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Communication Breakdown In a Project

December 3, 2014
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7 reasons why ‘communication breakdown’ happens in a project

It is the monster that tops the ‘dread’ list of most project managers. Time delays are manageable, scope creeps are a way of life, but ‘communication breakdown’ in a project is a strict no-no. It is a clear signal that the project is headed towards failure.

Let us tackle the elephant in the room by discussing the 7 common reasons why communication failure occurs.

1) Lack of a clear communication strategy: As a project manager, you need to put together a strategy or as many teams call it, a communication calendar, at the start of the project. This lays the ground rules for communication – the dos and don’ts! It should be an exhaustive framework with artefacts that answer:

a. How – “The channel”: Do you want to have a quick scrum meeting or a detailed status email? Do you want to have face-to-face interactions or video/audio conference? For troubleshooting project issues, do you recommend chat/email/phone?

b. When – “The frequency”: While your scrums may happen daily, your detailed status meetings may be bi-weekly. Your reports to senior management may be weekly, but they may converge to daily, during peak milestones.

c. What - “The data”: Do you want metrics/charts/reports? Do you want a schedule update or do you prefer words and want a detailed issue update? Typically, most project managers create standard templates so there is no confusion about what data needs to be shared.

d. Who – “The people”: This is to get the how/when/what tweaked for the target audience. For e.g., while every team communicates internally, they also have to interact across teams and sometimes departments and definitely, clients.

2) Lack of commitment to stick to the strategy: Most projects have an impressive strategy, but when it comes to implementing it, people come up with excuses. Time and again, status mails are not sent out or meetings cancelled, since people believe there is no information to share. Some common examples of excuses are…

- “Not much happened this week, so there was nothing to update” (Why? Is it because you were on vacation or is your time being spent on another activity that the rest of the team has to be aware of?)

- “I am stuck in the same problem as last week” (Okay, why don’t you say the same thing in your status, so people know it’s been a difficult problem to deal with? Even better, maybe someone can help you with a solution)

- “The project is on schedule and everyone knows that” (Great, why don’t you share the good news? You think everyone knows, but you will be surprised how many do not)

If you still hear the excuses frequently, you may need to revisit your original strategy. Maybe, you have set the frequency too often or you’re expecting a lot of cumbersome data to be reported.

3) Missing out communication to key stakeholders: Typically, a stakeholder identification exercise is done at the project start. Still, at times, data is missed being shared with stakeholders because you think that they are not interested in a particular aspect of the project or you may under-estimate the import of the information to be shared. When you are in doubt, you can safely lean on the side of over-communication.

For e.g., in one of the projects we worked on, we involved the client at every stage to the extent that the client felt equal accountability when there were delays. He understood the background of the delays and helped us get his team’s buy-in for more time.

4) When only good news is talked about and bad news is made to sleep: We all like to give good news, don’t we? Bad news can always wait for a few days..? Sorry, but no! Firstly, bad news sounds worse, when it comes late and also leads to trust issues, because people start suspecting you of not being transparent. Secondly, you need to talk about what you are doing to fix the problem or if you need help to solve it. Invariably, you will find someone who has been there, done that and would reach out to assist you.

5) When no one is listening: Everyone is talking and sharing, but is someone listening? Hopefully, as a project manager, that person is you! While the team is busy with their head buried in work, the project needs you to look at the holistic picture, watch out for those problems creeping in and keep a tab on low risks snowballing into something huge.

6) Vagueness in communication: Abstract and unambiguous communication is sometimes done purposefully and sometimes because people lack clarity of thought. For example, when someone says, “80% of the task is complete”, often it’s found that there is no systemic way for this calculation. This results in different people interpreting the same number differently leading to a dangerous trend. It is imperative for communication to be specific.

7) People conflicts: Personality and ego conflicts are fundamental issues and perhaps, the toughest to solve. You may have a team member walking up to you and saying “I don’t want to work with that guy”. Unfortunately, resourcing is not that simple!

You may have observed that two members often get into unproductive arguments in meetings. As a project manager, you will have to ensure that individuals in conflict are able to establish a professional relationship that does not hinder the project’s progress. Sometimes, you have to suggest them a communication channel like email, where it’s easier to be formal and data-oriented. Sometimes, you may need to act as a facilitator in meetings where both are present and show your leadership when it comes to overriding decisions.

As a project manager, preventing a communication breakdown is your top priority. Watch out for these 7 warning signs and you will be able to exercise better control over your project.


About the Author

Ramya Srinivasan lives in Bengaluru, India and is a freelance writer and blogger. She has a management degree from IIM-B and a corporate experience of twelve years. She loves to share her views on project management based on her own hits and misses in the domain. With many featured stories and articles on books, travel, parenting and movies to her credit, she aspires to publish her first book soon.


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