In the real estate world, an agent’s mantra is “Location, location, location.” This is because with all things being equal, location is the one key factor that can and will determine ultimate success in a real estate venture—whether commercial or residential. In the project management world, it is all about “Communication, communication, communication” and, as in the real estate world, with all other things being equal, the project with the best communication will come out on top.
What does this mean and why is it so? I would bet that most experienced people would not argue on either the location or communication aspects of each respective industry, but how do we make sure that we follow the respective mantras? I am not a real estate person and although I have many friends that are, I can speak little to their industry. Project management, on the other hand, is what I do and have done for many years, so for this I have some insight.
To get things started, I am going to cover the various forms of communication, then dive into the ways that each method can be used on a project to help make it successful.
Communication happens through various methods, with each having levels of success depending on how they are implemented. As we know it, communication most commonly happens via one of three ways; verbal, written, and visual. Each of these has multiple subsets and often a combination of one or more is used to communicate an idea, concept, or concern.
One of the most common (and one of the oldest) forms of communication is verbal. Verbal communication is often done through face-to-face interactions, telephone or video calls, or thorough voice messages. Verbal communication happens in meetings, presentations, video and voice recordings, and basic one-on-one conversations. Long before the current world of technology tools, verbal communication was the best way to convey a point, concern, or idea.
Written communication is the best way to share very detailed information, as having someone go on and on about legal or statistical information can and will often be mind-numbing. Written communication is the most common way to archive and record information that requires a historical record, while providing the ability to share and review a communication at a time that is more convenient to the audience.
Visual communication can be done as a stand-alone product or included or added to one of the previous two methods to successfully get a point across or share information. Visual communication is often done through pictures, diagrams, or videos. In our modern world, visual communication has taken on a much more prominent role. As an example, consider the more common everyday tasks of portraying emotions or thoughts to friends, family, and even business associates using emoticons. Simple symbols can convey emotions or opinions that most people will associate with a communication of ideas or feelings. When thinking visual, think of the common phrase “A picture is worth a thousand words.”
A successful project manager will use all the above communication methods at various stages of the project to share data, convey importance, and keep the project team up to date. Verbal communications will be used in individual phone calls, conference calls, and one-on-one conversations. Written communications will be used to convey contract requirements, specifications, and documenting historical data. Visual communications will be used to clearly define objectives, and show historical information through graphs, charts, and photographs.
As a project manager, how do you use the various methods of communication available to you to make your project successful? The important thing here is to know your audience. All projects have various parties involved that you need to communicate with, and knowing the needs of your audience will help determine your communication method.
Projects have varying levels of complexity and with that comes varying levels of communication requirements. In a more formal project management structure, there are methods to track what certain people need to know, when they need to know it, and how information will be conveyed to them. In my world of multi-million-dollar projects with many people involved, I must have a method of determining how to communicate with them. But in any project of any size, this is a critical consideration.
Projects have “stakeholders,” a broad term for anyone directly involved in or affected by your project. Stakeholders include design partners, contractors, customers, and end users. All these individuals require a specifc level of communication.
A simple way to determine how the communication is handled is through what is called a RACI matrix. RACI is a simple concept that can be applied to projects of any size and will help anyone develop a basis for a communication plan. RACI is an acronym that stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed. What this boils down to is that certain people on a project have Responsible roles, some are Accountable for specific outcomes in the project, some need to be Consulted on the steps, and some just need to be Informed about what is happening.
By knowing the roles of people on your project, you can determine the methods used to communicate with them.
Responsible and accountable are significant roles, and will typically be one of the areas where your role is covered. As a project manager, you are likely going to be ultimately responsible for the project’s success. You may report to people who are accountable to a higher authority, which could affect your ability to perform your role. These individuals may require a high level of communication via a combination of verbal, written, and visual presentations.
Accountable stakeholders are those you often need to communicate with verbally and in writing to make sure they are aware of what is happening and to get approvals from when required. These people are ultimately at risk if the project fails.
The stakeholders that you consult with are important, in that they provide information to you that you share with others on the team to complete one or more phases of the project. This is an area where verbal, written, and visual communications are key. You need to communicate the consultant’s information or requirements to all the other stakeholders.
The informed stakeholders are those you need to keep “in the know.” These stakeholders need to know what is happening overall, but do not necessarily need to know every detail. This is a great opportunity to provide minimal written and visual communications to provide a summary of the project status. An executive summary and some pictures or graphs may be all you need to keep these stakeholders up to date.
Once you have figured out your audience and what needs to be provided, you need to figure out how to optimize those communications. This is where it gets fun.
Let’s talk about verbal communications. One of my favorite quotes comes from multiple books I have read:
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw
What does this mean? How many conversations have you had with individuals or a group where you feel that you made your point and that you both or all had the same understanding about the point or topic, only to find out later that it was not the case? Verbal communications can be tricky, as they are often conducted in a private one-on-one setting or phone call and the others in the conversation may be distracted and not fully engaged.
With verbal communications, it is a good idea to follow-up in writing about the conversation to make sure the agreed upon understanding is accurate. A quick way to validate this is to send written correspondence (typically an email) to all those involved, stating your understanding about the conversation and that unless you hear otherwise, you will proceed with those facts. Give the parties a reasonable but specific timeframe to reply to the contrary or acceptance before you move ahead. If timing is critical, follow-up with a phone call. This is commonly referred to as a “CYA.”
When having verbal communications, a key skill is “active listening.” Conversations are meant to be a two-way street—otherwise, it would just be you talking and hoping that the other party or parties are truly engaged and understand what has been communicated. I recommend that you Google the term “active listening” and learn more about what it means. A few key points are listed below.
Avoid Evaluative Listening:
- Hold off forming opinions until the speaker’s message is complete.
- Don't obsess with or focus on emotional words or phrases.
- Concentrate on the speaker, not on your intended rebuttal.
Steps to Ensure Active Listening:
- Truly listen by providing the speaker with your undivided attention.
- Reduce or eliminate noise or other distractions.
- Organize the message you hear.
- Check your understanding of what has been said by repeating it back in your own words.
Written communication is a great tool, too, as in the example above. It can be used to validate understanding from a verbal communication. When it comes to conveying very detailed information or requirements, written communication is typically the best way to do so. Written communication can be shared with many stakeholders at once, it can be used as a historical means of tracking conversations, and it can be used to spell out levels of detail that are not easy to do with verbal conversation alone.
Examples of written communication in the realm of project management include daily correspondence through emails, meeting minutes, status updates, questionnaires, specifications, process steps, task lists, and others. Written communications can also involve tweets and texts, although these are not typically used for business communication.
Once again, knowing your audience helps in how to format and share your written communications. Because written communication has such a broad range of possibilities, you need to consider the points that need to be made and how succinct or detailed you need to make them.
When spelling out specifications or project requirements, detail is important, but when providing status updates, brevity is the way to go. For specifications and specific requirements, you want to make the communication as detailed as possible, which could involve pages of information to make sure all objectives are covered. When sharing status updates, you need to make sure that key points are communicated and excess information is not included that could cause distractions or confusion for your audience. This is where an executive summary provides your best level of detail.
An executive summary is a short document or paragraph that is typically provided for, as the statement indicates, executives. In the business world, executives are extremely busy and their time is limited. You need to communicate your idea or update in a manner that gets your points across in a brief yet clear way. The readers need to be able to quickly become acquainted with the facts about something that may be pulled from a much larger body of material without them having to read it all. This summary will often include key project information such as the status of schedule milestones and budget adherence. To do this successfully, you may need to combine your written summary with the last form of communication—visual.
Visual communication can provide a lot of detail in the form of graphs, diagrams, charts, and pictures. Visual representations of a schedule, a budget snapshot via a screenshot from accounting software, and photos of the current progress of an ongoing project are all very common and useful methods to communicate ideas and status. In the modern world of communication, PowerPoint is a common way of presenting data to audiences of all sizes. Figuring out how to best present the data though PowerPoint or another similar tool is a skill. Be creative and, as always, keep your audience in mind. PowerPoint is a visual communication tool—don’t just fill it with slides full of text.
Over the course of a project, a project manager needs to keep all stakeholders up to date with myriad information. This information will include schedule, budget, risks, resources, and lessons learned. In future articles I will cover these items in more detail. To keep your project moving ahead and get the approvals and buy-in you need to make it successful, you need to know the various forms of communications that are at your disposal and how to best use them. To master the three forms of communication, I encourage you to study, read, and follow examples of other successful project managers so you can master your trade and ultimately be an example to others.
If you would like to learn more about communication methods and the associated skill sets, consider doing some research on the topic. Although Google searches can provide some great information, a few books I have read may provide a good starting point on this topic.
Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High – Kerry Patterson, Joseph Greeny, Tron McMillan, Al Switzler and Laura Rope
We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter – Celeste Headlee
A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide) –Sixth Edition – Project Management Institute
Do you have questions about this or other project management topics, or would you like to see more detail on a specific area? If so, please send an email to email@example.com with your questions or comments.