How to communicate effectively up to leadership and down to teams

Lab Blog Article

  • Published — Nov 2019
  • Topic — Communication

Communicate up

A core part of your communication time will be updating senior executives. These are the people that can influence the project, set objectives and monitor progress. So knowing how to get (and keep) them onside is crucial. Your communications must be regular, clear and complete.

Communicating up can be challenging for project managers. Often you can be waist-deep in the technical components of your project, not on the strategic thinking that the senior leadership team seeks.

Start with the big picture. Executives don't want to waste time on details so only provide them if asked. When you are, be concise and relevant.

Make sure you know their preferred style of communication. Especially if they travel a lot. Sometimes a quick phone call is more effective than a thoughtfully crafted email.

Remember that executives are people too. They may be incredible leaders and strategic thinkers, but they don't know everything. Help them with any knowledge gaps, be transparent and show yourself to be a trustworthy leader too.

If you have lots of executives at the table, there could be competing priorities. Your skill is to spot these conflicts, call out risks and help find common ground. Manage their expectations as a group and ask the project sponsor to give you a hand if a consensus is looking unlikely.

Always be nurturing your relationships with senior managers. It might seem like a significant effort, especially when you have to deal with difficult questions and be truthful about the obstacles the project is facing. But if you're honest and proactive in your communication up the hierarchy, it will pay off in the long run.

Communicate down

The project team is potentially your largest group of stakeholders. In your communications plan, you might group them by their roles and have different messages for business analysts and developers, for example.

Project teams have a different viewpoint on the project's performance than leadership or sponsors, who may see the work as being done for them. It's team members that do the work — the project output directly reflects on them. And team morale is important. So, communicating down to your teams well is essential.

People communicate differently. And they think differently. Frame your message and style of delivery to suit your audiences – learn to speak their language, and you'll find they quite simply understand you better.

Make sure you communicate in an environment that makes your teams feel safe and respected. Communicate emotionally and build trust by inviting people to share their opinions. Actively listen and acknowledge their thoughts, and act on them as appropriate. If you dismiss one person, you risk losing the room.

In any group, you're going to get a difference of opinion. As with your communications with senior management, it's your job to find a common goal and bring people into the shared vision. You're all in this together, and your goal is the same. So, make your objectives clear and remove uncertainty and doubt. If they know why they're doing something, they'll invariably do it better.

Let's make a plan

A communication plan is a project essential. It's a source of truth that everyone involved in the project can reference. It sets expectations early and clearly. It facilitates feedback opportunities. It keeps the project on track. And it makes team meetings efficient so that you can get on with other tasks.

What communication does your project need?

Every project is different. The size and scope, the industry, what the client wants — consider all this when you're thinking about what communications will lead to a successful project.

What's the purpose?

Nothing loses people like information overload. Unnecessary communications and meetings are annoying and will drown out your key messages. So make sure every piece of communication has a job to do. Consider your topics upfront and think about what your executives and teams need to know.

Set expectations around the frequency of communication.

This means less ad hoc questions to respond to and gives your team members the ability to manage their schedules efficiently.

Your communication method is important.

You want the team to be productive. And you want management to be in the loop in a way that works for their busy schedules. Active communication methods are suitable for when you need to get information out in a timely way. This includes face to face meetings, video or teleconferencing and webinars. Passive communication is great for teams to access in their own time. Think podcasts, email, blogs and website newsletters.

The five communication Ws (and one sneaky H)

Follow the five Ws (and one H) when you put your communication plan together. These questions (and you might want to add some of your own) will help you define your audience, clarify your message and set your communication objectives.

Who

  • Who is the audience/stakeholders?

  • Who'll be affected by your communication?

  • Who'll take necessary actions?

  • Who will support your idea?

What

  • What do you need to communicate?

  • What's in it for you and your audience?

  • What should the message be?

  • What actions will the audience need to take?

Why

  • Why do you need to communicate?

  • Why communicate now?

  • Why is this communication important?

When

  • When and how often should you communicate your message?

  • When is the communication needed?

  • When is the action needed?

Where

  • Where is the location of communication?

  • Where is the communication coming from?

  • Where can you or your teams get more information?

  • Where will the communication lead?

How

  • How are you going to communicate?

  • How are you going to get buy-in?

  • How will you handle questions and feedback?

  • How will communication help the stakeholders?

Communications hurdles

With many groups involved and differing interests at stake, politics will always rear its head. Obstacles might originate a couple of layers up from the project team – so communicate in a way that gains the confidence of senior leaders and ensures their buy-in.

Overcome organisational culture problems by gaining a deep understanding of the different parties involved. Your role here is to be an intermediary. Be aware of differences and tailor project communications accordingly.

Language matters. When you have specialists from varied disciplines involved in a project, the business unit jargon can be a barrier to effective communication and can lead to misplaced assumptions. Aim for common understanding in your communications.

The beating heart of your project

Communication is central to the success of a project and more broadly, part of most management processes today. It spans the entire life of a project beginning before the project kicks off and continuing after go-live.

But to get real value from your communication plan, it has to be efficient, targeted and timely. Always put your audience first — how will they receive your message, and how will it affect something they do?

Communication up to leadership and down to your teams is essential for a successful project or program of work. Doing it well is also a sign of strong leadership and trustworthiness. Lead through clear, relevant, concise, accessible and timely communications. Listen openly and get the best out of your project stakeholders at every level.

If you’d like to chat about putting a communications plan together for your next project, we’d love to help you get started. Reach out to the Project Lab team today.

How to communicate effectively up to leadership and down to teams

Communicating up to management and down to teams is simple when you have a well-prepared communications plan in place. Learn the 5 Ws of effective communications to get everyone on your project informed, engaged and supportive.

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