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Talking communication at the APM conference 2014

I was thrilled to be asked to speak at the recent Association for Project Management conference.  If you didn’t get along, you can still check out the presentations which were filmed, including mine.  I got a few laughs and hopefully got people thinking differently about the role of communication on projects.

The theme of the conference was “New Frontiers” and picked up on this by talking about how it is no longer possible to ‘manage the message’ as it was in the good old days when I started out in PR. I use the example of the M&S “We boobed” campaign to show how easy it is for anyone with access to social media to have influence.  I also like this campaign because it is a great example of how M&S turned something around – a risk became an opportunity.

Be good to hear your views!

Rolling Back from the Power/interest Matrix: A New Approach for Role Based Stakeholder Engagement in Projects

It is widely acknowledged that a successful project needs well managed and effective stakeholder relationships, but sitting down with a blank sheet of paper and attempting to understand the stakeholder landscape is a daunting task.  Turning that piece of paper into a tangible and sustainable relationship that benefits the project, and the organization, is harder still.

Many projects and programmes adopt the power-interest matrix in an attempt to codify and order the process for identifying stakeholders; yet this approach privileges a certain type of stakeholder at the expense of many others who are needed to make the project successful.

Lou Horton – a business change manager in government – and I are arguing that it is not the combination of power and influence that should determine a stakeholder’s worth to a project, but rather that person’s role in the organisation. Engaging stakeholders in this way provides increased opportunities for sustainable change and benefits realisation.

Our full article is published in PM World Journal.  Let us know what you think.

Stakeholder engagement as issues management - thoughts from the world of PR

Issues management is a key function of public relations – some may argue that issues management is public relations. So, what can projects learn from the world of PR theory?

Firstly, it is worth noting that the terminology between the world of PR and projects is a little different.

In a project sense, an issue is usually a risk that has materialised and needs some urgent attention. In the PR literature, issues are something that emerge and, if not addressed, have the potential to become crises with high potential for negative impact on reputation.

Every PR text book worth its salt talks extensively about issues and crisis management.  (Interestingly, they talk less about risk and could probably learn much from the world of project management in this respect.)

Cornelissen  (2011) draws on the thinking of issues expert M C Healy who describes issues as having four stages:

  • Emergence
  • Debate
  • Codification
  • Enforcement

The key is for organisations to spot an issue when it first emerges and to engage in a debate with stakeholders around it. The thinking is that through debate the way that stakeholders perceive an issue (i.e. ‘codify it’ ) can be shaped by the organisation before it reaches the ‘enforcement’ stage which could be consumer action, government legislation etc.

The links to project stakeholder engagement are clear – regular dialogue with stakeholders is needed to identify issues early in that ‘emergence’ stage.

This is helpful understanding for those managing project stakeholder engagement and communication because it gives purpose to the stakeholder relationship.  Often on projects, the stakeholder engagement strategy is focussed on moving stakeholders up the hierarchy of positivity so that they can ultimately be recorded as in favour of the project, with the assumption that then is all right in the world.

Of course, the process of engaging stakeholders in a ‘warts and all’ dialogue about the project in order to tease out emerging issues should in itself lead to a positive outcome. It is likely to be more effective than a stakeholder relationship that is purely about selling benefits.  Stakeholder managers should aim for true two-way communication between the project and the stakeholder, with both being willing to adapt their position.

Stakeholder engagement as issues management – tips

  • Identify the right stakeholders – look beyond those who are perceived to have power and interest.
  • Give each stakeholder or group of stakeholders an owner.
  • Make spotting emerging issues part of the stakeholder conversation – don’t just base the relationship on selling project benefits
  • Make the conversation with stakeholders truly two-way with both the project and the stakeholder being willing to listen and adapt – aim for mutual understanding
  • Co-ordinate stakeholder feedback centrally, look for common themes
  • Agree a course of action once an issue is identified. Create a plan of how it will be address, monitor and evaluate.

A longer version of this article was published in Project magazine in March 2014.  Jump to pages 32 and 33.

Be great to know if you agree.

How to understand a project step two: ask the right questions

Here is my second look at ways to get up to speed quickly with the change project that we have been asked to communicate.  Its all about knowing the right questions to ask.

Project colleagues will very often be specialists in their field and focussed on what they have been asked to deliver so simply asking somebody what he or she is doing may result in a complicated description of some technical process, leaving the communicator more confused than ever!

So, never just ask, “What are you doing?” Some possible questions might be:

  • Who will be affected by what you are doing?
  • What is going to change for them? (It is essential to know, for example, if there is an impact on peoples’ jobs)
  • On who or what are you dependent to deliver your work?
  • Who is dependent on you?
  • What does success look like?
  • How would you describe what the project is doing to your mum or a son or daughter? This can help to remove some of the jargon.

Unfortunately, the last one doesn’t always work which makes me think that there must be a lot of families of project managers out there totally baffled by what their partner/father/son/daughter does all day !

This blog is based on an article that first appeared on


Communicating projects - it isn't all sell, sell, sell

Over on the Association for Project Management blog I discuss the delay to the NHS database project. Personally I think this is agreat scheme – we can learn so much from the data – but I can understand why people either aren’t aware or are uneasy.

The case has highlighted two important points about project communication – which essentially is change communication:

1.  It isn’t enough to just sell the benefits.  People may rationally agree with the benefits case but if they are worried about the security of their data, whether or not that fear is justified, they still won’t be convinced.

2.  You need to plan – set objectives at the outset for awareness, understanding, acceptance at points throughout the life cycle – don’t wait until the end to realise that it wasnt such a cunning communication plan as you first thought.



How to understand a project step one: read stuff!

For communication professionals working on projects one of the biggest challenges can be working out what the project is actually doing.  In the first of this series of blogs, I draw on what I discuss in the book, first up – what documentation shouldl you be reading?

All projects will have documentation that can help the communicator. When you arrive on a project, it can pay to spend some quiet time reading key documents. This will help you to then ask the right questions and seem well informed. Depending on the size of the project and the project methodology being used, documents may vary in name and nature, but here are some valuable ones to review:

• The business case: this should set out the rationale for the project and the benefits to be gained.

• The vision and blueprint: used in change projects, this will tell you what the project wants to achieve and what the organisation will be like when the project completes.

• Project initiation document (PID): this should set out things like the objectives for the project, the scope, assumptions, deliverables, resources and risks.

• The risks and issues register: communication should be contributing to this either in terms of raising risks or providing mitigation of risks. Reviewing the register is a quick way to understand any problems that the project may face.

• Project plans and roadmaps: these are useful in that they set out what will be achieved by when and the communication plan should of course be aligned with them. But they rarely help you to really understand what is being done and why.

• Lessons learned: has a similar project been done before? If so, review the lessons learned document.

Next time, I will be looking at how to make sure you are speaking to the right people and asking the right questions.


This is a summary of an article that first appeared in Simply Communicate.

Review by SimplyCommunicate

A huge thanks to Simply Communicate for this smashing review and summary of the book

Communication: an under-developed facet of the IT project industry?

I have borrowed that headline from Chris Yapp who has kindly provided the first review of the book. You can read it here.  Chris blogs on the Chartered Institute of IT website.. He  is a technology and policy futurologist who has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini.

I was pleased to read Chris’s comment as it supports my rationale for writing the book.  I hope you enjoy his blog and review.

What's so different about doing communication on projects?

Projects by their very nature aren’t business as usual, so the communication approach shouldnt be either.  So, what do we need to be thinking about when planning our project communications?

Understanding the impact

The amount of money being spent on a project is not always a good indicator of the impact that the project will have.  Sometimes, a seemingly insignificant change can have a high impact on stakeholders and reputation.  Communicators need to understand the impact. Assessing this may be the role of business change colleagues but even if this is the case, communicators as guardians of reputation need to be part of the process.

You really do need to plan

Communication practitioners haven’t always been great at planning – I was as guilty as the next person! But in projects you can’t get away with that.  I love the discipline of having milestones to hit – it reminds me of my days as a print journalist, an environment where deadlines are pretty much immovable.

Right stakeholder, right time

Stakeholder relationships matter whatever the context of your communication, but on projects they are key.  Without good stakeholder engagement a project won’t succeed.  There are many stakeholder models out there, but the important thing with projects is to understand what part a stakeholder will play in its delivery and when the best time is to engage.

In addition, and like many other communication roles, project communication demands political awareness (of the politics within the project and among stakeholders), the ability to draw on a range of communication skills and skill in commissioning work that can’t be delivered from within the team.

Its different from a personal perspective too.  Projects have a finite life, which means that they aren’t a ‘job for life’.  That unsettles some people but can also be exciting offering the prospect of new challenges.

For me, the variety and pace of projects make them the best places to work!


A new IC philosophy

What is internal communication? Why do we exist?

Sometimes, it’s good to take time out. To step back from what we do and think about our purpose.

Before doing that, I was struck by a briefing piece in the latest edition of Professional Manager from the Chartered Management Institute’s chief executive, Ann Francke. It discusses the need to reinvent management.

Ann wonders why business schools don’t focus on skills that really matter. She includes communication in her list, together with performance management, coaching, change-management and team work. She also asks a provocative question, “Why are most organisations still run with bureaucratic, controlling behaviours that cause managers to disengage?”

The CMI is launching an all-party parliamentary inquiry on management and leadership. It is also working with academia to improve the curriculum in Business Schools. Ann has made reinventing management a crusade at CMI and it is great to see the CEO of a membership organisation being so proactive about the challenges facing organisations.

Given that internal communication is central to some of the points that Ann raises, should we be thinking about reinventing internal communication as well?

Traditionally, internal communication is grounded in one-way communication, from senior managers to employees, based on carefully crafted copy. The rationale for this is to keep employees informed, although, in the past, it often presented a biased perspective on what the organisation was doing. Practice is evolving naturally as more consultative forms of management emerge. However, as Ann highlights, many organisations still prefer command and control. Social media is also impacting ways that information is shared. In some organisations, employee voice is increasing, although the evidence is that most employees are not very satisfied with the opportunities that they have to express their views.

This general picture suggests that a more radical approach to internal communication should be considered. In fact, reinventing management goes hand in hand with reinventing internal communication.

So, back to the question about the purpose of internal communication. Keeping employees informed, in an objective way, is an IC fundamental. It is the backcloth for general dialogue and debate about what the organisation is doing. Being creative about this, using different media effectively, is part of what an internal function is there to do. However, it is not the be all and end all of internal communication.

Internal communication should involve more internal activism. IC people could use data more to highlight employee views. They could then facilitate regular dialogue between different departments and between managers and senior managers, based on key issues. They can call out weaknesses in strategy that employees observe in their day to day dealings with customers. They can highlight poor processes that frustrate employees. This view of internal communication is one of promoting general internal communication health. An organisation that communicates well internally will have more engaged employees and be more successful.

It’s three-way internal communication; up, down and across, in equal balance.

Our purpose is not just to represent the view of senior managers, it is to co-ordinate knowledge-sharing and dialogue that serves the interests of all employees.

As that great philosopher, Joe Strummer, said, “People can do anything; this is something that I’m beginning to learn. Without people you’re nothing”.