You’ve probably heard of the game called “pass the message.” Others call it the “telephone game.” In a nutshell, it starts with several people forming a straight line. Then, the first person passes a message by whispering it to the second person, who then passes it to the third person, who passes it to the fourth, and so on.
The last team member to receive the message reports what they heard. Often, the final message is vastly different from the original. That’s all good, though, because it’s just a game, after all.
However, if it’s an actual project you’re talking about, especially a huge one at that, even a slight breakdown in project management communication can majorly impact its success.
This is why you need a project management communication plan.
Overview: What is a project communication plan?
In the same way a well-written project proposal is key to a project getting the go-ahead from the higher-ups, a meticulously thought-out communication plan is key to keeping everyone on your project aligned.
A project communication plan enables project managers to monitor and manage communication with clients, team members, and other project stakeholders.
It serves as the standard operating procedure for project communications and lays down in detail who’s responsible for which type of communication, who needs to be looped in, and how the information will be shared.
Done right, it keeps everyone updated and nips rumors or misconceptions in the bud, before they become harmful enough to cause confusion, conflict, or project derailment.
A communication management plan is usually created at the start of a project, during the project planning phase. Depending on the project, communication plans can either be simple or complex. Some projects may even need to appoint a public relations person to communicate updates and events to society at large.
What to keep in mind when developing a project communication plan
The primary goal of project communication is to bring a project to successful completion by managing how information is disseminated, feedback is collected, and people perceive the project overall. To achieve that, there are certain considerations or elements to keep in mind, including:
1. Audience or stakeholders
Who do you need to communicate with? Which individuals or organizations are likely to be affected by the project’s outcome or execution?
Depending on the project, stakeholders can include members of a cross-functional team, customers, suppliers, contractors, the project sponsor, the project’s advisory committee, executives, media outlets, government agencies, and even the public.
2. Information to be communicated
What types of information do you need to communicate? These can include project risk management strategies, scheduling changes, project updates and milestones, items for inclusion in a prioritization matrix, etc.
The main thing to remember here is that you will need to communicate a lot of information to stakeholders throughout the course of the project. And yet, It’s vital that you don’t overwhelm them.
3. Method of communication
There are different communication strategies project managers can use to get the right message to the right person at the right time. These include methods and tools such as formal presentations, group meetings, status reports, meeting summaries, newsletters.
You may communicate via an intranet, the “press” section of your company’s website, or the dashboards in the project management software your team uses.
The key to effective communication in project management is to not feel pressured to use just one method.
4. Time and frequency of communication
When should communication occur? How often? A communication cadence or frequency sets expectations right at the outset.
Also, having a communication schedule in place allows team members and other stakeholders to prepare for meetings and important reports in advance.
How to write a project communication plan
A communication plan can either be a simple overview or a more detailed plan. In many cases, the overview is sufficient for small, simple projects. For complex projects, more detail may be needed.
Below are the general steps to follow when developing a project communication plan.
Step 1: Determine the team’s communication needs
Different projects require different communication plans. Ask yourself, what does this specific project need to succeed?
For example, a project in a highly regulated market may require someone from the team to regularly communicate with a regulating body. On the other hand, updating content on a company’s website may require input from customers and material from contractors such as photographers and graphic designers.
Tips for identifying communication needs:
- Know what’s involved throughout the project’s life cycle: Consider all the tasks, activities, and resources needed from start to finish. From there, you’ll be able to identify the project stakeholders you need to communicate with.
- Get input from all stakeholder groups: Know their preferred communication channels or methods, how frequently they expect to receive updates, etc.
Step 2: Define the purpose of the communication
There has to be a purpose behind each communication event. If you’re calling a quick huddle just because, chances are you’re disrupting people’s ability to complete tasks.
Tips for defining why you’re communicating:
- Identify what needs to be achieved: This can be anything, but in general, every communication item should update or educate stakeholders — and, in some cases, obtain feedback. A virtual meeting prior to starting a project may be “to discuss the project, answer any questions, establish rapport among stakeholders, and obtain their support for the project.”
- Outline meeting or report agendas: A basic outline can ensure meetings are productive and don’t veer off course.
Step 3: Choose how to communicate
The communication plan also determines which communication methods or styles to use for certain communication items.
Tips for choosing how to communicate:
- Keep team members in the loop without impacting productivity: For example, you don’t want to schedule a daily meeting or stand-up presentation for updates that can be communicated via email or the team’s virtual discussion board.
- Pick the best method for the audience type: Certain stakeholders, such as the project sponsor, may prefer phone or video conference calls over email or other communication styles.
- Certain situations call for certain communication styles: When delivering job performance feedback, a one-on-one, in-person meeting works best. When celebrating milestones or conducting project post-mortem analyses, a group meeting is appropriate. If your team is geographically dispersed or includes team members who are constantly on the go, a cloud-based communication system that works on any device is a necessity.
Step 4: Determine how frequently to communicate
Not enough communication is bad for projects, as is too much communication. Case in point, if you send too many emails, people may overlook critical updates because of a clogged inbox or too frequent irrelevant communications.
Tips for determining communication frequency:
- The goal is to keep everyone updated: Monday emails recapping what has been completed so far are okay, so are weekly status reports carried out via a video conference call. The point is there are different ways to establish a feedback loop and get everyone on the same page, so consider what works best for your team.
- Consider stakeholder preference: The project sponsor may want to receive daily updates, while the client may want weekly reports.
Step 5: Assign communication owners and audiences
The project manager is normally responsible for relaying information — downwards to team members, upwards to executives and senior management, and all around to other project stakeholders. Some communication events, however, may have to be delegated.
Tips for assigning communication owners:
- Clarify who’s responsible for which communication event: Doing so establishes accountability and makes sure owners have ample time to prepare.
- Identify the audience for each communication type: Send the right message to the right audience, and no more. This is so you don’t bog people down with unrelated and unnecessary information.
So you can visualize what we’ve just discussed, here’s a project management communication plan example summarized in a matrix:
Common pitfalls to avoid when creating a project communication plan
Project communication involves a lot of moving parts. Expectations, personalities, attitudes, and preferences differ between stakeholders, and even with a well-thought-out plan, communication problems can still arise.
We’ve identified some of the common project communication pitfalls below and what to do to avoid them.
1. No clear meeting guidelines
When different people come together to work on a shared goal, meetings are a necessary evil. But meetings are getting a bad rap — and for several reasons. One is the lack of clear guidelines.
For example, when there are no clear action items or if you invite the wrong people to a meeting, the meeting will likely go around in circles and end up nowhere, wasting everybody’s time in the process, time which would be better spent actually working on the project.
Clarify how meetings will be conducted in your communication plan. Include details such as when to send an agenda and what is expected of organizers and participants post-meeting, etc.
2. Lack of an alternate plan
Resource changes may become necessary, and sometimes, there’s nothing else you can do but go back to the drawing board and craft another plan.
Remember that a communication plan is there to aid project progress, not hamper it. Once it fails to serve its purpose, forcing it to work instead of changing it, simply because changing it can be difficult and time-consuming, is never a good idea.
Too much communication is just as bad as none, or inadequate communication. Overcommunication happens when you overload stakeholders, especially the key stakeholders, with so much data that they fall into analysis paralysis mode, making decision-making difficult.
Another is when you include people in email notification lists that share daily or weekly information not related to their work.
When communication starts to get in the way of project execution, it’s time to rethink your strategies.
Maintain project success with an airtight communication plan
We cannot stress it enough: Communication is vital to project success. And for communication to be effective, you have to have a plan.
When you sit down to write your plan, remember the many variables involved — medium preference, the stakeholder’s position in the organizational hierarchy, attitudes and expectations, and whether you have a remote team, among others. Only then can you start creating a plan tailored to the needs of everyone involved.
Also, don’t forget: In communication, distribution is only half the battle. Equally important are confirmation — confirming that the message has been received and understood — and the ability to pivot or even create a new plan when the situation calls for it.