Re-inventing communication

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Mark Phillips is the author of Reinventing Communication, a book about project management, system design and complexity from Gower Publishing.

In the Programme Management SIG Webinar “Turbocharge project performance by reinventing communication” (below) he gave us a fascinating insight into the role and importance of communication within projects and programmes.

The slides from the webinar can be viewed / downloaded below.

A podcast can be downloaded below.

Starting with an obvious - but often overlooked - observation that projects are about people and that therefore communication between people is the binding structure that holds a project together. If communication breaks down or is ineffective then project delivery suffers. Conflict within a project has a direct impact on it, often causing cost and time overruns.

Interestingly the use of technology in communication can make things worse, not better, if it is not used wisely. The introduction of new tools can create more noise and reduce the quality of the signal.

The way in which the people are organised - for example multiple contractors or a single organisation, flat or as a hierarchy - drive the sorts of risks that projects face and affect the style of communication. With multiple contractors for example, communication needs to be formal and follow the hierarchy and the project will be exposed to more integration risk than a single organisation project.

Mark offered a couple of case studies by way of illustration.
 The F18 fighter programme - a very large and complex programme which agreed a common Earned Value Management “language” from the outset and was very successful.
 The Mars Climate Survey Orbiter on the other hand failed to agree even a common scale of measurement (metric vs imperial) between the teams of scientists with the end result that the Orbiter, literally, crashed and burned.

He introduced us to some marketing research that strongly suggests that the time of day and the day of the week that a communication message is sent can have a significant impact on how the message is received. The research indicates that messages sent toward the end of the day/week are more likely to be heard.

The effectiveness of an individual item of communication can be increased if it is a boundary object. A boundary object is something that holds common ground between different groups of stakeholders. Each group may have different insights about, and understandings of, the object but because it is shared across the groups it provides a point of common ground between them.

Mark finished with a discussion about project complexity. Recent research has suggested that problems can be broken down into 3 separate categories:
1. Tame - first order problem requiring the knowledge of a single subject matter expert. Problem is understood outcome is predictable.
2. Messy - Numerous systems involved, requiring input from multiple stakeholders. With collaboration the problem is understandable and the outcome can be predicted.
3. Wicked - Problems that emanate from people. Outcomes and solutions are not knowable upfront because people are unpredictable.

He illustrated his point with a discussion about IED bomb disposal in the Afghan conflict. The military started by treating the problem as a tame or messy one; but for each technical solution that they came up with the Taliban responded with a more complex answer. Ultimately both sides resorted to treating the problem as a wicked one and switched to focusing on  the way in which people are used both in initiating bomb blasts and disarming the IEDs.

As project managers we all recognise the importance of communication but often struggle to find ways to make it work effectively. Mark demonstrated that it is possible to approach communication in a systematic way and get predictable outcomes. He has also driven home the message that communication is not an added luxury item for project managers but actually critical to the success of their projects.

Attendees were asked to answer the question “What kind of communication tools and technologies do you use in your projects” and some fascinating answers were given. Prizes have been awarded for the two most interesting answers.

Colin Parker

 Colin has been a project manager since 1997 and a member of the APM since around 2004.   Before going freelance in 2007 he fulfilled a number of roles, including Project Manager, Service Manager and Operations Manager for a Software House.
Since then he has been busy working for a number of large clients including Thames Water, Veolia Water, Vennsys and Babcock.
His work generally includes a mixture of IT and business change with a recent focus on large contract transition management in the water utility sector. Recent projects have included an IT Infrastructure transition, Waste contractor business transition and an ERP selection project.
He has been described as being “relentless in his attention to detail without losing sight of the big picture“ and enjoys the challenge of helping clients to “get their stuff done.”

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Posted on 12th Aug 2014
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