Why Communication Is the Driving Force to Successful Project Management
By Peter Christian
There are two basic types of activities that occur in business. The first are the routine happenings that take place on a regular basis and are often necessary for the successful ongoing operations of the business. Examples of these include bookkeeping; building and machinery maintenance; marketing; weekly or bimonthly payroll; quarterly budget reviews; and financial audits. A company could not operate without these.
The second are projects. They differ from routine activities in that they are conducted in order to make a change to the business, either due to a problem that has occurred or as a part of ongoing improvement. They typically have a narrow focus, a specific deadline, and have a definite end point.
Once the project has been completed, the results typically become a part of the daily, weekly, monthly, or annual workflow. Projects can be part of regular business, such as one-time promotions that are part of ongoing marketing strategies. As businesses grow and add employees and managers, they often undertake a project to create formalized organization and company policies and procedures.
When undertaking a project, there are many different situations that will govern it. Every project should have goals and objectives, as well as a scope, schedule, and budget. When these are met, that usually means that the project was successful. When at least one of these conditions is not met, that signifies a failure. For example, the project may have been over budget or taken longer than expected. Its scope, goals, and objectives may have been compromised somehow, or the project may have been given up on or canceled.
As a person who has spent most of his career working on projects as an engineer, manager, director, and consultant, I have seen several reasons for project failure, including the following:
- The project wasn’t well planned. This means that the requirements list was incomplete, there weren’t enough resources to complete the project, or the stakeholders were not sufficiently involved.
- The expectations for what could reasonably be achieved were unreasonable.
- The requirements kept changing, but key factors, such as time, money, and human resources, were not properly adjusted.
- The support from management wasn’t strong enough or was even non-existent.
- Those involved in the project did not have the knowledge, skills, and dedication required to complete it.
While all of these play an important part in a project’s success or failure, it is the last point that, in my experience, seems to be a predominant factor in the project’s outcome. In particular, the appointment of a good project manager is key to how well the project will run and whether the result will meet expectations or fall woefully short. A good project manager will exhibit the following characteristics:
- Effectively communicates with people at all levels and clearly explains the project goals, as well as each team member’s tasks, responsibilities, expectations, and feedback. The manager clearly articulates the project vision to the team members and leads the team in the right direction while easily adapting to any changes that arise.
- Demonstrates strong leadership skills and can motivate the team and drive it to maximum performance so that the stated goals are achieved.
- Makes good decisions and acts decisively on any actions that need to be taken.
- Develops the needed skills so that the team works in unison. Without this, the project will undergo various relationship challenges that might hinder its success.
- Maintains his or her cool under pressure. It is essential that the project manager always stay calm and be consistently grounded, so as not to lose proper perspective and demeanor and adversely affect the relationship with the team.
- Empathizes and cares for each team member and shows gratitude for their help.
- Exhibits competence in what he or she is doing, can initiate new and different projects, and faces the challenges that come with them.
While all of these are very important, to me, the first item is head and shoulders above the others. In running or participating in projects, communication is the most vital and important thing needed.
Properly run and successful projects have a good, if not a great, information flow. This does not mean a one-way sending of materials, thoughts, electronic missives, or the like, but an interchange with each person involved that things have been sent and received, have been reviewed and understood, and action is being taken, if needed. If information or data has been received, but something is missing, or a clarification of what was sent is needed, there needs to be a notification of such and a resolution. Otherwise, the communication is incomplete.
When there is not good communication, there are usually problems, such as misunderstandings or missteps that could cause irreparable damage. Key individuals may not get important information, restricting them from participating in decisions or actions in which their input and actions are needed. Without good communication, individuals or groups may not be apprised of changes that inevitably happen in projects, and they may be working under incorrect assumptions or outdated goals and objectives.
Project Management History
Project Management developed from various areas of application, including civil construction, engineering, and heavy defense activity. Two initiators of the discipline were Henry Gantt, who is famous for his use of the Gantt chart as a Project Management tool, and Henri Fayol, for his creation of the five management functions that form the foundation of the body of knowledge for Project and Program Management.
Modern Project Management started in the 1950s, when engineering fields came together to work as one. It was then recognized as a distinct discipline. Prior to that, projects in the United States were managed on an ad-hoc basis, using informal techniques and tools. Two project-scheduling models–Critical Path Method (CPM) and Program Evaluation and Technique (PERT)–were developed to enhance the discipline. These techniques were widely accepted and adopted by many private enterprises.
As project-scheduling models were being developed, Hans Lang and others were developing technology for project cost estimating, cost management, and engineering economics. In 1956, the American Association of Cost Engineers (now the Association for the Advancement of Cost Engineering) was formed. It continued its pioneering work and, in 2006, released the first integrated process for portfolio, program, and project management.
In 1969, the Project Management Institute (PMI) was formed in the United States. Today, it is the foremost organization in the advancement of Project Management practices, tools, and certifications in this area.
Project Management Epiphany
Previously in my career, I ran a project engineering group. We worked closely with other technical groups and manufacturing personnel to make changes and improvements to daily operations. We communicated well, and a large majority of our projects went very smoothly and were quite successful.
I was then promoted to director of operations, where I was now dealing with sales and marketing personnel. If there is ever a difference in operating styles, it certainly exists between technical and creative functions. Because of this, we had difficulty with our product development and new product introduction (NPI) projects. Even as a certified AMA project manager, I was struggling in getting things done due to my lack of control over the reasons previously stated on why projects fail.
I got approval from my vice president to bring in a project management (PM) expert to help get us on the right track. This person had developed a very successful PM program for Honeywell. He then started his own enterprise to educate and assist other companies with his approach. We assembled all the project personnel from R&D, engineering, logistics, purchasing, and sales and marketing, and laid out his program. It was based on what Lee Iacocca utilized as a project manager at Ford Corporation, including three questions that he posed to each of his team members: What are we trying to accomplish in this project? What is your role in making this happen? What is standing in your way of getting your part done?
As you can see, communication plays a tremendous role in the management of the project. The initial step is to make sure that each person on the team is thoroughly aware of what is to be accomplished, and under what guidelines. This means that each individual is on board with what the expected end result is, what the time frame to complete the project is, and what the budget is, for each portion of the work and in total. These aspects are traditionally known as quality, schedule, and cost.
It has been said that in running a project, one can expect to achieve two of the three, but must make a concession on the third. My experience through managing more than a thousand projects is that, with proper management, all three can be harmoniously achieved without compromise or sacrifice.
The second step is an assurance that each team member knows what his or her role in the project is. This means that they know, specifically, what they are to accomplish and how what they are doing ties in with each team member and their roles. It is not good enough to know what your own part is while operating in a vacuum. Each action taken by a team member affects what other members are doing. Any misstep can affect the others, so care must be taken to ensure that does not happen.
Along with knowing what needs to be done, each person also must know the time frame for completion and the expected cost to complete. Usually there is some leeway (project contingencies, time float, or such), but even these are controlled to make sure everything stays on plan and no major initiatives must be taken to clean up any mistakes.
Finally, the project manager needs to know what, if anything, is preventing a team member from completing his or her role in–and work on–the project. Complete honesty is needed here. It is the project manager’s main directive to not do any specific project work themselves, but to make sure each team member is doing what is required of them. If anything gets in the way, the project manager is tasked to remove the roadblock. If they don’t know the roadblock exists, they obviously can’t remove it, and a serious situation could arise.
This three-step process is repeated continuously throughout the project. To not do so is the sign of a poor project manager. Nothing in life is static, especially when it comes to projects. All types of things crop up that must be dealt with, including changes to the outcome, schedule, and budget. As they occur, they must be communicated to each team member, whether it directly influences them at the time or not. Communicating the changes and what they mean to each person is vital to keeping a project on its original or new track.
Also, during the course of the project, things happen to team members. Usually, the project is just one of the many work responsibilities an individual has. Demands on the others may influence an individual’s ability to complete what they had previously agreed to, and that obstacle needs to be addressed, as soon as possible. Emergencies, such as illness, also pop up, leading to lost work time, or a person may leave for a new position and no longer be a part of the project team. Without proper and timely communication of these issues, problems will invariably arise, and the longer it takes to address them, the harder they will be to correct.
If relevant issues are not properly and regularly communicated, there is a great chance that the project will not have a successful outcome. Remember the picture of the two groups meeting to join their laying of their portion of the transcontinental railroad tracks, only to find that the two sets of tracks were off by a foot? That is what happens when communication is not good.
The problem can be corrected, but not without additional time and expense to do so. A good project manager knows just how much communication is needed to ensure everything is on track. It is unacceptable for a manager to have an initial communication with the team, and then none further, while expecting each person to do what was initially laid out. It is also unacceptable to micromanage to the point that no one gets anything done because the manager takes an inordinate amount of time to check on work status.
Tools Are Not Enough
With the continuing development of project management, more and more tools are being developed to aid in the administration and control of projects. Some of the most popular and widely used are project charters, stage gates, formalization of team member roles and responsibilities, and checklists. Others are “issues and actions,” corrective action reports, and schedules.
There are several software packages that have been developed that include these and many other tools and techniques that can be used, all housed in one convenient program.
I have found that there is too much emphasis on developing and using one or more of these tools for a project, only to not properly or correctly utilize them. With any process, policy, or procedure development, the creation of each is not the end game. It is the use of these that is key, and, specifically, using them as part of the communication to keep the project team and its stakeholders up to date on what is or isn’t happening, as well as what actions are being taken to ensure the project comes off successfully.
As previously stated, good communication is not just an exchange of information, but also a thorough understanding of what has been shared so that some resultant action can take place. Too many times, information is shared, but an understanding of the message is either ignored or not understood. In such a case, communication has not really taken place.
This has happened too often in my career. On several occasions, I passed along information only to have the receiver claim that they didn’t take the time to read it or do anything about it. One time, I sent a directive not to release a product from the Far East until biological testing was completed. The recipient released it, countermanding my specific instructions. Fortunately, the shipment was held at the incoming port until the test results were received. Sure enough, the product failed the testing and was destroyed.
To prevent these types of actions, I made sure that I communicated with not just one individual about a problem or situation, but multiple people with connections to that need. Many people then knew about the problem or situation, so it was not just my responsibility to ensure that things happened per plan.
Even with the advent of text messaging and emailing, information often is passed along only to be ignored. It is a regular habit of mine to follow up within 24 hours to ensure that people have received the information that I have sent, read it, and are taking some action. It is a shame that this extra effort is necessary, but, as I say to people, “Something may be important to you, but not necessarily to someone else.” If you want to ensure that you get what you need, you cannot assume that what you send will be read and a disposition taken. So, blaming the receiver for inaction, while justifiable, is not an excuse. Follow-up is a mandatory action to take.
In summary, there are many moving parts to managing a successful project, including proper planning; reasonable expected outcomes; revision of requirements and resources as the situation changes; and ongoing management support. They also include having people on the team with the requisite knowledge, skills, and dedication to complete the project; good and proper management by a skilled manager; and proper use of needed tools.
With all of these in hand, the most important aspect is great communication.
Without this, the project is most likely doomed to fail. Even if it is completed, it may occur through a very painful process that can be avoided by appropriate sharing and understanding. That is done through a simple and repetitive three-step process that asks three necessary questions: What are we trying to accomplish in this project? What is my role in making it happen? What is standing in the way of getting my part done?
If these are addressed regularly, the chances of a successful project are essentially assured.
About the Author
Peter H. Christian was a founding partner and president of >Enterprise Systems Partners Inc. (espi), a prominent business consulting company in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. He has worked with more than 300 clients throughout the United States in the areas of manufacturing improvements, information system selection and implementation, and project and product management.
Peter’s more than 40 years of corporate experience and knowledge includes a track record of accomplishments in operational strategic planning, continuous improvement, lean manufacturing, facility planning, and supply chain.
Through his efforts, companies have collectively realized millions of dollars in cost reductions and profit improvements while adding and retaining thousands of jobs.
Prior to espi, Peter was an executive director at Crayola Corporation. He held director’s positions in engineering, quality, operations, and research and development, and played an instrumental part in the company’s 15-year growth of 700 percent.
Peter holds a B.S. in industrial engineering from Rutgers University and an M.S. in industrial engineering from Lehigh University. He is a certified Jonah with the Goldratt Institute and in senior project management with the AMA. He has been a guest lecturer at the Lehigh University’s Industrial and Systems Engineering Department and an adjunct instructor at Northampton County Community College. He has been published in IIE magazine, Industrial Management magazine, the Packaging Journal, the ASQC Journal, IIE Solutions, and Consulting magazine.
He can be reached at (610) 554-6486 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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