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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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  1. Merv Wyeth
    Merv Wyeth 24 August 2014, 11:03 PM

    Hi Mark,I do agree with you when you talk about email. Personally, I think it is overused as a channcel of communication in the project world. It's a blunt tool that regularly leads to misunderstaing and inflames conflict, and is so often used in a defensive / 'watch your back' manner.As to measuring and metrics, I do think that elements of human psychology and behaviour are at play here - for example the whole question of "when is the best time to send out a mail-shot?" This surely is the 'bread and butter' of traditional marketing; and there are any amount of metrics available for recipients in terms of open, click through and conversion rates, and levels of 'unsubscribing.' [Is that a word?]However, notoions of conflict and consensus got me thinking about "planning poker," for estimating in agile software development, the Delphi Method for forecasting and other approaches to facilitating group decision-making [See for example Tony Mann's Process Iceberg Model] There really are some excellent alternatives to sending email ... for more discerning P3Mers!Anyway, ProgM SIG et al., are extremely grateful to you [Mark] for opening a short debate.From the quality of the feedback received during your webinar in response to the question "What kind of tools and technologies do you use in your projects [See Turbocharge Projects slideshare], I can see that this has struck a chord with others that could/should provide a basis for future conversations.Merv ;-)   

  2. Brian Wernham
    Brian Wernham 24 August 2014, 08:06 PM

    Re[for each technical solution (to IEDs) that they came up with the Taliban responded with a more complex answer]This is called the Red Queen Race:"Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place." Red Queen to Alice, 'Through the Looking-Glass' in her explanation of the nature of Looking-Glass Land 

  3. Mark Phillips
    Mark Phillips 22 August 2014, 08:05 PM

    Thank you for the write-up and the opportunity. It was a pleasure connecting with so many talented professionals from the APM ProgM SiG. Even this write-up as sparked new ideas!I'd like to offer a few comments that may be of interest. Your mention of conflict got me thinking. Conflict of some sort is nearly inevitable in a project and can often be desirable. It can help surface new issues and new ideas. But that depends on whether or not the communication environment is constructive. Rather than go into the details on this topic and its relationship to programme metrics,  I put together a blog post on it here.Regarding the discussion of suggested rules for effective communication I'd offer some additional clarification.I am not aware specific hard and fast rules for effective communicatin which can be applied across organizations. Rather, we now have new techniques that allow us to discover and implement the right rules for effective communication in our specific projects or organizations. For example, we can't say that formal communication is always preferable with multiple contractors.However, we now have the techniques to find out whether formal communication is working and how to make communication work better in that environment. We certainly can say, though, that the structure of the communication environment directly impacts project performance and the project deliverable. The same applies to elements of communication objects like time of day or day of the week it is sent.Like the structure of a communication environment, we know that these elements impact the effectiveness of communication.However, there isn't yet research that I know of that provides hard and fast rules on, for example what time of day or day of the week is best for x type of communication in y environment, such as when it is best to send project reports on large highway projects.We do now, though, have techniques which allow us to conduct this type of research, whether on our own projects or across an industry, and improve communication. Given the fundamental role of communication on project performance, it is my hope that this important research will now begin to take place. As pointed out in the write-up, this systematic approach to communication allows us to study and create effective communication in all environments, to unlock project performance and the incredible potential of each individual working on a project.All the best,-Mark