I gave a presentation at a seminar on communication for project managers. In a discussion about using video as a method of providing project update reports, I asked if people thought their stakeholders would actually take the time to view a video. I was rather shocked by the response of one of the delegates who said, “Do I care? I’ve sent the report, that’s all that’s needed.”
In a different workshop with PMO managers, someone’s New Year resolution was to ‘stop meaningless reporting’. Well, hurrah for that but the alarm bells are ringing. Are project reports just stuff to be sent out as a box-ticking exercise?
Progress reports are an opportunity
Regular communication is essential for good project management and reports have a role to play in keeping stakeholders informed about milestones, issues, resolutions, costs, risks and next steps. However, just circulating a report on its own is unlikely to achieve the goal of ‘communication’, which is to successfully exchange information.
I believe that we’re failing to recognise the purpose of the process of reporting. Reporting helps to maintain a dialogue with stakeholders, transfer knowledge, build confidence, enable stakeholder decisions and influence their actions. The process of reporting affects how well we achieve those outcomes.
In a recent APM / GoToMeeting webinar about stakeholder management, Dr. James T. Brown suggested that too many project managers communicate at ‘project level’, ie. just presenting what’s important to the project manager. Instead we need to be communicating at ‘stakeholder level’ - as a peer to each of our stakeholders. That means focusing on what is important to them, highlighting actions they need to take or information they require, managing their expectations, and managing their perceptions of a project in control or in need of intervention. Project managers have a huge opportunity to use the process of reporting as a mechanism for managing stakeholder expectations, perceptions and behaviour.
Taking advantage of a willing audience
Stakeholders do expect regular reporting. They want to see that you are tracking progress against budget, schedule and scope, and that you are flagging potential risks and pre-empting roadblocks. So they are a willing audience in terms of having you email, phone, visit, attend their meetings, corner them at the water cooler. (Trust me, having a willing audience is a significant asset when it comes to communication.)
So how can project managers take advantage of this willing audience and use progress reporting as a productive and effective process? Here are five suggestions:
Be clear about what you want to achieve each time you communicate
Instead of just sending out a report each week, use that progress update event to drive a particular outcome. For example, you may need to ensure the MD feels confident that an uncertainty has been addressed, or remind users to sign up for the next round of training, or encourage your sponsor to accelerate a decision on a business case.
Use a personal covering note or phone call to get the relevant message across. The report plays a supporting role, providing back-up data if required.
Make it easy for stakeholders to receive your intended message
People are increasingly reading email on a tablet or smartphone. So it is worth assuming that information at the bottom of a long email is unlikely to be read and attachments will probably not be opened.
Start your message with a brief description of what you need them to know. Further explanation can be provided later on in the email, or a voice message, but don’t just direct them to page four of the report that is in their inbox.
Provide what they need to know, not what they don’t need to know
There is a point where communication becomes over-communication. Overwhelming people with data that is not relevant to their particular role in your project risks becoming annoying.
Ask what each stakeholder requires in terms of reporting and updates. Do they want to see a copy of your report every time, relevant sections only, or five bullet points and a link to it? What is their preferred method of receiving an update: a face-to-face chat every week, a text first thing Monday morning before the board meeting, or a phone call only when something is urgent?
Note: Beware of under-communication where stakeholders want to turn off the tap of information. Make a judgement about what information stakeholders really need, which is not always what they ask for.
Change the format to wake people up
When you travel on a plane do you pay attention to the safety briefing from the flight attendants? Probably not, because you’ve been through it before and you know what they’re going to say. The same could be true with your project updates.
So change the routine now and again to encourage people to take notice. For example, summarise your update report in three powerpoint slides rather than a five page word document; do a 30 second update to video; change the subject of your email from “Project XYZ Update” to “Cake at the next team meeting to mark a milestone” (or whatever is appropriate); or instead of focusing on the report use the interaction to ask for feedback on a particular aspect of team performance.
Evaluate and review your approach
Sending a message does not mean it’s been received or understood. Follow up every now and again to check whether your updates are achieving your objectives. Instead of a general “did you get my email” question, ask for example:
- “did my report address your concerns?”
- “do you have the information you require to approve my choice of supplier?”
- “were you able to view my video report and did it cover the necessary points?”
If you’re not seeing the outcomes that you need, such as decisions made or feedback provided, then ask how you can improve the way you provide information.
As your project progresses, stakeholders evolve in terms of their level of understanding and involvement, and also their own priorities. Review their communications preferences regularly, asking whether they feel your updates continue to be relevant, useful and sufficient.