Open Project Management - Communication

For a project to work, there must be clear communication between all members of the team. Sounds simple but is hard in practice, not because of time or physical constraints, e.g. the Client being out of town or a staff member on holiday, but because communication itself is imprecise. What I write and what you read it to mean can vary greatly. And that's just with the written word.

What's important to understand is that there are different forms of communication with different levels of effectiveness. The goal is to make sure the best form of communication is used. The daily meeting is an excellent example of good communication. Emails, although convenient, are easy to misinterpret.

Forms of Communication

There are three basic forms of communication: written, verbal, and visual. A combination of all three yields the best results. However, it's not always practical so it's important to know when you need to have a face-to-face meeting and when it's fine to send details via email.

Another aspect to consider is how we absorb information. The rough breakdown is as follows: Visual—65% Auditory—30% Kinesthetic—5%

(Data from Penn State New York Learning Centre

For most projects, the default approach is written documentation. The Client produces a requirements document (perhaps written by a Business Analyst or Manager), which is given to the Lead Developer to read and understand. There are so many nuances about the project that will be missed despite the best intentions of all parties. What is really important and what really matters can be missed. A single meeting between all parties can save a hell of a lot of time and effort.

On a recent project, there was a requirement for distributed authoring. The Lead Developer was on holiday when this part of the project was being specified. What the Client was after would require three levels of authorization. An external author would submit an article, their Department Manager would then approve, before going to the Web Manger to publish. When the specification was passed to the Lead Developer to estimate how long it would take, he gave what he thought was a fair assessment of the work required. When it came to actually build the feature, we found out that there was no need for the Department Manager to approve the article as that would be done before it was entered into the CMS. If the Lead Developer had been in the meeting when the specification was done, and was able to ask how the business process currently worked, it would have been obvious that only a two-level approval workflow was needed and time and effort could have been saved.

Unfortunately, written documentation is one of the least effective but most commonly used forms of communication. The following diagram (source: Alistair Cockburn) shows that the most effective form of communication is a group of people, in the same room, with a white board and flipchart paper to draw on. It covers all the forms of communication and types of learning.

What this diagram shows is that different forms of communication have varying degrees of effectiveness. The scale across the bottom goes from cold to hot representing the least to the most effective form of communication. There are two curves on the graph. The first indicates information supplied one way—i.e., delivered to the user without any question and answer.

A paper document is the least effective, with audiotape (sound only) being better, and videotape (on film) being the best. But these are still less effective approaches than when there is interaction between the parties, i.e. the chance for question and answer. This is shown by the second curve starting with people communicating via email all the way through to two people in the same room using a whiteboard—the "richest" form of communication.