Your Guide to Navigating the Complexities of Project Communication
If you are a project team member or any project stakeholder, you need to understand that excellent communication of all project information is key to a smooth-running project. In short, the right people need the correct information from the right people at the right time. Your Project Manager may discuss how information will be shared and may review a communication plan with you. All of it is good. However, to inspire an additional appreciation for this, I want to explain how susceptible a project is to ineffective communication and the effects of it.
Be mindful of the complexity of project communication.
First, consider the formula for calculating communication channels: N(N-1)/2. This formula provides the number of channels of communication possible pending the number of people communicating about the project.
For example, imagine there are four stakeholders on a project, and all discussed the project’s status with each other separately. That is six communication channels discussing it, or six possible versions of the truth.
Here is a basic diagram to illustrate the number of channels mentioned above.
Let’s take it further with a mock dialogue of poor communication of project information using the same number of people as described in the diagram above. In the example, you will see four stakeholders are interpreting their version of the truth about the status of the project, and in the end, Stakeholder 1 gets it right when he/she refers to the official project status report, or the single source of truth as I like to call it. You can refer to my blog post on Project Status Reporting for more on this.
NOTE: In the dialogue below, you will see mention of “Red status.” Colors are a common way of noting the status of a project. In short, the colors often used are Green = good. Yellow = somewhere between good and bad. Red = Bad.
Now, let the poor communication of a project’s status begin.
Stakeholder 1 says to Stakeholder 2, → “The Product Owner is asking for additional scope that was not originally planned as part of the project.”
Stakeholder 2 says to Stakeholder 3 → “The Product Owner said there is scope missing that must be included, so the project may go over budget and the deadline will likely be missed.”
Stakeholder 3 says to Stakeholder 4, → “I heard the project is over budget and that the team is going to miss the deadline.”
Stakeholder 4 says to Stakeholder 2, → “I heard the project budget and timeline are at risk so we should tell our boss so she can make sure her boss knows.”
Stakeholder 4 says to Stakeholder 1, → “Stakeholder 2 is telling our boss that the project is in Red status.”
Stakeholder 1 says to Stakeholder 3, → “Why is Stakeholder 4 telling our boss that the project is in Red status? That is not accurate at all. The status report states… The Product Owner is asking for additional scope that was not originally planned as part of the project. Therefore, we will estimate the work for the additional scope, report the effects on timeline and budget, and if the Product Owner and other vital stakeholders accept those effects, we will procure a change order for the additional scope and officially change the timeline and budget. In the meantime, we will continue to work through our currently approved backlog of work.”
Immediately above, Stakeholder 1 got it right by referring to the official project status report.
Now imagine there are 20 stakeholders on a project that may discuss status with each other. There would be 190 possible channels of communication, or potentially 190 versions of status (190 versions of the truth).
In conclusion, all project stakeholders need to be mindful of the potential complexity of project communication when speaking (or emailing, or texting) about a project, and seek out the single source of truth of information needing to be communicated.
Bonus Tip: When in doubt, ask the Project Manager and include him/her in conversations where project information needs to be interpreted.