Communication, Part One

“Communication is 90% of what a project manager’s job.” That thought has been a part of my professional DNA for so long that that I don’t remember if it was from the PMBOK® or one of RMC’s PM courses. Project management, at its root, is methodology for social organization to accomplish a time bound goal – and communication is absolutely key.

Communication is a huge topic. I’m constantly learning new things about it, and you should as well. The larger the organization, the bigger the project, the greater the need for strategic communication planning.

How can we break down types of communication? Well, communication can be formal or informal. Formal items are like corporate filings, presentations to management, annual reviews and court summons. Informal is like phoning a friend, hallway conversations, email or texting. Formal/informal communication is mostly a distinction of how “official” the message is. Addressing a court summons vs. returning the call of a friend have very different failure consequences, and therefore different priority and urgency.

Communication can also be written or verbal. Written is like a billboard, newsletter, pamphlet or email. Verbal is a speech, radio or TV news. Written/verbal can be mixed to maximize impact. If I give a presentation, and then also give you handouts to take home, you’re much more likely to remember and retain the information I’ve presented.

Formal and informal, written and verbal — those are the types of communication you’ll be using in a project.

Let’s break down communication into its simplest form in order to better understand it. The model used in most communication theory is the Shannon-Weaver Model. (Side note: Do you know how hard it is to get professional, culturally sensitive, graphics at a reasonable license price? Hard. Please enjoy my meant-to-be-inoffensive-and-inclusive doodles!)

Let’s explain our simple 1:1 interaction. There’s an idea the sender has. The sender encodes that idea, transmits a message over a channel, the receiver decodes it, and hopefully winds up with the same idea as the sender. That can be validated by the receiver taking their concept of the idea, encoding it, sending a message which the original sender decodes and compares to their idea. If the sender agrees it sounds correct, we can confidently say “communication has happened!”

As you can see, communication is a complex activity. What happens when we have more participants? How many different channels with four people?

The more people, the more complex this gets. The formula is x = n * (n-1)/2.  So the number of possible channels are:

  • 4  people:  6
  • 10  people: 45
  • 20  people: 190
  • 50  people:  1,225
  • 500 people: 124,750
  • 5,000 people: 12,497,500

So, if your project involves 5,000 people, there’s nearly 12.5 MILLION possible communication channels. That’s a lot. Maybe it would be good to strategically plan how you’re going to communicate in that project?

A communication plan answers who needs to know what, when. It’s essential to address communication needs from the beginning of the project through its closing. To determine the “who, what, when and where” of project communications, a stakeholder analysis must be performed. What information do stakeholders need, how will it be distributed, how often using what methods, how will it be stored and archived to be available as needed?  These are all questions that the communication plan should address.

Every individual communication should involve consideration of five elements:

  • Goal – what is trying to be accomplished
  • Message – what needs to be said and its timeliness
  • Audience – who needs to know and why, segmented
  • Medium – how the message gets out, meeting, web site, email, RSS
  • Metric – measurement of whether the goal was accomplished

The first and second elements are goals and metrics, which go hand-in-hand. The goal is what is trying to be accomplished, and should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound (SMART). Goals in communication could be action, informing, persuasion, motivation, decision making support or education. The metric is a measurement of whether the goal was accomplished. Example metrics for the goals listed are:

  • Action metric – did the desired action happen on time and by specification?
  • Information metric – did the audience receive the information, understand it
  • Persuasion metric – audience mind changed?
  • Motivation metric – is output measurably increased?
  • Decision making support metric – do follow-up questions indicate understanding?
  • Education metric – do class scores on tests demonstrate absorption of material?

The third element is message. The message is what needs to be said and its timelines. In its simplest form, it’s an object of information. The formation of the message is based on its goal. There are other things that influence a message. If you consider, communication patterns change depending on the relative positions of the participants; a person speaks differently to their boss than their children. Here are some items that influence the way that a message is both encoded and decoded:

  • Social context (professional, informal, etc.)
  • Assumptions (underlying framework of the interaction)
  • Perception (different people see the same event differently; a coach vs. a player vs. a spectator)
  • Attitudes (towards self, receiver, subject)
  • Past Experiences (how prior interactions have gone; see my post on ethics)
  • Culture (different countries, different age groups, different genders)

Noise is a result of these influences.  This is a reason why it is critically important to check that the message was received appropriately. The best way to do so is for a receiver to decode and repeat back the understanding to the original sender in a feedback loop.

The fourth element is the audience. What I mean by segmentation is consider the different groups of people. You’ll have individual contributors, leads, group managers, directors, executives etc. You could have software developers, technical PMs, marketing, engineering support, etc. You could have multiple companies involved. You could have multiple geographic locations and time zone considerations. A message may have a primary audience and a secondary audience. The message might need to be different depending on the audience. Different stakeholders will have different information needs. If you have too many messages, or untargeted messages, audience “numbness” results.

The fifth element is the medium. The medium is how the message gets out, for example, a meeting, web site, email, RSS feed, and so on. The choice of medium is based on timeliness, cost effectiveness and reach. A medium can be interactive (a meeting, social network), push (newsletters, status reports, email) or pull (web sites, posters, billboards). Choice of medium is important. Meetings are good for back-and-forth idea generation or for decision making, but they shouldn’t be used to disseminate information that can be given in email. A fire alarm, noise and blinking lights, is a very particular type of push message, its timeliness is immediate and meaning well socialized in fire drills. Web sites, a pull medium, are good for collaboration and for reference; they aren’t very good for immediate information. You wouldn’t want a web site to say “FIRE! GET OUT OF THE BUILDING NOW!”

So that’s the essentials of communication, part one of three.  In part two, I will share and analyze my favorite communication of all time and provide a high level example of communication planning. In part three, I will share thoughts and tricks that I’ve collected over the years.