The Critical Role of Communication in Project Management

Industry Advice Management

Successfully managing a project from start to finish requires certain key skills. Scheduling, time management, and the ability to negotiate with internal and external parties are all critical competencies. Leadership, risk management, and critical thinking similarly all fall high on the list.

But the skill that is perhaps most important to project management is the one that underlies all of these others: Communication. 

Without strong communication skills, project managers would find it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to effectively manage their teams and coordinate efforts in order to bring about a project’s successful resolution. 

Below, we explore the importance of effective communication in project management, define the different types of communication project managers are likely to engage in, and offer tips that you can use to become a more effective communicator to excel in your project management career

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The Importance of Effective Communication in Project Management

As a part of their day-to-day jobs, project managers perform a variety of roles and responsibilities. At its core, however, the job is about coordinating the efforts of everyone involved in a project so that shared goals can be achieved. This requires that a project manager is skilled in gathering information and in sharing it with the right people on their team. 

“Communication is the most important aspect in project management, because what project managers do a majority of the time is communicate to coordinate efforts,” says Sarmann Kennedyd, assistant teaching professor in Northeastern’s Master of Science in Project Management program. “To coordinate efforts, they have to gather a lot of information and disseminate it across all teams involved with the project.”

Without this communication, it’s possible that efforts might be duplicated by multiple people or teams involved in the project, that important goals and milestones might be missed, that resources become misallocated, or that the project’s scope begins to creep outside of the realm of what was originally intended. The end result is that projects can screech to a halt, or worse: fail altogether.

“Communication is one of the most essential ingredients [in successful project management] and skills that a project manager has to have,” Kennedyd says.

Types of Communication in Project Management

In project management, as in all other business processes, there are multiple different types of communication and communication styles that might impact a project. Often, these different styles can be understood to come from different “perspectives,” which we explore below.

1. The Project Perspective

When communication is viewed from the perspective of the project itself, it is usually broken into two categories: internal and external communication. 

Internal communication typically refers to the exchange of information that occurs between individuals who are actively working on a project—the project manager and their team. It is often characterized by the detailed discussion that happens during planning or issue resolution.  

External communication, on the other hand, refers to the flow of information between the members of a project team and key stakeholders not directly a part of the project. This might involve members of the executive team, the CEO, other departments or projects, the press, or internal and external customers. Because this communication is geared towards individuals who are not directly working on a project, it is often more formal and “polished” compared to internal communications. 

2. The Organizational Perspective

When communication is viewed from an organizational perspective, it is usually broken into three distinct categories which take into account the various ways in which an organization might be structured: vertical, horizontal, and diagonal communication. 

Vertical communication takes place between individuals who operate on different hierarchical levels within an organization and is sometimes referred to as “upward” or “downward” communication. Upward communication might involve a member of the project team updating the project manager about a particular roadblock that is getting in the way of completing a task, or the project manager communicating with their superior on the progression of the project. Downward communication works in the opposite direction, such as when the project manager assigns tasks to individuals on their team.

Horizontal communication takes place between individuals who operate on the same level within an organization. It’s the communication that occurs between peers and colleagues, such as when a team gathers for a daily scrum meeting or stand-up to align on what tasks will be completed. 

Diagonal communication is typically limited to businesses and institutions with more organizational complexity and refers to the communication that takes place between individuals within different functional divisions or departments within the organization. For example, a project manager tasked with overseeing the development of a mobile app might turn to a member of the software team to understand how they dealt with similar issues or challenges. 

When engaging in vertical, horizontal, or diagonal communication, it’s critical that a project manager or member of a project team understand the underlying politics involved, and use that knowledge to frame their discussions. 

3. The Formality Perspective

When communication is viewed through the lens of formality, it is generally split into informal and formal communications, which are rather straightforward in their definitions. 

Informal communications are often synonymous with internal communications outlined above. Daily emails, touchbases, and unplanned meetings form the bulk of this communication, which is generally raw and unpolished. 

Formal communications, on the other hand, are seen more as products to be consumed. Reports, press releases, and presentations to key stakeholders often fall into this bucket. Because of the audience that they are typically addressed to, these communications are often more highly-produced and planned.

4. The Channel Perspective

The channel perspective refers to the channel or medium by which communication is transmitted or delivered. Common communication channels include verbal vs. non-verbal communication, in-person vs. remote or virtual communication, and written vs. oral communication. 

It’s important to note that each of these communication channels offers its own benefits and disadvantages which a project manager should be aware of and leverage accordingly. 

In-person communication, for example, enables the parties to observe body language and demeanor which might influence the message being sent, but it is not always possible due to the increasing use of remote teams in corporate environments. Similarly, written communication allows the writer to tailor their messaging to communicate precisely what they want to share, but it might lack certain subtleties that could otherwise be obvious in verbal communication (such as sarcasm). 

It’s up to the project manager to understand which channel best applies to their unique needs, and to balance those needs accordingly against the potential drawbacks of each channel. 

Tips for Effective Project Communication

1. Make use of technology.

Just because your project team might be remote doesn’t mean that all of your communications need to be written. There is value in face-to-face meetings, and leveraging technology to facilitate these face-to-face interactions can go far in influencing the progress of your project. Virtual meetings and video conferencing are two incredibly helpful tools in this regard. 

2. Keep cultural and language barriers in mind.

Companies and organizations are increasingly diverse, elevating the possibility that a member of your project team might not be a native English speaker. This might increase the risk of confusion during communications about the project. 

Being mindful of any cultural differences or language barriers of those involved in your team is, therefore, of critical importance. When possible, avoid using colloquialisms, jokes, and sarcasm, which can be difficult to translate across languages and cultures. 

3. Understand who should get what information and how.

As a project manager, a large part of your job is to act as a gatekeeper to information. While this means that you are responsible for providing relevant information to the members of your team, it also means that you are responsible for shielding them from irrelevant information which might cause confusion or otherwise disrupt their work. Understanding how to determine who gets what information is an essential part of a project manager’s job.

Similarly, it’s up to you to determine the best channel and form of communication for whatever audience you are speaking to. Don’t be afraid to tailor your methods of communication to individual stakeholders or members of your team, if you think doing so will help the project stay on track.

For example, if you know that a certain stakeholder prefers to analyze the numbers, you might want to generate a granular report for them that goes into the level of detail they are looking for. On the other hand, if a different stakeholder is only concerned with high-level numbers and key takeaways, you might instead choose to leverage graphs and charts to illustrate those key points. 

Developing the Communication Skills Necessary for Project Success

If you are looking to improve and develop your communication skills as they relate to project management, earning a relevant advanced degree, such as a master’s in project management, could be one option of getting you where you want to be—especially if the program offers a concentration or focus on communication. 

At Northeastern, individuals pursuing a master’s degree in project management can choose from 10 different specializations, including a Concentration in Organizational Communication. With classes focused on crisis communication, intercultural communication, negotiation, and organizational communication, amongst others, this track places a special emphasis on the various types of communication a project manager is likely to need to engage in during their career. 

For more information about how a master’s degree in project management can help advance your career, download our free guide to breaking into the industry below.

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