confusion around the status of your project. Clarity like this calms management because it demonstrates that you are in control, which may mean less intervention and fewer panicked managers.


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Kick-off Project Planning with a High-Level Schedule

Updated on 04 September 2020

Work schedule plan

Before a project can receive the green light from management and stakeholders, it requires a solid plan that covers all the bases: timeframe, resources, tasks, deliverables, etc. Naturally, in the nascent phase, it can be difficult to determine all of these aspects with pinpoint accuracy, which is why PMs sometimes elect to forgo creating the project plan outline until they can gather more data.

However, blindly navigating the initiation phase of the project – which is when gathering support and ensuring the strategic interests of all parties involved are aligned – can doom the project from the get-go.

That being the case, what’s the secret to presenting the significance of a certain project and capturing interest of your stakeholders in the absence of hard data? Every journey begins with the first step, and here that step is creating a high level work schedule plan.

What does high level mean in project management?

In the context of project management, we’re talking about two things: deliverables (goods or services being produced) and requirements. A high-level project plan is a bird’s eye view of the undertaking without digging too deep into the specifics, in order to determine whether or not it’s beneficial for the company and feasible at the same time. Let’s discuss project requirements.

What are high level requirements in project management?

From a high level perspective, project requirements fall into two main categories: business and technical. Business requirements define the “what”, meaning the capabilities of the organization that will change as a result of the project. Conversely, the technical requirements cover the “how” by defining the solutions for addressing the projects needs

As part of project management best practices, experienced PMs recommend formally defining the business requirements prior to the tech ones. This is done to ensure everyone is on the same page about the desired functionalities before seeking ways to implement them. Otherwise, you’d be putting the cart before the horse.

On the same note, presenting the incipient work schedule plan to a more extensive audience than the key stakeholders can uncover less obvious supporting requirements like:

  • Auditing
  • Security
  • Communication
  • Reporting
  • Information validation

It’s worth noting that many PMs are using Excel for project management in this phase, while others are partial to Microsoft Project. Unfortunately, both of these tools are quite limited in terms of visualization and too convoluted to be of real currently. After all, we’re going after a broad, non-technical audience. One way to be certain that you’re approaching the work correctly is to create a high level timeline using a project scheduling software.

What is a high level timeline?

The high level project Gantt chart or timeline can be an example of a simple project plan that can ensure all critical path requirements are taken into consideration. It’s essentially a data visualization strategy that places tasks and milestones against the backdrop of a timeband with a customizable duration, giving the whole undertaking a better perspective. Check out this product roadmap example, for instance, or the other free project management templates we have in our template gallery.

Swimlane diagram templates are particularly useful in high level planning, because of their innate ability to categorize tasks and milestones according to the phase of the project where they fit, the team who handles the work, etc. In other words, they simplify the overview by first allowing your audience to examine specific elements of the WBS (Work Breakdown Structure) individually, and then as a component of the whole.

Important mention: In the high level planning phase, absolutely nothing is set in stone. We are just creating a rough draft of the project’s framework that should remain malleable enough to readjust based on the feedback received from the stakeholders and management.

Next, let’s examine the 5 steps towards creating a high level plan, so you can make the best use of your project management software of choice.

  1. Listing all the tasks
  2. You can’t have a work breakdown structure template without the actual work, so naturally the tasks should be priority number one. While its importance to the critical path may be self-explanatory, in reality, this list is often overlooked. When they’re pressed for time, some PMs start with a project scheduling application without the task list, which in turn leads to inaccurate predictions for the deliverables.

    Working with a simple tool like Office Timeline that can generate a work breakdown schedule template in minutes allows you to spend more time carefully considering the tasks and noting them down, to make sure you don’t miss any of the major ones. On the same note, estimating individual task duration can be extremely useful for gauging deliverable dates.

  3. Listing all the milestones
  4. Milestones are another aspect that’s often overlooked when creating a high level plan, mainly because they can be tricky to establish, but they’re every bit as important as the tasks. When you describe a high-level timeline that includes key tasks AND deadlines to your stakeholders, it reassures everyone that there’s a measuring stick to help evaluate the progress.

    Start by identify the points of time or events that you recognize as important and add them. They can – and probably will – change later on, but making them visible during the earliest communications adds the perspective that your project plan outline needs.

  5. Sequencing the list
  6. Sequencing is all about arranging the order your tasks will be delivered in. As you’re making the list of tasks discussed at step 1, you’ll notice that certain ones can be handled independently and/or concurrently, whereas for others a precursor task must be completed before you can initiate them. We call the relationship between tasks dependencies. Correctly identifying dependencies should considerably simplify the ordering of the tasks.

    Another aspect to bear in mind here is that certain tasks are of high importance and therefore will become part of the project’s critical path later on. Take into account both the importance and the dependencies when you decide the task order on your high level timeline.

  7. Grouping tasks together
  8. Another step you can take to improve the readability of your project roadmap once you’ve sequenced the tasks is to group them according to logical criteria. Office Timeline allows you to this easily thanks to a feature we’ve mentioned earlier: swimlane diagram templates. Check out the product launch management plan example below which breaks down the tasks and milestones into four logical categories.

    Work schedule plan

    EXPLORE AND DOWNLOAD TEMPLATE


    This is just a default project management plan example that can be adapted to your project’s requirements. You may, for example, want a Preparation or Proof of Concept swimlane, a Deliver or Build swimlane, etc. Showing activities as phases will make it easier for audiences to think comprehensively through the project, rather than just seeing a single extended block of work.

  9. Managing deadlines
  10. You should always remember that the stakeholders and management have certain expectations about the deliverables, including but not limited to the deadlines. This is where the high level schedule really shines, because it helps you determine if your own estimates are on par with said expectations. If your estimates are radically different from what’s being asked, then it’s time to start making adjustments, before you actually get to work on the comprehensive project plan. You can use the high level timeline to state your case and obtain an extension of the deadlines, but also to trim the fat or even cut down on the deliverables and finish the project sooner.

Conclusions

Starting the project planning process with a high-level schedule will give your team the perspective they need as you begin developing the more comprehensive final plan. Doing the work up-front to model a project schedule will ultimately lead to a more accurate and realistic project plan.

Office Timeline can prove to be an invaluable asset in this sense, as it packs an extensive line of fully customizable roadmap, Gantt chart and timeline templates for virtually any type of project. Download the free version to get started or try out the Pro Edition for a no-holds-barred experience.


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7 Point Checklist for Project Closure



Wrapping up a scope of work brings with it a range of emotions. Excitement, relief and sometimes even sadness are common at the end of a project where you have invested so much of your energy and time. Although it is tempting to move on to your next project, before transitioning, take the time to properly bring your current project to closure. Here is a short check-list to follow before fully exiting a project:

Are all required deliverables complete?

This is the time to reflect on the project plan. Review it with an objective mind or partner with a peer to help gain balanced feedback. Work through your project plan and ask yourself if all tangible deliverables have been completed. Be ruthless with your assessment and include not only mission-critical deliverables, but all deliverables the plan committed to.

Have all approvals been obtained?

Diligently obtaining written approval for sign-off during the lifecycle of the project is a ‘must-do’ and a good discipline to adhere to. Ensuring the proper approvals have been obtained keeps business leaders informed and accountable for their actions. It also protects you as the Project Manager (PM) to have the appropriate stakeholder’s confirmation that the project is approved.

Have all required administrative tasks been performed?

Managing the administrative side of the project takes time, however these housekeeping tasks are vital when it comes to project closure. Close out any open contracts and make sure all time has been properly accounted for, billing is complete and people on the project have been released and/or are assigned to new projects.

Are all project documents and deliverables archived?

Ensuring that all documentation related to the project is stored in a central archive and available for access is important. These may be used as the foundation for an upcoming project, or you may need to reference them for future questions about how this project was managed. It is also a good practice to create and archive a FAQ’s or Lessons Learned document, so knowledge and key learnings are transferred to the others who will come after you.

Have all calendars been cleared?

Check across the team to see all the meetings that have been conducted? If there are outstanding or unnecessary meetings still scheduled, make sure to cancel and remove these from calendars. Removing any confusion around recurring meetings is a courtesy to others and a best practice for closing projects.

Does everyone know the project is complete?

Ensuring that all stakeholders and departments involved in your project are aware that it is complete is a sometimes overlooked step, but one that will differentiate your from others. Properly closing with a formal wrap-up communication in which you share the achievements and results with everyone involved shows professionalism.

Have you thanked key contributors, stakeholders and sponsors?

Taking a few extra minutes to thank key contributors, stakeholders and sponsors is another act of professionalism. Saying thank you to someone is a simple way to leave them feeling good about you as a PM, regardless of how challenging they may have been. Make your last interaction on the project one of thanks and you’ll will improve your PM brand.

By utilizing this 7 point check list you can ensure that your project closing skills are as strong as your day-to-day management skills and you will be confident that you are leaving a project well managed.


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