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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Project Communication: When It Ain't Broke, It Can Fix Whatever Is

We talk about communication all the time, but we rarely communicate about it.

Communication. It’s one of those everyday pervasive things we notice only when it trips us up – and even then we pause only long enough to cuss a bit. Then we move on, busily sowing new communication pratfalls pretty much like the last one.

Wait a minute! Back there, I said we talk but don’t communicate. What does that mean? We’re seeming to claim that talking is not the same as communicating.

Good question. Now we can get into the subject in a meaningful way, and examine how it lurks in just about every problem among people. And therefore in every solution. Especially in project management.

Communication does indeed occur when we talk, but the talking itself isn’t the whole thing, and often isn’t even the main thing. Other factors can be better carriers of useful information between the conversational parties than the words are. It’s a lot harder to understand and be understood when, for example, you can’t see the person(s) you’re talking to. It’s even harder when you can’t hear or be heard, such as when the exchange is through writing rather than speech.

Whatever the situation or vehicle, it’s difficult to communicate meaningfully when the subject matter is complex, dynamic and unfamiliar – say, when you’re managing a serious project. Doing it remotely, and/or across cultures, multiplies the barriers. And it’s infinitely worse when there is ignorance, misunderstanding, hostility or conflict. Open, latent or disguised.

Just sticking with regular project management, among culturally homogeneous, co-located people, you have to conclude that most projects don’t meet reasonable expectations for schedule, cost and outcome. Ideal project outcomes are just not that frequent, because ideal project situations are just not that frequent.

Why is it so tough to manage projects to happy endings? Not surprisingly, my endless string of project manager surveys about the worst project failings nearly always places communication right up in the top three, often first. The other top flaws are essentially caused by or are dependent upon communication.

When communication fails, everything fails. When something else goes wrong, communication always is essential to the repair. How?

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