Managing Surprises, Part 5: Relevancy and Timeliness in Project Communication

Relevancy has multiple dimensions in project communications. We preserve relevancy by keeping the project goals in view, managing scope creep accordingly and avoiding distractions. If we did good work at project inception, the project goals were established, agreed upon and memorialized in the scoping documents. After project inception, project communications should always benchmark progress against those agreed-upon project goals. To the extent that we can frame our ongoing project communications in terms of the original project goals, we will help keep the project team’s priorities aligned with the client’s priorities—and that will help keep the project on track to meet those goals. Meeting agendas and minutes, deliverables, progress reports and routine conversations with the project team are all opportunities to reinforce and check progress toward project goals, manage scope creep and root out distractions.

Distractions have a special significance in the context of meetings. If somebody is distracted when important information is being communicated, surprises later in the project can result. Of course, there are the usual meeting etiquette matters involving cellphones and laptops. We commonly manage these by asking people to silence or turn off their phones and shutdown laptops, and by designating one person to take notes so everyone else can relax and engage. However, presenters can unintentionally introduce distractions with their audio/visual aids, such as PowerPoint presentations, screen shares, video recordings, handouts, charts, graphs, etc. While A/Vs can help reinforce a message, they can also be disruptive if not used thoughtfully.

To illustrate, I’m a visual learner, which means if you include a simple graphic in your presentation, I’m more likely to understand your message accurately. On the other hand, it also means that if you put a detailed graphic in front of me while you’re talking, I’m more likely to become engrossed in the details and miss your main point entirely. Unfortunately, I’m not unique in this regard. Sometimes less is more.

In light of these realities, here are a couple distraction-control principles to keep in mind: First, it helps to keep visual distractions out of sight during critical points in a meeting when you most need everyone’s focused attention. Second, you can briefly show charts and graphs—as you would with PowerPoint slides—to make a point and then move on, rather than distributing them as handouts during a presentation. It may help to state in advance that you will distribute copies after the meeting. The same logic holds true for other handouts; distributing them after the meeting is preferable when practical.

This brings us to timeliness. A well-written project communication plan will provide clear guidance to the project team to facilitate timely and effective communication of new information to affected parties. Additionally, we need to recognize that timeliness has both relative and personal dimensions. Relative timing is pretty straightforward. It’s typically best to get important messages to the appropriate people as soon as we can. Imperfect information delivered early—including limitations and by characterizing the confidence level as best we can—is infinitely more valuable to the project team than perfect information delivered late. Sequencing of foreseeable communication events is also a relative timing consideration and should be addressed in the project schedule.

Personal timing can be a bit more nuanced. It can help to schedule important conversations early in the day, even first thing in the morning. For most professionals on most workdays, physical energy is higher, minds are less cluttered, stress levels are lower, and deadlines are less pressing first thing in the morning. Effective communication and positive outcomes are therefore more likely. Of course, our colleagues and clients who have highly developed time management habits may have “quiet time” or recurring meetings blocked out in the morning. The better we get to know them as individuals, the better we can work around those obstacles.

Finally, with respect to timing, it is of course best to avoid surprising a client with new information in a group or public setting. Not only can this new information put clients in an uncomfortable situation, but they may have knowledge or insight that provides context that may alter the significance of the information, mitigate its impact or even make it irrelevant. By communicating new information one-to-one whenever possible, we give clients an opportunity to manage their own channels of communication.

Improving our internal and external project communications in the areas of relevancy and timing will go a long way in promoting well-run projects, improving client satisfaction and making our projects a better experience for all involved.

Next up, the series conclusion: Capturing Value from Lessons Learned.

Lee Smith

Leland (Lee) Smith, PE, PMP, D.WRE, is an engineer program director for Woolpert’s water market and is based in the firm’s Atlanta office, where he leads project teams in problem definition, analysis and solution delivery for water infrastructure and water resource projects. Lee aspires to an increasingly client-centered approach to consulting, to foster good working relationships and support high professional standards.