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Don’t mistake project reports for communication

Lynda Bourne
May 1, 2012

Reporting and communicating are not the same! While many project communication plans are simply a schedule for the distribution of project reports, sending out information has very little to do with effective communication.

Communicating effectively with key stakeholders is a critical element in achieving a successful project outcome. It starts with understanding who the important stakeholders are ‘at this point in time’, then determining the reason you need to communicate with the person and then designing a communication strategy to achieve your desired outcome.

Finally, as the communication strategy is implemented, processes need to be in place to measure the effectiveness of the communication and make sure it is working effectively.

Effective communication requires you to send a message that is received, interpreted, and a response returned to you by the receiver so you can check the receiver has understood the message correctly. It is a two-way process; for a communication to be complete, the sender needs to know the message has been received and understood. Ideally, the communication will then be acted upon by the receiver to the benefit of the project.

Reporting in

Reports fulfil a different purpose. Well designed reports contain useful information in a time series: this makes them a valuable data repository and the process of gathering and reviewing the information can generate valuable insights for the project team to act upon. However, the data in the reports is passive, you cannot assume anyone will read, understand or use the information!

As a project artefact, reports have intrinsic value. Simply generating well designed reports will create positive emotional responses in the minds of many managers. Additionally, some people simply like getting reports and some roles associated with organisational governance are based on receiving and processing the data contained in your reports.

Reports also contribute value because the project manager feels comfortable because she or he has a ‘proper report’ that is part of the ‘clothing’ every project manager wears along with their Gantt charts and other expected artefacts. Senior managers experience positive emotions because the existence of a well presented report suggests control, order and capability.

Conversely, a project manager without reports is simply not behaving ‘properly’ and will be penalised for their non-conformance; to quote Mark Twain: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.” We need to conform, but generating reports is not communication!

Real communication

To transform a report into a communication you need to either deliver them in person, or attach a note, to highlight specific issues or messages you want the receiver to action and seek a specific response to know the message has been understood. Without the feedback loop, all you have done is forward a message; you have no idea if the message has arrived, been seen or been understood, and without understanding there certainly wont be any action.

Communicating effectively is hard work. You need to focus your efforts on the people that matter and then communicate in a way that is likely to achieve your desired outcome. For everyone else, forwarding your reports is an effective way to stay in touch and keeps the channels open for when you do need to communicate in the future.

Communicating for effect is a focused discipline. If you don’t need anything in particular from a person there is no point in communicating, just send a report.

Lynda Bourne
Dr Lynda Bourne PMP, FAIM, is an international authority on stakeholder engagement and the Stakeholder Circle visualisation tool. She is the author of 'Making Projects Work' (2015), 'Advising Upwards: A Framework for Understanding and Engaging Senior Management Stakeholders' (2011), and 'Stakeholder Relationship Management' (2009) and a contributor to many others.
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