Communication is the life blood of projects. It is through communication that we plan, manage expectations, change, risk, conflict and any other aspect of the project requiring collaboration.
We can break communication into two categories, formal and informal. Knowing the difference and using each at the right time, in the right way is critical to success.
Formal communication is recorded, it leaves an audit trail. It is enabled by project management tools. Formal communication documents facts, opinions, roles and responsibilities, decisions, issues and more. It may be highly structured, using standard formats and terminology or unstructured stream of consciousness. If it is recorded, it is formal.
Use formal communication when you want what has been communicated to last and more likely to be mutually understood by several people.
In projects, document any communication that directs effort (for example, plans, role and responsibility assignments, decisions, requirements definitions, approvals and designs or leads to spending. Otherwise, the likelihood of rework, conflict and misunderstandings is high.
Commitments made in writing are far more likely to be met than those made orally. People forget or change their mind as circumstances change. For example, a functional manager who has made an oral commitment to provide a resource at a specified time is more likely to change his or her mind when current conditions no longer make the agreement attractive. This can leave the project manager unable to meet a deadline. With no written commitment, the PM is hard pressed to explain why the deliverable was late.
Of course, we want to trust our business partners, knowing that when we shake hands on a deal, the deal will be followed through. And, often, we can rely on the word of trusted partners. However, PMs should not leave it to chance or goodwill. At least, follow up with an email to memorialize the agreement. What if the person you've made the agreement with is replaced? What if they are put in a position in which it is greatly to their advantage to renege?
Informal communication is primarily oral but also includes body language and non-verbal signs. Oral communication is like a sand painting or writing on water, it's there for a moment and then it disappears.
Informal communication is best for building and maintaining relationships and managing the interplay among groups in complex bureaucratic environments. Often, criticism is best delivered orally as is any message in which there is a likelihood of miscommunication without the flexibility, tone of voice and body language of oral communication. Written communication lacks these elements and can result in misunderstandings when it comes to complex interpersonal communications.
Sometimes there is a need to avoid documentation and the long lasting audit trail it leaves. Oral, undocumented communication allows for greater candor because people feel safe. However, it is very important to be conscious of the motivation behind avoiding the audit trail. What are the parties seeking to hide? Why? What harm will come from others finding out what was said or not said.
Documenting Conversations - Formal and Informal in the Right Balance
Formal and informal communication are used together, for example when giving a presentation the primary method is oral, but including or following up with a recording, handout, recap or slide show can reinforce and memorialize what has been said.
Meetings, which are primarily oral, should have minutes or notes to document key points and action requirements. Take for example a situation in which four team members collaborate on a website design. They have a work session at which Mary is responsible for taking the notes and putting out the next draft. She delivers the result to the team and Bill says, Why did you change the wording on the sixth slide? It was better in the original." Mary goes back to her notes to see why the change was made. The notes clearly show that it was Bill himself who requested the change. Mary says "Well, my notes indicate that you wanted the change to be made but I'll be happy to put it back the way it was, if that's what you want."
In the context of design, problem solving and decision making, working collaboratively is best done in moderated interactive discussion. The give and take is needed to navigate through the complexities. The decisions and outcomes may be documented as the discussion takes place and refined later or notes can be taken and converted to a more formal document.
The minutes or notes need not be super-formal. Though without any documentation, the informal process of designing and composing presentations, designs and documents becomes less effective and subject to incessant change and conflict.
Store written documents in a repository, a team or project site, that enables review and leads to an archive of useful documents.
The bottom line is to make sure that any oral communication is used to skillfully manage relationships and complex activities and that information that drives performance is memorialized and accessible.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: George Pitagorsky, PMP, integrates core disciplines and applies mindfulness meditation and people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. George authored Managing Expectations: A Mindful Approach to Achieving Success, The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict in Projects and PM Foundation. He is a senior teacher at the NY Insight Meditation Center.