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How to prevent poor communications from hurting your projects


By Tom Dormo, GrandView Business Solutions. Tom has 25 years experience managing control automation projects and is director of GrandView Business Solutions/The RoviSys Company.


Too many projects are late, over budget, short of goals or cancelled. Most of these failures are avoidable.

The culprit? It's not preparation. Because no matter how well you plan, your team will have to overcome unexpected challenges to succeed. Instead, the reason most projects fail is the inability to identity and resolve issues as a group because of poor communications. Symptoms include:


  • Uncertainty about project responsibilities
  • Team members unaware of significant changes in status, scope, budget or deadlines
  • Issues undetected until they become problems
  • Problems buried until they turn into disasters

The three most common communication errors

Effective project management is more than creating a schedule and updating percent-complete figures. These are important. But keeping everyone on the same page matters most.

Projects require coordination of people from numerous organizations, locations, departments and interests. You can think you have everything covered—paperwork, deadlines, budgets and people. Then someone says “You never told me” or “I didn’t hear that”. Suddenly, you’re facing an un-billable re-design or worse.

It happens to everyone. It continues to happen to those who fail to correct the three most common project communication problems:

  • Lack of a communications plan

  • An inadequate information distribution and verification system

  • Failing to encourage early management of bad news

The solution: provide your team with a communications plan, implement an information distribution system and promote an open and trusting environment.

Plan to avoid communication problems

The basic questions to answer for any project are:

  • What information is required?

  • Who needs it?

  • When do they need it?

  • How will information be formatted and distributed?

  • Who will provide it?

You need to do more than fill in answers. To meet project and team goals, you must regularly verify that your plan is working, then revise procedures as needed.

Information distribution calls for systems

However you communicate project information—by phone, memo, E-mail, fax or face to face—you must do it often to succeed. If you’re unsure whether something matters, use your procedures to ask.

Transparent accountability works miracles. Put in place message receipt acknowledgement with an audit trail. E-mail in particular does not meet this standard.   

It is also important to centralize communications. Capture discussions, performance reports, action items, forecasts, changes, corrective actions, schedules and documents in one place. This allows people to find what they need faster.

A growing number of computer-based project collaboration tools offer ready-made information centralization, distribution, verification and 24-hour secure access from any location. Many have additional capabilities and are available in web versions that can be implemented quickly.

Deal with bad news

We’re all inclined to delay revealing bad news. Almost always, delaying or avoiding confronting a problem leaves fewer options and less time to adjust.

For any issue that could impact costs, deadlines or capabilities, you should gather the facts and identify options if possible. Then pick a time and place free of distractions to meet with your team, manager or customer. Be open and honest. Get to the point.

Developing trust during projects reaps rewards. If your culture discourages those who accept responsibility and address issues promptly, your problems are likely to cost more, cause additional scheduling complications and have fewer solutions.   

Communication is the key to project success

Sometimes a project fails for causes beyond your control. Most fall off track gradually because communications break down.

Avoid the avoidable: Set up a communication plan. Establish information centralization, distribution and verification systems. Communicate often and encourage open problem solving. Your projects will succeed more often.