I Have to Ask: Project Management

Posted on July 15, 2019

Bill Brantley

In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week, Dr. Bill Brantley (LinkedIn) provides lessons learned on the role of communications during project management.

I first learned about project management when I worked as an investigative paralegal for the Kentucky Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet. I was working for ten attorneys, and I needed something to help me manage my work – fast! I visited my local library and checked out all the books on time management and organizing my work. 

I used project management techniques for organizing my work. At first, I gained the most from the organizing tasks and managing schedules methods. Delving deeper into the project management field, I learned invaluable techniques for building teams and working with stakeholders. The most beneficial and exciting aspect of project management was project management communication. I was especially fascinated by how communication theory works in project management because of my undergraduate degree in communication and paralegal science.

In over 25 years as a local, state, and federal government employee, I have managed many projects ranging from IT projects to managing multi-day conferences. Some projects were small, month-long initiatives with two or three colleagues while fitting the project work into our daily tasks. Other projects were over six months, with many colleagues and a decent budget. Whatever the size, duration, and goals, I learned that effective communication was essential successfully managing the project and delivering results. I’ve studied project management communication for the last 25 years and just recently published a book distilling what I have learned. Here are my three keys to effective project management communication:

1) Communicate for Understanding

Traditional communication theory focuses on transferring information. Transferring information is a vital part of communication, but, there is more to effective communication. Making sure that your audience understands you is crucial because your project team and stakeholders need to know how the project vision will be fulfilled. 

Communicating for understanding means determining if your audience has sufficient know-what, know-how, and know-why. Know-what is if your audience is familiar with the concepts you are talking about. For example, one project management tool is the “work-breakdown-structure” (WBS). 

Your executive sponsor should have a basic understanding of what a WBS is. However, your project team should have a deeper understanding of what a WBS is and know how to create and use a WBS. The executive sponsor should see why a WBS is needed, as well as your project team should. When communicating for understanding, the project manager should customize his or her communication to the understanding needs of the audiences.

2) Communicate Often and In Many Different Ways

Even with small and simple projects, it takes much communication to help all the project team members understand the project vision and purpose. When I have managed projects that were in addition to the team members’ daily work, it was especially essential to communicate often and in a variety of ways. You cannot just align people around a project vision once. Too many changes and immediate needs can quickly make people forget even the most basic tasks and deadlines. That’s why people need to be continually reminded and in different ways. 

Face-to-face meetings are the best for most communications. Follow-ups with email or an inter-office instant messaging system are effective. Remote employees especially need frequent communication. Even in the late 90s, I learned how to use online video conferencing to better communicate with teleworking employees. 

3) Encourage Two-Way Communication

I taught project management communication to engineering students at the University of Maryland from 2012 to 2018. In one class exercise, I have the students read about the Boston Big Dig. The Big Dig was an enormous construction project to improve the traffic flow in Boston. There were thousands of workers on the Big Dig representing hundreds of subcontractors. The project was over-budget and way behind schedule. On the opening day of the tunnels, a passenger in a car was killed by a falling ceiling tile.

I use the Boston Big Dig as an example of why excellent two-way communication is needed in projects. Two-way communication helps the project manager verify that his or her project team and stakeholders understand the project communications. Two-way communication also helps the project manager verify that he or she follows the progress and potential problems in the project. 

For short-duration projects with few project team members, it is even more essential to encourage two-way communication. I have had several occasions where I thought I communicated tasks clearly but was surprised by how my team understood what I said. I learned early on to test my team’s understanding before having them work on project tasks.

Communication is the Key to Successful Project Management

Back when I worked in local and state government during the 90s and 2000s, we had more work than employees to perform the job along with a steady stream of initiatives and projects. I am confident that little has changed in terms of government work today. Project management can be a useful tool for helping meet your work challenges. Taking the time to learn how to use communication effectively in your projects will be the most critical tool for project management success. 

Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Louisville. He started his government career as a paralegal in a public defender’s office and then with the Kentucky Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet. He currently works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com. 


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