Why Is Communication Important in Project Management?
By Michael L Young
It’s pretty simple stuff isn’t it? If you can talk and if you can write you can communicate. What’s so hard about that?
It could be said that if the schedule is comprehensive, if the project is well-scoped, if expectations, outcomes and duties are clearly described then everybody should know everything they need to know to get on with the job and the project should succeed.
We all know though that because of one unpredictable element it’s not always as simple as that for a message to be sent and received in the way it was intended. That element is humans.
No matter how clearly we describe things people are bound to misread, misinterpret and misunderstand. A good project manager needs to understand the various components of communication and what can be done to ensure each is addressed to maximise the effectiveness of communication.
Theorist David Berlo developed a model back in the 1960’s that still holds true. He proposed that the four elements of communication are the source, the message, the channel and the receiver and that each of these elements has different factors impacting on them to reduce or enhance the quality of the communication.
The source of the message, as a human being, is influenced by many factors such as: their level of written and spoken ability, personal attitudes to issues and people, level of knowledge about the subject, social systems they operate in and their individual cultural background. The crafting of the message – whether verbal, non-verbal or written – is impacted at the very start by all these issues. For example a person who has a negative attitude to a proposed change is likely to communicate information about it using a negative tone. An expert might want to use jargon and language that novices may not understand.
The message itself includes its: content, structure, coding and language, all of which impact on its ability to be received and understood. If there is too much information included in the message it may get lost.
Scientists have proven that 70% of what is heard is forgotten so too much information will not be taken in. If the message is not put together in logical manner people will find it harder to access. This is where spelling and grammar come in. If you use the generally accepted rules of language (including the distinctive language of your industry) your message is much more likely to be read or heard correctly.
The Channel of communication is another point at which communication can go awry. Communication is not just about talking and writing.
Human beings use all of their senses to take in information. How a written instruction is layed visually out on the page can have a huge impact on how the information is taken in and comprehended by the reader. The addition of sound to a PowerPoint presentation can increase its effectiveness significantly.
The last piece in the communications puzzle is the receiver. The person who is interpreting the message has the same cultural, attitudinal, knowledge and other issues impacting on them as the sender. An audience member who is in a bad mood is much more likely to react to the negative tone of the original message. How many times have you heard someone say “that went over my head”, to describe how they were unable to decode a message for which they had no context or no technical knowledge.
In carefully constructing a message and deciding on the best communication channels, the sender of the message needs to consider the many different elements that can create barriers to good communication and identify ways to remove those barriers for clear communication.
Barriers and Gateways to communication
The importance of recognising communication barriers is that once we recognise them we better understand their complexity and their causes. The way to do this is through genuine listening. Listening enables us to better understand the other person’s communication style and identify communication gateways.
Communication barriers can be interpersonal such as hostility between different teams. They can be intrapersonal such as psychological barriers. A stressed person is much less likely to receive a message clearly than someone who feels calm and in control. Barriers can also be in the environment. Simple things, such as noise, make the message inaudible or complex things such as conflicting messages from management confuse the audience.
The way to identify these is to take time to get to know stakeholders and team members better. Listening to get a good background on the issues that affect them will help to highlight ways your communication can be improved.
In complex organisations we tend to rely most often on written communication in the form of policies, procedures, schedules, minutes, research papers etc. We also use verbal communication forums such as meetings and presentations to get our messages across in a more formal manner.
In planning and executing communication, consideration needs to be given to the messages delivered through non-verbal communication. This includes such factors as body language, appearance, ambience, use of visual clues, facial expressions and gestures. Each of these needs to be consistent with the verbal message or even the written message being presented.
Ways to improve communication
To help project managers address the complexity of good communication, Transformed has identified some tried and tested tactics:
- Keep the message simple – use numerous short messages rather than one long message and keep the message to a single topic (especially in email)
Write down as much as possible – written communication can be examined many times to improve understanding
Communicate messages through a number of different media – different people learn in different ways. Try using at least visual, auditory and activity-based methods of communication to capture as many people as possible.
Repeat key messages frequently – advertising does this well – repeat the message to maximise the likelihood that a person will hear it when they are most open to it.
Explain why decisions are made – giving people context with their information helps them to process it in a way that is easy for them.
Hold regular, focussed team meetings – take every opportunity to listen and understand how others communicate.
Ask questions and encourage feedback – if people don’t understand you, find out why and fix it.
Michael Young is Principal Consultant with ‘Transformed’ – Project Management Unleashed. http://www.transformed.com.au