We all know that effective communication is an important project success factor, but it’s also one of the hardest things to get right. It’s anything but a soft skill; it’s a discipline grounded in theory, with well-researched models to help us plan, and it should be subject to robust measurement to ensure we’re getting it right. So, how can we boost the effectiveness of communication on our projects?
- Where are you starting from?
We can make a good guess about what our stakeholders are thinking and feeling, but they might have concerns that we haven’t thought of. Sometimes, it’s the smallest things that cause the greatest concern. A change impact assessment can help here and enable communication to be focused where it’s needed most.
Spend time doing some research. This doesn’t need to be onerous – some short telephone interviews or pulse surveys can tell you a lot. Remember that different stakeholders will have different views and these can change during the life of the project. The insight you get can be used to inform communication objectives.
- Where do you want to go?
Set some communication objectives for your project. These should be about outcomes – what do you want your stakeholders to think, feel or do? Try to make them SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timed). Having clear objectives helps to focus communication and enables you to measure it.
You may want to measure outputs too, ie what has been done. For example, newsletters sent out, social media engagement (likes, clicks, etc), stakeholders met. These can be thought about as KPIs. For example, if you want a group of stakeholders to understand something about your project, that would be an outcome. You might decide that to make this happen you need to meet with all or some of them; that would be a KPI.
- Who are you going to take with you?
All good project communication starts with knowing who your stakeholders are. Be as specific as you can when drawing up your stakeholder list. In some cases, it’s fine to capture a group, but you will also want to think about naming individuals. Take ‘the board of directors’. This is too general; you will want to treat members of the board as individuals.
Remember to look internally and externally. If the impact of your project is largely external to the organisation, you still want to take employees with you. And if it’s an internal business change, remember to look externally too. Job losses or office moves, for example, can all attract media and possibly political attention.
Also think about who is helping you to get there. The answer here, of course, is the project team. We can’t expect to get our stakeholders on board if the project team isn’t clear about the direction of travel and doesn’t explain things consistently. Keeping everyone up to speed with developments is crucial, so make sure there is a communication plan in place specifically for the team.
- How are you going to get there?
Once we know what we are trying to achieve and we’re clear about who our stakeholders are, the road to take, ie the communication channel, becomes a lot easier to work out. We need to go where our stakeholders are and tailor our channel to the message. It sounds obvious but it can be easy to get swayed by a shiny bit of technology. The key here is to put ourselves in the shoes of our stakeholders to understand what they read, watch, etc.
Think about using storytelling to explain what the change is about and why it’s happening. There is lots of evidence to show that we are more likely to retain facts when they are part of a story, and our attention is more likely to be held. Stories need to have a pattern if they are to engage. Check out Paul Smith’s CAR model, comprising Context (the introduction of a villain or challenge), Action (what is done, including a setback or failure along the way) and Result (including a point of learning for the reader or audience). You can often see this technique used in television documentaries to hold viewers’ attention.
- Are we there yet?
There is no mystery to the measurement of communication and it doesn’t need to be onerous as long as we set well-structured outcome objectives and KPIs to check progress. Make sure that communication is part of any lessons learned exercise. If done as the project progresses it will help to ensure communication improves by building on successes. And it will be a real benefit for future projects too. What worked well? How were stakeholders identified and prioritised? What didn’t work well and why?
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