Project Management

Communicating With The Present

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What’s Really Being Communicated?

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Given’s theme for August, communications, and my previous two blogs, Communicating With The Future, and Communicating With The Past, this blog’s title seems almost automatic. And, yes, I will continue to avoid an (extended) discussion of the silliness of the concept of sharing any and all project information with anyone with a claim to the “stakeholder” moniker. So, in the spirit of carpe diem, here’s GTIM’s take on what should be happening with communications management for your Project Team in the here and now.

The most common venue for a PM to communicate the status, issues, and adaptive strategies to her, ahem, stakeholders is the Project Review meeting, which typically occurs monthly. However, depending on one’s point of view, these communications can have very different purposes. Such cross-purpose communications can have highly damaging effects on these project reviews which, in turn, can harm the organization’s ability to consistently deliver projects on-time, on-budget. I will delineate the divergent points of view so:

  • Upper management – usually the very people who have set up the project reviews and insist that they take place at least once per reporting period, with full PM attendance – tend to worry about one thing more than any other in project-oriented organizations: that they are sitting atop a project disaster, and no one is telling them about it. These execs have almost invariably attained their positions based on their own ability to deliver projects successfully, and are confident that they can help correct the problems being encountered by their subordinate PMs, if only the execs could learn about them in their early stages.
  • Somewhere in middle management (the exact level varies organization-to-organization) and on down to the individual members of the Project Team, the main concern is very different: they want to execute the scope, to the best of their abilities, and would really like to avoid relatively clueless executives hovering over them, monitoring every decision. Such hovering is perceived (rightly, most of the time) as unnecessary interference, interference which can easily hinder the Project Team’s ability to successfully complete the project.

This being the case, added to the fact that it’s been weeks since I last used the Game Theorist’s favorite tool, the payoff grid, we have the following communications-changing scenarios:



Project Doing Poorly (1)

Project Doing Well (2)

PM Discloses All (A)

The way it should be

No issue

PM Reluctant to Tell All (B)

The Executive Nightmare

Highly anomalous


I’ll start with Scenario 2B, where the project being reviewed appears to be doing well, but the PM appears to be reluctant to discuss its performance in detail. There’s a reason this presents as counterintuitive to the point of being highly anomalous – there’s something else going on here. Either the PM knows the numbers are optimistic, or perhaps even invalid, or possibly there’s another reason (politics, personnel issues) that project performance-threatening data is being overlooked by the Cost/Schedule systems. Unfortunately, the best strategy here is probably to leave it be, at least for the present time, lest the Execs be seen as meddling in projects that are doing just fine based on the existing data.

Scenario 2A is everybody’s favorite, and, if all of the projects in the portfolio find themselves here, then the project reviews can take very little time out of everybody’s day.

Now we’ll address Column 1, where communications systems undergo their stress-test. There’s a (relatively cynical) standard list of reasons for negative cost/schedule performance that tend to show up in Variance Analysis Reports, including:

  • Vendor rate changes
  • Equipment or material delivery delays
  • Contingency event (in-scope, unplanned)
  • Completely unforeseen event (e.g., pandemic)
  • Formal scope change that hasn’t been reflected in the baseline yet
  • Informal scope change (scope creep)
  • Poor performance

If the negative variance being analyzed was due to any of the first five bullets, the PM, in theory, should not have any problems with presenting them accurately and in detail, landing us squarely in Scenario 1A. However, if the reasons for the negative variance(s) has to do with either (or both) of the last two bullets above, the tendency is going to be to go to Scenario 1B, the stuff of executive nightmares. To be sure, the PMs so involved do not wish to generate the nightmare scenario. They’re almost universally convinced that they can get the customer to own up to the added additional scope to the existing baseline, and appropriately increasing the cost and/or duration, or improving the performance of the Project Team, or…

The list of motives for “adjusting” the communications goes on and on, but it ultimately has the same, inevitable result. A problem that could perhaps be corrected if the organization’s leaders knew about it early enough gets submerged in order to avoid a perceived interference, and ends up costing the project, as well as its owning organization, dearly.

The solution? Communications experts should abandon the idea of expanding the number of people who receive information on projects’ performance, and instead push for more honesty to fewer “stakeholders,” particularly the ones belonging to the Project Teams’ organization.

And that’s how communications management can put an end to the Executive Team’s nightmares.

Posted on: August 17, 2020 10:34 PM | Permalink

Comments (4)

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Thanks for sharing

Thanks Michael. I agree with the conclusion "Communications experts should abandon the idea of expanding the number of people who receive information on projects’ performance, and instead push for more honesty to fewer “stakeholders,” particularly the ones belonging to the Project Teams’ organization"

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