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Project communications: the biggest challenge of all

Updated: Jan 14, 2019


Illustration by Angeline Veeneman, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Communications are always hailed as one of the biggest challenges for Project Managers, yet you could argue that there aren’t a lot of jobs out there, particularly in the broad management arena, that don’t require good communications to be successful. The truth is, all managerial jobs do demand great communication skills (is there a manager’s job advert that doesn’t mention it as a must-have?). But it got me thinking: what is actually sooo special about Project Management that makes it so hard, and important, to communicate well? So here are my top 3 challenges:


Challenge 1: Audience

PMI defines a project as “a temporary endeavor undertaken to a unique product, service, or result” (PMBOK®). It’s that uniqueness that makes it tough: because each project is unique, everything that goes with it, including its audience, is too. So for every new project, you get a new group of people, with different needs, expectations, styles, abilities and interests. Communications-wise, it means every project requires you to adopt a strategy that adapts to and fits this new and unique audience.


Extra challenge: within the audience itself, PMs have to deal with a wide range of people on all kind of levels: from junior team members to powerful senior executives, from technical experts to strategic business thinkers, from detailed-hungry specialists to big picture decision-makers. PMs have to find the right styles and techniques when communicating with such a diverse array of people. And when it comes to technology, technical speak can quickly aleniate your audience.


Challenge 2: Time

Of course, one of the great constraints of project management (whatever methodology you choose to apply) is time. Not only do PMs need to spend time wisely on communications, they also don’t get much of it to get to know people, build relationships and establish good communications. There is little room for trial and error, and few opportunities to re-engage lost stakeholders and fix failed messages: project communications need to be effective from day one.


Extra challenge: PMs also need to consider their stakeholders’ own time constraints. The reality is that projects involve many people who also have other things to work on, and as a PM you will compete for their time. Communicating well is essential to optimize interaction with others (especially with those busy, senior, hard-to-get-hold-of decision-makers) and messages must be purpose-driven, timely, and straight to the point.


Challenge 3: Information

PMs need to be able to communicate about a wide range of topics (such as financial information, technical matters, status update, contractual issues, etc.). They must find the balance between sharing too much (information overload) and too little (information retention). Not only projects hold huge amounts of information at different levels of complexity, the fact is that information is never static: it’s ever-changing, and by the time you share it with others, it’s often already superseded by updates and changes.


Extra challenge: PMs also have the hard task to broach difficult subjects and convey sensitive messages (like project problems, delays, issues, risks, requests for additional time or money, etc.). So communicating clearly and in a positive, constructive manner is crucial.


So what?

Being aware of what your challenges are as a PM will help you understand how to go about establishing effective communications and devise the appropriate strategies. When you start on a new project, evaluate your audiences, your time constraints as well as the kind of project information you will need to share with people, and integrate this into your communications plan and priorities.


Last but not least: don’t look at communications as a project management problem. Though they can be challenging to put in place and demand time and effort, effective communications are actually part of the solution, and will help you and your project move forward.