The One Key Thing That Leads To Project Success

Psst. Want to know a secret? A secret that I've harnessed from years of delivering projects across many countries.

What's the ONE key thing that leads you to project success?

To find out, I rounded up a group of ten project managers whom I know quite well. Yes it's a small sample size, but it'll do for this little exercise.

I asked them what ONE important thing, in their opinion, leads to project success.

You know what I found out?

1. It's All About Communication!

Well, from their responses, the most important thing that maximizes your chances of project success is communication.

Sure, there are other factors like scope management, realistic expectations and senior management support - all of which stand out.

But communication - across all project team members and stakeholders - is the clearly the most important key to success.

Get communication right, and you're home free.

Get communication wrong and be prepared to be another project failure statistic.

In fact, I'd even say you should OVER-communicate as a project manager.

Don't just communicate. OVER-communicate.

2. You Need To Over-Communicate

Now, what is over-communication?

Definition: Over-communication is the act of communicating more frequently than necessary to get your message across to another individual.

It sounds annoying - some would even say it amounts to nagging.

But you heard me right - if you learn to over-communicate, you will win the project delivery race.

Why over-communicate?

You over-communicate so that you broadcast project statuses to team members, your users and stakeholders.

Why? Because people - especially users and stakeholders - forget about the project. They forget a lot of things. Like what the project is for. What kind of information they need to provide the project. What role do they play.

You see, a stakeholder usually has a million things on his or her mind. Your project could be just one of those things. You need to over-communicate to ensure that your project stays in the stakeholder's radar.

If the stakeholder is not aware of what's happening in your project and how he or she can play a role, do you think they will actively assist you?

No! You have to involve them and keep them updated. Treat them like a project team member.

But your communication to them cannot just happen once a week or once a month. For the ground level personel, I'd encourage you to communicate at least once every day.

That's how some of the best consulting firms do it. Their project teams do a "huddle" at the end of the day for a quick status update from everyone.

If you do this, you may over-communicate, but you always ensure important messages are passed to everyone.

For more senior level management, try to communicate at least once a week with them. Leaving it to Steering Committee meetings that only meet once a month or less frequently will be a project risk, in my opinion.

2. Who Do You Communicate With?

As a project manager, it is important to have a list of people whom you need to publish information to on a regular basis.

Some project managers maintain a "Communication Plan" which shows who are the people who should be kept informed of the project status, when they should be informed and how often. Are they informed face-to-face in a meeting, or through email or a phone call?

In my opinion, the important folks you have to communicate with are:

  • Stakeholders
  • Team Members
  • Bosses
  • Vendors

Stakeholders - those who have a vested interested in your project - need to be kept up to speed on your progress. If your schedule is slipping, you need to inform them so they don't get surprised when the due date has arrived and your project is still not delivered.

Your team members and bosses, as well as vendors - also need to be kept in the loop. On the boss side of things, my advice is to find a boss you trust and keep communication channels wide open between you and him / her. Only that way, can you work together as a team to ensure the project is delivered.

Case Study: I once worked in a core banking project in Malaysia. My boss was sitting in Singapore and I found it very difficult to constantly keep him updated on project progress. Our interactions would consist of 5 to 10 minute phone calls maybe once or twice a week. Which I think is NOT ENOUGH!

Needless to say, the project ran into trouble because my boss didn't really understand the ground issues. At Steering Committee meetings, he'd say the wrong things or offend the client as he had the ground picture all wrong.

3. Tricks For Communicating Well

In my experience, there are some established tricks for communication which work pretty well.

  • Use multiple channels. My first tip is to use multiple channels - email, phone, text, face-to-face. For less urgent matters, I usually drop the person an email. If it is urgent, I'd call or text the person. If it is a crisis, I usually just walk over and talk to the person face-to-face.

  • Plant yourself. Another trick to communicate with someone in the project - especially if he or she is a senior management person - is to plant yourself outside his or her office. It sounds drastic - but sometimes to catch busy folks that's what you have to do.

  • Catch them after meetings. Another tip is to make use of meetings you have with the person you want to talk to. After the meeting is done, drop by the person and say something like "By the way, I wanted to find some time to talk to you about the contents of the report. Is this afternoon 2 pm a good time for you?" This way, they HAVE to give you a reply as to whether they can speak to you.

Tip: Another tip I have to share about communication - try to speak to different folks if you can't talk to your primary contact point.

For example, you have a project decision to be made but can't find Person A to make the decision. You can ask Person B or Person C, especially if they are in the same department as Person A. Then, when you meet Person A, you can say "I've discussed it with Person B and Person C, and they both feel that we should do it this way ...". This helps in generating buy-in with Person A as you've already cross-checked with others.

4. Four Signs You're Not Communicating Well

Another perspective we can look at - how do you know if you're not communicating well and therefore running a risk of project failure?

In my view, there are four signs of this.

  • You're engrossed in details. You could be tweaking a bullet point in your slides, adjusting the color or the font on your Word document. If you find yourself doing too much of this, chances are that you're not communicating enough. Try looking at it from this perspective. It's a good indicator.

  • You're getting too many blank stares. When you're in a workshop or meeting and your participants give you a blank stare when you ask for their input, or if they too readily agree with your viewpoints - be careful. Chances are they don't understand what you're conveying and hence you risk a break-down in communication.

    Tip: If you're running projects in Asia, you have to take note of the "blank stare". Asians are typically more reserved and many of them don't voice things out if they don't understand you. Make sure you reach out and clarify that they understand what you're saying. Otherwise, when it comes to signing off your project deliverable, you will get a whole lot of resistance EVEN though the stakeholders didn't voice it out to you earlier.

  • Meetings end too fast. This is an insidious one and slightly related to the previous point. Many users, when you're not getting through to them, will tend to just appear to agree to the things you say. This causes my meetings with them to end quite fast and that's a danger sign for me. Meetings ending too fast (especially those discussing contentious topics) probably mean there is some communication gap between you and your meeting participants. Double check with your meeting participants subsequently to make sure you have their buy-in to the meeting's conclusions.

  • You're dumping a lot of information on your stakeholders. If you're sending out 3 page emails, 200 page Word documents or 100 page Powerpoint slides, you're probably dumping TOO MUCH information on your stakeholders. Now, that is NOT good communication. Make sure you summarize the key points somewhere, THEN attach the big document. This helps the person focus on the key takeaways of your communication.

Wrapping Up ...

So, I hope you now understand that the ONE key thing that ensures project success is open communication with everyone in the project - stakeholders, team members, bosses and vendors. If you insist on over-communication everyday, throughout the project, I can assure you your chances of project success will be significantly increased.

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