We can improve project outcomes by changing our understanding of communication. The APM BOK 6th Edition states Communication is the means by which information or instructions are exchanged. It is portrayed as the necessary grease, as it were, to keep the machine of the project working. This would be true if people were mechanical. Luckily, we arent. We are each independent decision makers who use communication to decide how to act. Redefining communication to account for this helps the valuable effort of enhancing P3 management through the application of processes, methods, knowledge, skills and experience to achieve the project objects (APM BOK).
Fundamental to a new definition is the realisation that projects, programs and portfolios are executed and performed by people. People deliver results and their actions determine project outcomes. (Project is used here in the same sense as the APM BOK, as shorthand for ideas which can be valuable across the P3 continuum). Communication determines how people make decisions in a project environment. It encompasses the information they receive and the patterns they perceive in a project environment. It is the way people navigate on projects.
Every project has a communication environment. We may or may not be conscious of it. But the communication environment is the system design of the people side of a project. Research has shown that the design of the communication environment has a major impact on project outcomes. For example, in 1968, Melvin Conway famously concluded organisations which design systems (in the broad sense used here) are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations. In other words, a projects outcome will mirror the design of the projects communication environment. This was reaffirmed by a 2008 Harvard Business School working paper and supported by a wide range of case studies showing the direct impact of communication design decisions on project outcomes.
Further, the designs themselves of the communication objects we use in a project impact how people use those objects. Whether a report is read or not, may depend more on the time of day it was sent, rather than the content of the report or who sent it. This is similar to the impact non-verbal aspects of communication have on in-person communication. Dan Zarella has done some interesting work tying together specific design elements of communication objects and how the objects are used. For example, he found that a tweet is 6 times more likely to be retweeted if it is sent around 5 pm compared to 9 am. We should consider these design elements when designing communication objects on our projects.
People are at the center of project performance. In talking about communication the APM BOK states None of the tools and techniques described in this body of knowledge will work without effective communication. That is true. But I believe we can go further to improve project performance by putting communication design, and people, first. Tools and techniques are all communication design decisions. Accounting for communication design when implementing tools and techniques can enhance the probability of successful project outcomes.
We can extend the definition of successful communication. According to the APM BOK successful communication occurs when the received meaning is the same as the transmitted meaning. Instead, we can adopt an approach where successful communication occurs when communication supports the projects objectives. A definition along these lines provides guidance to project managers on what they should be sending and strategic direction to program and portfolio managers on how to design project environments. Whats more, it focuses our efforts squarely on people, the underlying drivers of project performance.
Mark Phillips is the author of Reinventing Communication: How to Design, Lead and Manage High Performing Projects published by Gower.
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