Whether you work in a large corporation or a small business, chances are that you will one day find yourself involved in a project that involves coordinating a number of parties. Launching a new project, redesigning your website, moving your office space from one location to another—each of these projects will require a clear and thorough project plan to succeed.
“Everyone communicates, and we all think we’re proficient in it, but the reality is that we never do it enough,” says Christopher Bolick, lead faculty for the project management programs within Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies.
To illustrate this point, Bolick recommends thinking back to a recent project that you’ve been involved in personally and reviewing the outcome. If the project went well, what would you say was the key driver for success? If it went poorly, what was the most hindering factor? In many cases, the answer to both of these questions will be the same: Communication.
The simple fact is that for a project to be successful, there needs to be clear and consistent communication throughout every step of the process. That’s why it’s so important to develop a project management communication plan as a project begins.
Here, we take a look at what a project management communication plan is, what is typically included within it, and the steps you can take to generate one that will effectively help you meet your project goals.
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What is a Project Communication Plan?
To understand what a project communication plan is, it’s first important that we understand, at its core, what communication is:
“Communication is an interdependent process between two or more people,” Bolick says. “It should be a feedback loop, not a directional process. You send information, a person receives it, and they give you feedback.”
A project communication plan, on the other hand, is a document that helps project managers define this cycle of communication. These documents work to detail who will be involved, as well as how information will be delivered and disseminated throughout the course of the project.
While each project communication plan should be tailored to the unique needs of the project, most will contain the same basic elements:
- Stakeholder Communication Requirements: Early in the planning stages of the project, it’s important that the project manager interviews all key stakeholders to understand what it will take for them to stay satisfied, engaged, and favorable to the work at hand. These insights should then be used to shape the communication plan.
- Responsible Parties: While the project manager is almost always responsible for overseeing communication, other team members will likely be involved in specific functions. The communication plan should include information about any party responsible for overseeing any aspect of communication.
- Preferred Formats: A communication plan should address the preferred format for communication; Do the involved parties prefer formal reports and presentations, simple email updates, or phone calls? Most communication plans will include a mix of different formats to meet the needs of various stakeholders.
- Level of Detail: Similar to formatting, a project communication plan should outline how detailed project-related documents need to be. Do stakeholders prefer an executive summary and key points, or a large amount of detail? Knowing this information will help keep all parties satisfied once the project gets underway.
- Frequency of Communication: For each of the identified formats, be sure to identify how often communication needs to take place. For example, determine ahead of time if reports will be generated monthly or quarterly, if project meetings take place on a weekly or monthly basis, etc.
- Guidelines and Timelines: Identifying timelines for important presentations, meetings, and updates is a critical step in establishing expectations.
- Recipients: Not everyone needs to be (or should be) included in all communication. Identifying who should receive which information is a critical function of the project manager’s job.
Why Is a Project Communication Plan Important?
According to Bolick, the majority of projects fail because of poor communication. This is a sentiment shared by the Project Management Institute (PMI), which identifies miscommunication as the underlying issue in two of the seven most common causes of project failure.
“If you don’t have a communication plan, you run the great risk of introducing errors to the project,” Bolick says. “For example, receiving incorrect or inaccurate information and then sharing it with others can be catastrophic to the project.”
Creating a project communication plan allows you to outline what the communication process will look like before things kick off. It establishes workflows, processes, and expectations, which will act as guardrails for the duration of the project. As such, the communication plan is both a facilitator and a protector to ensure that the project moves forward in the way that it is designed to.
How To Create a Project Communication Plan
Below, Bolick offers three key steps that will help you craft an effective project communication plan.
1. Start with your broader project plan.
A thoroughly built project plan should contain much of the information that you will ultimately need to include in your project communication plan, making it an ideal place to start when crafting your strategy.
The project plan should detail how the project will be executed, how it will be monitored, and how it will be controlled—all of which should inform your communication plan. Similarly, the project plan should contain a list of stakeholders, which will help you define your audience, preferred communication methods, timelines, and communication cadence.
2. Evaluate the organizational climate.
How your organization is structured and how communication is viewed through the lens of the organization’s culture will naturally have a major impact on how you communicate about your project. You must understand these factors in order to create a communication plan that will accommodate these needs.
Depending on the geographic distribution of your organization’s facilities and resources, for example, it’s possible that individuals working on the same project may be located across the country, or even around the globe. While organizations that operate virtually have likely built this type of communication into the fabric of the business out of necessity, organizations that are not geographically scattered may consider face-to-face communication the norm. It’s important to identify and acknowledge aspects like this when developing your project communication plan to ensure you are creating an approach that plays to your contributors’ strengths.
Keep In Mind: Though many organizations might be accustomed to face-to-face meetings and updates, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced organizations across industries to transition to remote work. Understanding how you can facilitate remote communication while maintaining the face-to-face relationship building that your organization values will be critical to your success.
3. Evaluate your organizational processes.
Depending on your organization’s maturity, there’s a very good chance that there are already processes in place that you may reference to inform your communication plan. By identifying the processes and templates that have succeeded in the past, you can save yourself valuable time and effort.
Explore previous projects to determine what communication plans looked like at your organization in the past. If there were issues with how communication played out in that plan, do your best to understand the shortcomings so that you can make adjustments in your own approach. Similarly, if it went well, understand how you can replicate that success.
Also, consider conducting an audit of the information systems and technologies which are already being used throughout your organizations. Embracing the means of communication that your organization is already familiar with and comfortable with will make this practice that much easier and more streamlined, as opposed to adding new—and potentially unnecessary—tools.
Embracing the Importance of Communication to Your Project
A communication plan has the potential to make or break a project. For this reason, all project managers must work to understand the critical role that communication plays in the success of their projects and in their careers.
One way project managers can develop these skills is through the pursuit of an advanced degree in project management. The Master of Science in Project Management at Northeastern, for example, offers students a number of courses focused on communication in project management. Additionally, program participants can choose to complete a concentration in Organizational Communication, which allows for further development of these critical communication skills.
Northeastern’s program also offers a unique focus on the “barriers to communication in project management,” Bolick says, emphasizing that the way in which Northeastern offers classes in a variety of formats—including on-ground, online, and hybrid formats—gives students the chance to “practice their communication skills across channels.”
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