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But What About Planning?

Thanks for asking. Of course you have to plan to communicate. Communication planning comes down to this key question: Who needs what information, when do they need it, and in what modality?

Who needs what? This tackles two major issues in any project. "Who" describes the stakeholders with whom you and your project team need to communicate. "What" describes the information that they'll need.

Not all of your stakeholders will need the same information. Sure, that sounds obvious, but have you ever met one of those moron project managers (yes, the guy a few cubes from you) who sends out all project information to everyone who's even heard of his project? This guy thinks he's covering all of his bases because everyone has all of the information. The problem with this approach is the same problem with giving your cat the whole bag of cat food at once: Only give what's needed or things will get messy.

One tool that can help the project manager and the project team to determine who needs to participate in communications is a simple communication matrix. See Figure 3 for a sample. A communication matrix is a table of all the project stakeholders in both the row and column headings. A check in the intersection of the two stakeholders represent that these two stakeholders will need to communicate.

The hard part, the planning part, is determining what information is needed between the two stakeholders. Usually the major communications needs will be obvious; functional managers need to know information related to their employees on your project, such as schedules and time accountability. The project sponsor and key stakeholders need information on the project status, finances, and any variances in cost and time. You'll need to work with your project team and the stakeholders to determine the more involved communication demands.

You'll also have to tackle the "when" problem. Depending on the stakeholders, information needs vary between daily, weekly, monthly, and "based on conditions in the project." For example, your project sponsor may ask for weekly status reports, but the project champion may ask for status reports just once a month.

The secret is to schedule and, if possible, automate the communication demands as much as possible. Yes, automate. If your project-management information system is worth much, you can create macros, templates, even auto-generate reports on a regular schedule. Think of the time you'll save (and can invest in your fantasy baseball league) by automating communications. Many project managers I meet don't automate, don't schedule, and don't use a communication matrix. And then these project managers forget who needs what and when they need it. And then everyone whines. Please.

Now for the modality. Some communications can be accomplished in a quick email. Others require an extensive spreadsheet, report, and executive summaries. Some communication is expected in quick, ad hoc meetings, while other needs may mean business suits and, gosh, PowerPoint slideshows. The point is simple: Give stakeholders the information they need in the modality they'll be expecting.

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