Communication: How much, how often, and to whom?

I wrote this as a discussion starter on LinkedIn and figured I might as well put it here, with a few minor edits and expansion on ideas:

With small, short-term projects involving and/or affecting a limited number of stakeholders, communication of progress and change is fairly straight-forward. If communication takes a bit of a backseat chances are you can remedy that with a quick email or phonecall. However, with large, long-term projects like a core systems replacement, communication has to be aimed at different groups with varying levels of detail and possibly at different intervals.

In my experience, I’ve seen a variety of approaches:

  1. Detailed and frequent to stakeholders and executives along with regular (in this case monthly) communication to the organization on progress and potential change. The project team was also given talking points for those elevator/water cooler conversations.
  2. Detailed and frequent communication to executives and leaders with the assumption that the messages will be passed along and trickle-down. Any communication to the organization as a whole tended to be high-level and sporadic.
  3. Little to no communication to the organization except what stakeholders shared informally.

I’m of the opinion that the first approach is most effective. Even if there’s nothing major to report, people in the organization still want to know what’s happening and need to be reminded of what’s next. Relying on messages to trickle-down is difficult, especially if the people responsible for trickling them down are involved outside of the project in the day-to-day operations of the organization. You need a well thought-out plan (including a message calendar if possible) and a dedicated team to develop and distribute your messages. Unfortunately, this is often overlooked on projects because these sort of deliverables have little perceived value until demanded by the business.

To this point, by the time the business is demanding information there’s a good chance the rumour mill has started up and is churning out some of the most creative and amazing stories of what the project will and won’t accomplish. Having to reel in the organization and dispel all of the myths and false notions can be a daunting challenge, so much so that you may not be able to recover and get your communications on track before the project goes live. At that point, not only do you have to deal with the difficulties of change management, but you also have to contend with disillusion and disappointment for failing to deliver on unrealistic expectations.

Contrast that worst-case scenario with the best-case scenario where you openly communicate information and manage expectations throughout the project: this allows you to shape and control your message all the way along, affords you numerous opportunities to quash rumours before they get going, and helps bring people into the project. Doing this not only sets the project up for success but does the same for the organization because there are no big surprises come Day One. Change is easier to accept (if it hasn’t been already) and the organization stabilizes and gets back to business sooner.

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