August 29, 2023
Effective communication is an important and often overlooked aspect to Project Management. The ability to communicate up and out to stake holders, or down and in to the project team, is critical to a project's success. This requires breaking through three major barriers within the communication process. Those barriers can be External, Internal, or Semantic. This post is intended to walk you through the communication process, identify the barriers, and provide principles to make your communication more effective.
Understanding the communication process is the first step. The communication process consists of four parts:
While the process is intuitive and simple to understand, it can be challenging to implement. There are three categories of barriers in the process that inhibit the message and feedback from being appropriately received. The three barriers can be classified as; External, Internal, and Semantic barriers. External barriers consist of things within our physical environment that distract the individuals involved in the process. Examples of external barriers could be noise around us, the volume of the speaker, distance from the speaker, or virtual meeting environments (Zoom/Teams/Slack). Internal barriers consist of things within ourselves, as speakers or receivers, that remove us from the communication process. Examples of internal barriers could be distractions from earlier events in our day, day dreaming, and multi-tasking. Semantic barriers consist of language, culture, personal history, or background that determine how we naturally interpret and process the information we're presented. For example, in a culture where age is a discriminating factor the age difference between the speaker and receiver will determine how the message is presented, received, and ultimately the type of feedback given.
Now that we understand the communication process, and have an idea the types of barriers present in every conversation or communication, let's discuss strategies to overcome those barriers within the context of communicating project statuses to stake holders or leaders within our organizations. How do we break through, or minimize the effects of, the barriers discussed above? Format, cadence, and transparency are three principles all Project Managers can follow when communicating up and out to stakeholders and leaders. These principles can assist the project manager in breaking through, or minimizing, the barriers naturally present within the communications process.
The format of the message, how it is structured, focuses the receiver's attention to the important information. Formats have a reputation for being rudimentary, generic, or an easy-out. This has more to do with how Project Managers use formats versus their actual utility. Formats create accuracy, efficiency, and confidence in the project. Even if the project is not going according to plan.
The second principle discussed is cadence. Cadence refers to how often a message is sent. Similar to format, a regular cadence helps focus the receiver's attention to your message. A message sent on a regular cadence is better than a message delivered at a random date or time. The specific cadence determined at the outset of a project also impacts the quality of the reporting. In my experience, having an accurate, high quality project report, sent at a regular cadence is better than an accurate, high quality report sent at an irregular cadence. The frequency with which the message is sent out also allows the opportunity to receive regular feedback from stakeholders.
Transparency is the final principal discussed to break down and minimize barriers to communication. Transparency in a project promotes confidence and trust within the entire project team from stake holder to the individual engineer performing the work. Transparency is not merely forwarding emails or messages from one person to another. Transparency is stating the facts of the project as objectively as possible. Doing this provides decision makers a more complete picture of the project, empowering them to make decisions and acquire more resources if necessary. An important step to take in establishing transparent communication is detaching oneself emotionally from the project. Providing a transparent and unbiased picture of the project to stake holders helps to minimize the effect semantic barriers can have in distorting the interpretation or understanding of the conveyed message.
These principles can be followed for both formal reporting sent out via email, or in presenting information in a group setting. Effective communication is critical to project management to ensure stake holder and decision makers understand the state and direction of the project. The ability of the project manager to mitigate the effect that physical, internal, and semantic barriers have on their message is one of the biggest values they can bring to the project. Even though barriers to communication are ever present, by following the three principles discussed above one can limit their effects on the project they manage.