Using Artefacts to Communicate
Anyone who has studied for the Project Management Professional (PMP)© exam will be aware that communication is vital in project management and we all need to be good at it, because we can spend up to 90% of our time communicating.
But how should we communicate effectively? When you are studying the Project Communications Management knowledge area, great emphasis is placed on planning your communications. We need to know what to communicate, when to make contact, how frequently to engage with our stakeholders and what medium to use. If you go on a PMP© exam preparation course, you will encounter communication models, methods and technology, but not a whole lot about the message.
The “what” of communication is absolutely vital and it is essential to remember that a “verbal agreement is not worth the paper it is written on”. Whatever about the delightful informality of ringing up a particular stakeholder and having a chat, it is essential that this chat is minuted and that any decisions made, or agreements entered into, are recorded and formally entered into the project’s records.
This is why we have the Issue Log for recording stakeholders’ concerns and the project team’s responses to them. This is why there are formal, written status reports – everything needs to be recorded, so that there is no ambiguity down the line. I am sure we all have had the sickening experience of a stakeholder turning around and stating: “I never agreed to that”.
While it makes sense to ensure that all agreements are formally agreed, in writing; it is probably more important to ensure that these agreements mean the same thing to all parties. This is why requirements need to be testable and measureable. When we agree to provide transportation for a large person, what do they mean by “large”? When we offer to provide an entertaining weekend, what do our stakeholders consider “entertaining”?
Using project management artefacts is the answer. If we meet a client and s/he gives a very vague overview of what is required, we can go away and create a requirements list stating the vague requirements in more concrete terms. This is also an opportunity to offer choices to the customer. For example, if the customer wants an extension built to their house, we could explain that, up to a certain floor area, the cost is this much per square metre; but beyond this size, the cost is higher, because different construction techniques are involved.
I hired a carpenter once to make up some shelving units. He asked me how deep I wanted the shelves and I explained that they should be “about a foot deep”. His response was that there is “no ‘about’ on the ruler”. He then changed the question to: “What’s the biggest thing you plan to put on them?” The shelves turned out to be 14 inches deep. Often, changing the question leads to a more useful answer.
Using project management artefacts not only allows you to clarify requirements, they also allow you explain clearly the consequences of a change. A change request document, showing the impact a change would have on scope, schedule, budget, resources and quality makes sobering reading for a client. It is important not to refuse the request, but instead show tangibly the consequences of the request. Another useful aspect of the change request document is the section where alternative solutions are considered. Can we achieve the same thing in a different manner?
If you remember back to Project Integration Management from your PMP© studies, you will have seen change requests come in and subsequently analysed by the Change Control Board. However, this analysis can be used to provide feedback to the originating stakeholder and lead to a more acceptable request being made. The important point is that the change request document be used to convey the project team’s understanding of the request and the consequences they think will accrue from the change. Instead of unilaterally accepting or rejecting the request, we can use the analysis to ensure that we interpreted the request correctly and offer the chance to adjust the request to reduce the costs involved.
When dealing with stakeholders, it is important to deal in facts not supposition. Using project management artefacts, such as requirements lists, change request analysis documents, issue logs and status reports, the Project Manager can offer tangible feedback to the stakeholders. While face-to-face discussions are the most effective communication mechanisms, focusing the discussion on a hard-copy artefact will be more effective in achieving common understanding and binding agreements.