The Hidden Costs of Project Communication Gaps

November 20, 2023

Hands communicating across a desk while creating projects

Ineffective communication may be a key factor contributing to the challenges in your projects.

Communication is a vital aspect of our daily lives, and the success of a project is closely linked to the efficacy of its communication process and activities. According to Ascertra's study, ineffective communication significantly contributes to at least one-third of project failures. Forbes also highlighted communication failure as the foremost reason for the lack of success in enterprise IT projects. Interestingly, it was pointed out by Forbes that communication aims to establish 'rapport,' intending to share information, ideas, and attitudes within the project team. It's crucial for a communicator to avoid assuming that the receiver will interpret the message exactly as the sender intended. Communication is dynamic and multifaceted. A project manager must consider various factors, including different realities, communication spaces, verbal and non-verbal cues, and the intended versus perceived meaning.

Effective Project Communication from Project Managers and Stakeholders

Effective communication is crucial for successfully managing a project. The project manager must ensure clear and effective communication with two main groups: stakeholders, and the project team. Each project receives sponsorship from a business segment invested in the outcome, often represented on the project steering committee. This sets the objectives for the project with monitoring of progress over time. The steering committee will include other stakeholders, for example, those who will need to implement the project outcomes and those who will need to supply resources once the project outcomes have been met. All these stakeholders will need regular updates. Structured, concise and regular communication intentionally utilizing various modalities (e.g., email, collaboration tool) is a critical leverage point for the Project Manager.

In projects, the project manager frequently coordinates a large group of individuals working on different aspects, often termed as work streams. Ensuring clarity on project objectives and reporting to the project board or sponsors falls under the responsibility of the project manager. Without established and maintained effective communication, projects face numerous chances of missing deadlines and encountering unexpected issues. Structured, concise, and regular communication intentionally employing multiple modalities is a critical leverage point for the project manager.

Project Communications Management Plan

Guided by stakeholder analysis, the project manager and the project team can identify the essential type, frequency, or detail of communications. Providing stakeholders with unnecessary or undesired information offers no advantage, and the resources spent on creating and delivering such information become wasteful. A communications management plan can structure and document the communication process, types, and expectations. It provides the following:

  • The stakeholder communication requirements, intended to deliver the necessary information demanded by the stakeholders.
  • Information on what is to be communicated is outlined in this plan, specifying the expected format, content, and detail—think project reports versus quick e-mail updates.
  • Details on how critical information flows through the project to the correct individuals. The communication structure documents where the information will originate, along with to whom the information will be sent.
  • Schedules of when the various types of communication should occur. Some communications, such as status meetings, should happen on a regular schedule, while other communications may be prompted by urgent events within the project.
  • Escalation processes and timeframes for moving issues upwards in the organization when they cannot be solved at lower levels.
  • Instructions on how the communications management plan can be updated as the project progresses.

The project communications plan may also include information and guidelines for project status meetings, team meetings, e-mail, and internal social media. Setting expectations for communications and meetings early in the project establishes guidelines for the project team and stakeholders. The project manager and the project team work together to identify who needs what information. In other words, project management needs to understand the requirements for successful communication in order to plan how to achieve them.

Providing Effective Project Communication to Stakeholders

Stakeholders will need different types of information, depending on their interest in the project and the priority of the project. The project manager must conduct a thorough analysis of identified stakeholders to determine both the required information and its frequency. The project manager and the project team can identify the demand for communications using the following:

  • Organization charts
  • The project structure within the performing organization
  • Stakeholder responsibility relationships
  • Departments and disciplines involved within the project work
  • The number of individuals involved in the project
  • Internal and external information needs, and Stakeholder information

4 Key Aspects to Effective Project Communication and Common Obstacles

Effective project communication involves considering four key aspects: Who needs to be communicated to, what needs to be communicated, when it should be communicated and where it should be communicated. These areas are impacted by specific types of communication obstacles such as:

  • Political: When multiple groups are involved, the potential for vested interests and power dynamics hindering dialogue arises. These political challenges often stem from the upper echelons of the organizational hierarchy, a level or two above where projects are typically planned and executed. Project managers therefore need to make special efforts to be aware of the key political players in the organization. In traditional corporate environments, these might be functional or senior-level managers who are not always obvious project stakeholders.
    • Upon identifying key political figures, the project manager should actively seek their confidence and alignment with project goals. This approach aids in dismantling political barriers to project communications. The decision of whether to address political issues at their origin or escalate them higher should be carefully considered; escalating problems up the hierarchy, sometimes even to the manager's manager, may not always be beneficial and can be counterproductive.
  • Cultural: Organizational culture, representing the collective assumptions and values within an organization, requires attention. There can be significant variations between organizations; for instance, some may exhibit greater openness than others. Communication at the interface between two organizations with significantly different cultures can present challenges. For example, one might expect differing opinions during a joint project planning session involving a very forward-looking, can-do supplier and a conservative, risk-averse customer. Project managers can ease such difficulties by understanding the divergences in attitudes between the parties involved, and then acting as intermediaries to facilitate communication. In geographically distributed (or virtual) teams, differences between regional cultures may come into play. These could manifest in various ways, such as differences in language fluency or social attitudes and behaviors. Once again, the project leader, and the rest of the team for that matter, need to be aware of the differences and allow for them in project communications.
  • Linguistic: Understanding linguistic needs involves grasping the specialized terminology used in different disciplines like accounting, IT, marketing, etc. When specialists from diverse areas gather to discuss project-related matters, there is a tendency for each side to make assumptions, often tacitly, about a shared understanding of specialized jargon. This often leads to incomplete (at best) or incorrect (at worst) communication. Hence, practical techniques that would solve this and the above obstacles need to be identified and implemented.

Identifying Approved Communication Methods

As part of the communications planning, the project manager should identify all the required and approved methods of communicating. Certain projects may involve sensitive information accessible to select stakeholders, while others may contain information open for exploration by anyone. Regardless the case, the project manager should identify the required and approved communication methods.

The most common type of communication between a sender and a receiver is verbal communication. When verbal communication is involved, the project manager should remember that half of communication is listening. The project manager must confirm that the receiver understands the message being shared. The recipient's understanding can be confirmed through their body language, feedback, and verbal acknowledgment of the shared message. Five common concepts are employed to describe the process of communication. These include:

  • Paralingual: The pitch, tone, and inflections in the sender's voice affect the message being sent.
  • Feedback: The sender confirms that the receiver understands the message by directly asking for a response, questions for clarification, or other confirmation of the sent message.
  • Active listening: The receiver confirms that the message is being received through feedback, questions, prompts for clarity, and other signs of confirmation.
  • Effective listening: The receiver engages in the listening experience by paying attention to visual clues from the speaker and paralingual characteristics and by asking relevant questions.
  • Nonverbal: Approximately 55% of communication is nonverbal. Facial expressions, hand gestures, and body language contribute to the message.

Finally, the significance of effective communication is frequently underestimated in conversations about project success. But it is the way in which project issues can be addressed, project status can be shared, and collaboration can thrive amongst the team. Without the effective use and understanding of the key types of communication. e.g., verbal, written and nonverbal, project success can be negatively impacted.

Proactive and Clear Project Communication

It is crucial to engage in proactive and consistently clear communication within the team. Utilizing a concise, detailed, and effective communication plan, along with modalities such as email, Teams, and Slack that align with the team's culture, is essential. In project management, surprises are seldom appreciated. Over-communicating is preferable to under-communicating, ensuring everyone remains on the same page.

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