Avoiding a bad case of broken telephone

When we think of Project Managers we tend to think of communications as one of their key skills. I’ve spoken numerous times about the importance of communications in project management.

These days we tend to think of how connected we are. In the last 20 years, communications has evolved at an ever-increasing pace.  We think nothing now of being connected 24×7 no matter where we are in the world.  We are linked to the Internet from the phone on our hip, from the tablet in a purse, from a laptop in a bag or from one of many devices.

Even the availability of cell phone coverage is becoming less of a factor. For an upcoming hiking trip, I purchased a Satellite/GPS device that can exchange email or text messages no matter where on the planet I happen to be.  The costs of such devices used to be prohibitive, but no longer.

We used to think of communications as speaking in person. Then voice-to-voice phone calls became commonplace.  For business we marveled at the FAX machine and the impact it had on getting signed contracts.  Email has now, of course, become a constant in our business and personal lives.

With all these new manners of communicating, project managers should be much more effective than ever before, shouldn’t they?

In some cases they are. Global communications has made some projects possible that we could have never thought of before.  Project teams that are not co-located but instead span many time zones and even countries are now commonplace.

But is it always more effective?

Consider this question: “Where does communication happen?”

Does it happen in your mouth as you utter a sentence? Does it happen on your screen as you compose an email?  Does it happen on your phone when you click Send on a text?

I don’t think so.

Communication always happens at the listener, not the speaker.

Oh yes, I understand that the listener wouldn’t have anything to listen to if it weren’t for the speaker but the only part of the communication worth measuring is where it arrives and is understood by the recipient.

Let’s say you get on a plane as a passenger and the intercom isn’t working  just as happened to me once years ago in a rather small country. The flight attendant stands at the front of the aisle and starts the safety briefing in a low voice that only they can hear.  Now I’ve flown some over my years and I’m pretty sure I could recite a complete safety briefing from memory but that day as they pulled out a lifejacket and mimicked putting it on, I became incredibly intent at what they were trying to communicate.  For the flight attendant, they may have thought that they could hear it themselves, so – communication delivered.  But it obviously was not.

In project management terms I’ve noticed an interested but disturbing trend among some project managers. It may have something to do with a new generation of project managers who are more used to digital communication than person-to-person or voice-to-voice so that the impact isn’t obvious but there are many project managers who have taken to using blogs, texts, collaboration messaging software or even social media to inform stakeholders without ensuring that their communications are being understood.

The result can be a mind-boggling disconnect. The project manager points to their communications plan and says “But I said I’d keep everyone up to date on our blog” and they have.  But just uttering the communication or updating the dashboard or progressing the schedule is an insufficient structure for ensuring that communications occur.

We’ve had our own version of this in our technical support group.

“Is that issue for the client resolved?” I’ll ask.

“Yes,” replies one of our technical staff.

“Has the client confirmed that the fix we sent resolved the problem?” I’ll continue.

“Oh. Um, not yet,” they say.  “I did send an email but they didn’t reply.”

“Well then the issue can’t be resolved,” I conclude. “Get on a voice-to-voice call and confirm.’

We’ve had to put structures in place to ensure that clients confirm that their problem is fixed and the same problem occurs with project management in many places.

Project managers have to guard that they don’t become a source or enabler of one-way project communications. As they make their plans for different types of communications and the myriad options of communication methods available over which to communicate, the most important principle to remember is this:

Communication happens at the listener, not the speaker.