So far we have discussed the procedures and tips for creating a project charter and a responsibility matrix. Now we move on to another critical step, the communication plan. You might be wondering “but why so much? Why don’t we just start with the project right away?”, and to some extent I understand you. The thing is… I have started so many projects moved only by emotion, without any planning, and I can tell you that the outcome is unlikely to be good. And you probably did the same… you also have started many projects without a proper planning! Think about their outcomes, and you will notice that you dropped many of them, or that the outcome could have been better!
I understand this is not the funniest part of the entire project management stuff, but it’s something that might make the difference between success and failure. Think about this example: you decide to make a car trip around your country. You want to visit several cities, but you are not really into planning, so you don’t check the map neither the directions from city to city. Of course, you can always ask for information on the way, but if you take a wrong turn and there is no one there to tell you, you might go a long way before you find out your efforts were completely useless.
That’s the same thing for a project! If you plan it carefully, it becomes very easy to see if you went off track. If you ignore the initiating and planning phase, you may waste a lot of resources and time.
What Is a Communication Plan? And Why Should You Have One?
Every action of a project manager involves communication. A communication plan is the written documentation to get the right communication to the right stakeholder(s). Usually, it includes the following sections, which we will detail below:
- Targets of information: who needs to know it?
- Contents of information: what needs to be known?
- Timing of communication: when does it need to be communicated?
The document doesn’t need to be extremely complex: if we can reduce complexity and still keep a tool effective, we should do it! Despite not being complex, the document is really important. Why? Because without it the communication can go completely wrong. What if you communicate the wrong specifications of a product to the development team? What if you deliver the wrong information to your sponsor? What if you are not looking at the most updated numbers due to lack of communication between departments? Many, many things can go wrong if you simply ignore the importance of communication.
So let’s move on to each particular section of a simple communication plan and, afterwards, go through some best practices to guarantee the efficiency and the completeness of your document.
Defining the Targets of Information
This section is directly related to your stakeholders list. You should scan the document and note down everyone who is involved in any stage of the project and needs to receive or to send information. Here are a few groups that deserve your attention.
Sponsor: the sponsor is the person with formal authority who is ultimately responsible for the project. As the most important formal figure in the organization of the project, the sponsor must receive all the major updates, as well as the ongoing conflicts in the project.
Functional managers: as we already saw, functional managers need to be informed about the demands of the project, as well as about the roles that their staff is developing while working for a specific project. They are less worried about very specific details of the project, and more concerned with the effects of the project on their respective departments.
Customers: the customer decides what the final product or service should be like, the time of completion, the operational budget and so on. But should you inform the customer about every step of the product’s development? For example, if your company designs a new phone, your final customer will probably be informed about it when it’s completed and ready for use. If, however, the customer is someone very specific (say, for example, that you are developing a specific software for a company), he might want to be informed about the ongoing situation. The communication plan depends of the nature of your customer, and you should have it defined already at the beginning of the project.
Project team: the project team is the group you should pay the most attention to. Why? Because wrong information can lead to a lot of wasted money and time. Imagine if you fail to deliver clear guidelines for the development team, and after a while you find out that several components of your product are not compatible with the other parts? Or that you fail to communicate the specific tasks of each member and, as a consequence, part of the work is not completed? Making sure that your team receives the right and updated information is a fundamental condition for a successful project.
Project manager: while the project manager supplies most of the information, it also receives updates and other inputs that are relevant for the project. Make sure to establish what you want to receive, when you want it and from whom you need it.
Defining the “Contents” of the Communication
Now that we know who needs to hear it, it’s time to explore what needs to be said. Here is small list for you to keep in mind.
Cost and schedule reports: these reports are relevant especially for those who are monitoring the project or are highly involved in it. If there are any divergence from the planned budget or schedule, make sure to include the reasons and a plan of what to do to get back on track.
Work directions: pretty obvious, right? Your team members have to know what is their job and what you expect from them. Make this clear and check regularly if there are any doubts about their tasks.
Authorizations: it’s always good to authorize any formal document going around during your project. This legitimates your authority as a project manager and avoids confusion. A few examples of documents included here are the project plan, the budgets, the product specifications, etc.
Status changes: status changes should be issued whenever you believe a certain event should be reported to the competent stakeholder. The content of each report should be tailored to meet the demands of its target.
Coordination: the initial blueprint of how the project is supposed to run is defined in the project plan. However, things might (actually, they will) change during its execution. In order to seamlessly implement these changes, coordination between departments is required. You might want to use the communication plan to define who will communicate what whenever a change in the initial estimations happens.
Defining the Timing of Communication
What if you need to make a major decision regarding budget allocation and the necessary information about the costs of production doesn’t arrive on time? Communication is effective if and only if it is delivered on time! Of course, not everything has to be reported immediately (otherwise you and your dear stakeholders would spend 99% of the time communicating instead of working on the project), but you should have a clear of when to meet with each important stakeholder and of which information you want to exchange.
Also, as soon as you have the project plan done you can estimate your schedule and when you will need certain types of information. This will give you enough time to define when to meet with the responsible individual or group to collect it.