Efficient Communications

– Russell Harley, veteran project manager and Director at PMO, says:

This may sound difficult to believe, but it can be true. In the definition of Efficient we find the following: “achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense.” While this is great for busy executives and companies, it is terrible for projects, especially when it comes to communicating about the project with others.

How many meetings have been held where the participants arrive late, have another meeting so they need to leave early and, or just want a 15-minute review of what is going on? While this can certainly meet the definition of Efficient, it completely ignores the underlying need for the time to communicate the real issues/challenges for a project. If the project is of great importance for a business, then the leadership/sponsors involved should be willing to actually make time for an in-depth review on a regular basis. Don’t believe this?

In the International Journal of Computer Applications (0975 – 8887) Volume 86 – No 6, January 2014 a research paper titled Project Failure Case Studies and Suggestion was published by Nilofur Abbasi, et el. ( In section 2.1 the authors state that, “Senior management must prioritize requirements and make decisions. If any person is not actively involved in a project, that project is doomed for failure.” They go further in the same section saying that unclear project objectives, scope creep, gaps in communications, and lack of visibility of all projects are additional causes of project failure.

The sad thing is, none of this should be news to anyone. All of these causes can be traced, directly or indirectly, to people trying to communicate too rapidly and concisely. The fact that these reasons are still being highlighted in 2014 indicates that people are not willing to address them in order for projects to succeed. Basically, we know what we need to do, but choose not to.

Imagine this scenario. Your family is having a crisis of some kind. Maybe you and your spouse are not communicating as much. Or misunderstanding each other more and it is causing major issues. If you want things to get back on track, do you want to spend just 15 minutes of your day or week trying to fix things? If you are serious, you take the time, like hours, maybe even a weekend, to discuss what is wrong, best ways to fix it, and how to move forward better. Doesn’t that sound very similar to what companies need to do to fix critical projects that are in trouble?

Yet project/program managers feel lucky if they get a full 30 minutes with leadership/sponsors on a regular basis. Much less the hours with the full team that is really needed. To cover all the decisions, risks and issues in depth is typically out of the question. This is because these items are needed to be reviewed as efficiently as possible so everything can at least be addressed. Otherwise, you get comments like, “Why was this not brought up in out last meeting?” While not helpful to long-term employment, maybe a response of “You were too busy to listen,” would underscore the real issue.

There also seems to be some misunderstanding between Efficient and Effective. They do not mean the same thing at all. You can have very effective communications that are also efficient, but being efficient does not necessarily mean communication will be effective. Very often it has the complete opposite effect.

There have been meetings where everyone has agreed on a plan of action, even documented, and then a week-or two-later things are off track again because party A misunderstood a decision or plan. This is one reason that the Project Management Institute’s project process requires so much documentation (which no one reads once approved, but that is a different communication issue). The talks involved in determining what goes into the Charter, Scope, etc. has to have lots of discussions. So having to cover similar topics over and over again about the project at least can get things better understood by repetition, if nothing else. Even if the repetition is only in 30-minute segments a week.

Then we have the challenge of adding additional communication steps into the mix. While you might be able to have efficient communications with person A, this does not mean A will have good communications with B. This is common when Sponsors say, “I am too busy to handle this project so Joe/Sally/anyone else but me will handle everything from now on.” While, hopefully, whomever they delegate to may have more time to communicate, this does not mean that they can have any more time with the sponsor than was already available to the project/program manager already. Yet we now have an additional person(s) to communicate with.

The other challenge with delegation is that the delegate may not have the full authority to make decisions for the project. While this official transfer of authority does not happen very often, when it does AND the delegate does have the time to spend with the team to have in-depth conversations, it can have an amazing impact on a project.  Unfortunately, most of the time, the delegate is just there to take notes and have to check with the sponsor for any decisions. This just adds to the communication difficulties and the time involved versus being helpful, at least to the project, anyway.

So how did we get here and what can we do about it? Shortened communications started with trying to communicate over long distances using flags, smoke signals, etc. Today we have Instant Messaging, Twitter, etc. If people could figure out how to communicate well with just using a single letter, we would be doing it. It has become a source of pride to see how much can be said with just 140 characters.

This seems to have been extended into the work place as well. Even to emails with answers like, “Yes” to questions like, “Do you think we need to extend the due date or add more people to the task?” While one could make the assumption that the ‘Yes’ applies to the first part, ‘extend the due date,’ that assumption could lead to even more issues if that assumption turns out to be wrong. So to be sure, and project managers really like to be sure about dates and resources, additional back-and-forth emails are now needed to gain clarity. Not efficient by any means.

Is communicating quickly and with minimal content efficient? Yes. But it is not a way to communicate well by any means, not without a lot of effort. How many 140 characters are needed to cover a complex task or decision to the point where everyone has a clear understanding? And that is the bottom line. To communicate well, time needs to be spent so that the content is clear and understood by all. Without that, 10 years from now we will still be reading about why projects fail and have the exact same list of reasons as to why.

About the Author Russell Harley, PMO (   
Russell Harley is a veteran project manager and PMO director, passionate about helping organizations embrace world-class project management practices and “climb out of the quicksand” in terms of gaining control over complex, ever-changing project portfolios. The best practices he advocates stem from key learning’s acquired from his M.S Degree in Project Management, combined with over 20 years of hands-on PM experience in the high technology, telecommunications, and clean energy sectors.