Eight to Late

Obstacles to project communication

with 14 comments

Communication is so important to project success that it has been referred to as the life blood of a project by more than one practitioner.  A recent post by Jack Vinson talks about the importance of  communication across project interfaces – interfaces being  boundaries between different groups within an extended project team.  He views  interfaces as constraints that limit project success. On reflection, I realised that many project communication issues  I’ve encountered have, in fact, occurred at interfaces.  In this post I explore the notion of an interface as an obstacle to project communication.

To keep things concrete, I’ll frame the discussion and examples in the context of projects in a corporate IT environment. For these projects the most common  interfaces are:

  • between organisations (customer-supplier, for example),
  • between departments within an organisation (marketing-IT, for example),
  • between teams within a department (testers-developers, for example) and
  • within distributed teams (part of the team is in Boston and the other in Sydney, as an extreme example).

In my experience, the main communication obstacles  (across interfaces listed above) can be boiled down three broad ones. I list these below with some pointers to how they might be addressed:

  • Political: Whenever there are many groups involved, there’s the possibility of vested interests and power games getting in the way of dialogue. Such political obstacles usually originate in the upper ranks of an organisational hierarchy, a step or two above levels at which projects are planned and executed. Project managers therefore need to make special efforts to be aware of the key political players in the organisation. In traditional corporate environments these might be functional or senior-level managers who aren’t always obvious project stakeholders.
    Once the political players have been identified, the project manager should take steps to gain their confidence and buy-in on project goals.  This should help eliminate political barriers to project communications. In my experience, it is best to settle political issues at the level where they originate – escalating political problems up the hierarchy (i.e. to the manager’s manager)  generally doesn’t help, and may even be counterproductive. Always keep in mind that political issues need to be broached with tact and finesse;   inept handling can be a CLM. You have been warned!
  • Cultural:  I’ll first deal with organizational culture , which is essentially the totality of assumptions and values commonly held within an organization. Clearly, this can vary considerably between organizations – some may be more open than others, for example.  Communication at the interface between two organisations with vastly differing cultures can be difficult. For example, one might expect some differences of opinion at a joint project planning session involving a very forward-looking, can-do supplier and a conservative, risk-averse customer. Another example:  in one organisation it might be considered perfectly natural for a developer to air a dissenting opinion at a meeting whereas in another it might not. Project managers can ease such difficulties by understanding the divergences in attitudes between the parties involved, and then acting as intermediaries to facilitate communication.
    In geographically distributed (or virtual) teams, differences between regional cultures can come into play. These could manifest themselves in a variety of ways such as differences in fluency of language, or social attitudes and behaviours.  Here again, the project leader, and the rest of the team for that matter,  need to be aware of the differences and allow for them in project communications.
  • Linguistic: Here I use the term linguistic in the sense of specialised terminology used by different disciplines such as Accounting, IT, Marketing etc. Often when specialists from diverse areas get together to discuss project related matters, there’s a tendency for each side to make assumptions (often tacitly) regarding a common understanding of specialised jargon. This often leads to incomplete (at best) or incorrect (at worst) communication.  An article I wrote some time ago provides suggestions on improving cross-disciplinary communication in projects. If done right, project communication can help align IT goals with those of the business

A wise old project manager once told me  that over ninety percent of project issues he’d encountered could be traced back to communication problems.  I’m not sure I can vouch for that number from personal experience (I haven’t counted, to be honest), but I’d have to agree that he’s right in spirit, if not in number.  

A shared world-view –  which includes a common understanding of tools, terminology, culture, politics etc. –  is what enables effective communication within a group.  Project managers  can facilitate a common understanding  in their projects by analysing and addressing communication constraints at  interfaces. 

Written by K

February 7, 2008 at 6:43 pm

14 Responses

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  1. Hi Kailash,

    It’s amazing that I’m still discovering great project management blogs every day. I would like to publish some of your project management articles on [url=http://www.pmhut.com]PM Hut[/url]. PM Hut is a very high traffic project management site with great articles from experienced authors such as yourself. In case you’re interested (and I really hope that you are), then please email me back or just use the “Contact Us” form on the PM Hut site and we’ll take it from there.

    Thanks a lot!

    Fadi El-Eter

    February 8, 2008 at 1:20 pm

  2. [...] Chronic buck-passing:  A typical case of this might be where a team member says, ”I coudn’t finish on time because X didn’t give me what he was supposed to last week.” Project roles and responsibilities should be defined in the plan, and I’m assuming that this is the case (if not you have bigger problems!).  In a  situation where responsibilities are defined, buck-passing is usually a consequence of communication breakdown across a project interface.  This has to be handled by smoothing out the obstacles to communication. [...]

  3. [...] ensuring that others can do their work unimpeded by obstacles of any kind  – political, physical, communication-related or whatever.  (Ah, I see that look of disbelief on your face now  – but believe you me, [...]

  4. [...] Most  folks have been in situations where something they’ve said or written  has been comprehensively misunderstood by the recipient of the message. When this happens it’s as if the other party is on a different wavelength, thus completely missing what’s conveyed. In this post I propose the term communication impedance mismatch to refer to this phenomenon.  Below I explain why this bit of jargon, which has its origins in electrical engineering,  is an appropriate one to use in this context. I also look at some reasons why communication impedance mismatches are so common on projects. In this connection, readers may also want to have a look at my earlier post on obstacles to project communication. [...]

  5. [...] See Obstacles to Project Communication at eight to late. 2 See project banana skins at eight to [...]

  6. [...] flows through communication channels. Remove obstacles to communication and you’re well on your way to facilitating the free flow of [...]

  7. [...] to a project manager’s tool-chest of communication techniques.  For, as I’ve noted elsewhere, “A shared world-view – which includes a common understanding of tools, terminology, culture, [...]

  8. [...] be attributed to a breakdown of communication, particularly at project interfaces (see my post on obstacles to project communication for more on this), Ostrom’s work reiterates the importance of communication, specifically [...]

  9. Great article, it is so good to see communications getting a bit of recognition for their importance to the success of a project.
    I have a real interest in the management of communications in international projects – http://intpmcomms.com – as projects become more global, the issues associated with communicating messages effectively across the cultural divides can have immense impacts on successful delivery

    Francis Norman

    February 13, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    • Francis,

      Thanks for your comments. Nice blog you have there – I’ll be visiting often.

      Thanks again!

      Regards,

      Kailash.

      K

      February 13, 2010 at 6:49 pm

  10. [...] but most of these arise because of conflicting viewpoints of those involved. As I have written in a post on project communication, “A shared world-view –  which includes a common understanding of tools, terminology, culture, [...]


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