The Art of Effective Project Communication

Posted by Steve Beyer on Nov 30, 2017 8:35:03 AM

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Communication is one of the most significant factors in any kind of venture. Whether it's operating a business or executing a capital project, communication among team members and between stakeholders is critical. Clarifying understanding, enabling trust, and building confidence, are just a few of the critical benefits of optimized communication. This blog post is intended to explore the application of effective communication, specifically in capital projects.

At Optimation we execute hundreds of these types of projects every year, and have been doing so for over three decades. What we have learned, and what we practice, is that communicating early, often, and effectively optimizes the chances for success, both for ourselves as well as our clients and their satisfaction. Ignoring, or at least not leveraging, the opportunities afforded by effective communication puts the relationship, the project, and perhaps the entire business initiative at risk. Paying attention to these things reaps huge benefits.

Success most often starts with a clearly articulated vision of the intended outcome, the desired business outcome.  A project charter, or master overview, defines the required future state in terms of discrete measurable and unambiguous objectives.  At the high end, they should reflect the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) of the business unit and be aligned therefore with those of senior management.  Revenue and profit growth, cost reduction, safety and liability, regulatory compliance, etc. should be spelled out explicitly and in terms that can be measured, reported out, and connected to people’s performance objectives.  As the KPIs get translated throughout the organization, and the project, they should continue to take shape as the specific metrics that teams and individuals see for themselves in terms of achieving their goals.  Black and white,. Not gray.  Large projects such as plant or line expansions, or new product introductions, especially rely on clear associations between requirements and objectives, and team KPIs, clearly communicated.

Capital projects are staffed on both sides by such teams, generally representing relevant disciplines who have a stake in the project success, and are usually charged with responsibility for their areas of expertise. Generally, each team is led by a project manager, who is the coordinator and often the decision-maker for project-level choices. At Optimation, our project managers are students of team coordination, and are themselves generally a senior leader from one of the disciplines represented in our automation, integration, and industrial services business.

There are several key components to this process of wringing out the maximum value from a capital project beyond simply achieving the objectives of the technical functions.

Update frequency is critical.

Meeting at just the right cadence throughout the lifecycle of the project, which can mean changing the pace depending on the decision-making needs and workload at the time, is essential. These updates can happen in person (that is face-to-face) or through teleconferencing or Skype-style communications or simply through written exchanges. However it occurs, it is important to keep the dialog current, continuous, and clear. These features are most often enhanced by having them at the right frequency so that important information can be exchanged in time to make decisions, and in order to keep the teams connected, especially their leadership.  Revisiting the highest-level objectives, and reconnecting to the relevant KPIS keep things in check.

The most obvious topics for these updates include the status of the activities’ scope, schedule, and budget. Reviewing each of these at the outset and subsequently making sure that all parties are aware of progress or problems related to these items will keep everyone on task and the communications effective. Avoiding the specifics within these three categories risks significant damage to not only the project, but also to the confidence in leadership and the trust and value in the relationships. Addressing these topics head-on is most productive and enables engagement and decision-making whereas procrastination or avoidance will not.

An often overlooked element of status updates is risk management.

Identifying and dealing with risks early and often puts the team in the best position to anticipate and then deal with challenges as they arise, or preferably beforehand. Identifying the probability and severity of various risks allows the team to deal with them in many cases before they surface, and provide lower stress opportunities to plan for and mitigate them.

While many project managers may prefer to wait until challenges arise and not introduce a laundry list of prospective risks, it is the wise project manager who expects the unexpected (and unwanted) and is able to quantify and qualify the consequences of dealing or not dealing with them.

Our clients give us feedback on the effectiveness of our project activities including these types of updates.

Highest marks go to those project teams that conduct these types of effective communications at the right frequency, and provide the type of timely documentation, communication, and action that creates trust as well as provides the type of audit trail that can be shared with additional stakeholders, management and posterity.

Having documented results of these meetings to use for tracking progress and providing accountability by sharing this information and people acknowledging their roles and responsibilities, makes for not only the successful projects we all seek but also the type of relationship-building that enables that success as well as future potential collaborations.

Topics: Communication, Project Management

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