A good analogy for the pace of project communications is that of the snowball rolling downhill. The snowball
begins its journey down the hill very slowly. As it moves downhill, it gradually becomes larger and picks up
speed. Near the bottom of the hill, the snowball is very large, very fast, and likely out of control. Likewise,
early in a substantial project, all team members, other stakeholders, the client, and the sponsor together likely
see that the project will not need to deliver anytime soon. Since the project is just getting started,
communication is only infrequent. As the pace of the project builds, plans are in place, and the project shifts
into execution mode, more stakeholders desire to know what is happening. Communication that began
monthly increases to bi-weekly, and the contents of the reports become more substantial. As execution
moves toward the eventual handover of deliverables, stakeholders become hungrier for information. For
example, it will be important to answer certain questions:
Will the project deliver on time?
Is the budget likely to be more (or less) than originally committed?
Will the project produce the committed scope and requirements?
What barriers to success is the project facing?
What is the project team doing to overcome obstacles?
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Planning Project Communications
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The monthly communication that became bi-weekly communication soon shifts to weekly updates. As the
project approaches the launch milestone, even weekly is soon considered insufficient. Weekly updates begin
to be two and three times per week depending upon the circumstances of the project, the strategic
importance of the milestones and deliverables, and finally, the nearness to the final project due date. Finally,
project communications reach a crescendo as twice or three times a week updates become daily and then
twice daily updates. In a global project with teams working around the globe, the frequency of communication
may grow to be even higher.
Why Plan Project Communications?
From the snowball analogy, we can see the pace of project communications varies from slow to fast, from
simple to complex, and from low volume to extremely high volume at a frenetic pace. Early in project
planning, project managers could easily think of the development of a project communication plan as a waste
of time. After all, there are designs to be developed, budgets to be created, and work to be assigned. Why
drop everything and draft a communications plan? The analogy of the snowball provides the context to
answer this question. The snowball cannot begin rolling until it has collected snow into a ball and is perched
high. Likewise, communicating project information requires information, and that information must come from
somewhere. Where does it originate, and how is it to be gathered?
Answering this question reveals an immediate concern regarding project systems that generate data for
Do team members input their project progress information into a system?
Is it a time-consuming, manual process? If so, how well is the data collection process likely to work
when all team members are struggling to meet their respective delivery commitments?
How current should such project progress information be expected to be? It is easy to imagine, for
instance, that a team member could put off logging a status update or forget about generating a
report for several days. When this happens and the team member later does enter progress
information, how accurate is it likely to be?
Ideally, project resources should not need to provide extensive progress updates. Project systems should be
capable of collecting such information automatically. However, in practice, this is often not the case. When it
is not the case, then resources must be assigned to report data, collect information, and convert it into a
format that is readily consumed by stakeholders. This leads to the first observation regarding the rationale
behind project communications planning: Project communications require resources, time, and effort. Who in
the project can do this? Whoever is assigned this role will be one less resource who is available for project
Planned, or Ad Hoc?
If a project communication plan is not created, what is the alternative for the project manager? One option
that is, unfortunately, a common one is ad hoc reporting to stakeholders. This means that when stakeholders
require information, the project manager assigns a team member to collect, prepare, and disseminate the
information. While this solution may be workable in the early phases of the communications snowball, it is not
a solution that is possible to maintain when communication is demanded multiple times per week and much
less so when communication is required multiple times per day. The communications plan is the antidote to
the ad hoc mode. One of its key activities in the communications plan is to identify the communication needs
of each of the stakeholder categories identified in the stakeholder identification and assessment process. A
key benefit of doing this is to identify specific means of communicating that aligns with the important
stakeholder groups. Once this is accomplished, the project team becomes able to streamline its
communication. Instead of being all things to all people, the project team may prepare a handful of
communication streams in advance that will be offered from the beginning to the end of the project. For
example, the team could create standard dashboard reports for some categories of stakeholders, scheduled
group email blasts to others, and finally, a series of scheduled face to face meetings for those who require
more interaction. This approach builds efficiency into the process and minimizes the number of project team
resources caught up in an endless stream of ad hoc requests.
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How, Who, and When?
The source of information, how the system collects and makes it available, and who manages the collection
and preparation of information is but one factor to consider in project communication. Another equally
important factor is the media used for communication. For example, it is highly desirable to establish a system
where project data is collected automatically and then made available to all key stakeholders on a project
intranet site. When such a system exists, stakeholders pull their communication needs as frequently as
desired instead of having it prepared and pushed to them using manual reports. Such a system—as beneficial
as it may be—is rarely the complete answer for delivering project communications.
Face-to-face meetings are usually required, particularly at key project milestones. The project review is one
form of face-to-face communication. This setting benefits from having a free flow of two-way communication—
perhaps in the form of questions and answers. In some cases, face-to-face communication is desired but not
possible due to the geographic distribution of the team members. In this case, videoconferencing is often
used both for teams and individuals. Over the last 20 years, videoconferencing has evolved from elaborate
hardware carried out in rooms dedicated to the purpose to virtual meetings accomplished using laptops,
notebooks, and webcams. Face-to-face or virtual face-to-face communication plays a key role in formal
information delivery, but it could also be used in informal day-to-day updates and discussions.
The following is an example of a communications matrix used to track communications requirements.
Stakeholder Type Communication
Frequency Responsible Party
Robert Kidwell Status Report Email Every Monday Project Manager
Deborah Smith Introduction to the
Face-to-Face Once Task Lead
Project Team Review Project
Weekly Project Manager
Technical Staff Design
Face-to-Face As Needed Technical Lead
Communication media may also vary depending upon the level of the stakeholder. An executive will likely
seek to understand high-level project questions associated with schedules, budgets, business models, and
strategic matters. The high-level executive perspective is a potential pitfall for project teams attempting to
update project progress in a meaningful, in-depth manner. For example, it is tempting for project team
members to discuss matters such as technical details and present information such as code or schematic
problems. As a rule of thumb, a project team must never attempt to communicate technical detail to an
executive who is likely to be confused by it or to misunderstand. When this occurs, project teams are known
to have experienced executives make decisions or issue directives based on poorly understood issues.
Preventing this requires that the project team matches the level of the information with the appropriate level of
the organization. An executive will be much better informed by a strategic dashboard view of the project
rather than a schematic, a use case diagram, or a Monte Carlo analysis result.
Timing Is Everything
The ever-increasing cadence of project communication requires that some ground rules be established
initially with key project stakeholders. In fact, it is a good idea to consider sharing the communications plan
with stakeholders and obtaining signatures. The plan will include what information will be provided, the
formats in which it will be provided, and finally, how often it will be provided. Naturally, significant information
and associated preparation requirements will surround the project review milestones. However, this same
level of effort is not possible to maintain in multiple weekly or daily communication cycles.
For this reason, it is recommended that the project team package project communications as services. There
will be standard information deliveries formatted in specific ways and made available at specific times.
Further, for stakeholders who desire extremely frequent updates, they will need to be directed to the pull type
of services that allow them to acquire information on an as-needed basis. Those whose information needs fall
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upon a more reasonable cycle can expect a more prepared push form of project information, and all of this is
found in the project communications plan.