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Communication issues in projects are very common. Often the advice we give others or get from others is to communicate more and to be more transparent and most of the time it works.

The question is how far we should go with this approach? Is it possible to over-communicate in project? Do you know situations where communication became a problem not because it wasn't sufficient but because there was too much of it?

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    Pawel- I think you phrased the problem even better on your blog post today, and I have the EXACT same question: blog.brodzinski.com/2011/03/communication-problem.html – Sean Earp Mar 10 '11 at 20:41
  • Actually I approach the issue in the post from a bit different angle. Post is less about project management and more about leading teams, but yes, it is something which bothers me recently. – Pawel Brodzinski Mar 10 '11 at 20:59
  • excuse me, but I don't understand about "more transparent". Could you explain? – Hoàng Long Mar 11 '11 at 2:38
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    With transparency I mean being completely open with the team about issues like difficult stakeholder (e.g. pm.stackexchange.com/questions/872) or enforced deadlines which are impossible to meet or low profit on the project which result in non-existing project bonus money or any other difficult truth about the project. – Pawel Brodzinski Mar 11 '11 at 6:46
  • Try to be more scientific about this. What types of communication can we break into? Where does over-communication create issues? – Incognito Mar 11 '11 at 14:22
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I don't believe over-communication is a bad thing. In fact, repeating your message, vision and status is actually critical. Not everybody will "get it" the first time, nor even the second. And I'm not talking about a difference in intelligence here. Thinking everybody knows what he needs to know is an assumption, and should be treated as such. If I remember well, it is a Dale Carnegie quote that says something like "Tell your audience what you are going to say, say it and then tell them what you've just said".

Regular and open communication of project status and other things also builds trust. Sometimes people believe they can retain power or control by limiting communication. This is wrong as it will quickly result in distrust. Or rumours start to spread. Especially in critical change efforts, these can be devastating.

So when in doubt, it is always better to over-communicate than under-communicate.

If you are afraid you are spamming people with too much detail, you can work with head lines or summaries, with a link to more info for those who need it.

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  • it's not just Dale Carnegie: it's the military's approach to presentations (especially to upper brass) :) – warren Aug 30 '11 at 14:23
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You can absolutely over-communicate.

Project communications should provide information that is relevant to the listener. Whether that be an update task status to a project manager, further clarification on a work package to a team member or a budget report to a sponsor, for example.

Communication should not be an unstructured stream of conversation. Effective communication is not more communication but rather meaningful communication.

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    So the next question is: who decides which information is relevant to the listener. What I find so often are listeners who are interested in specific information but they're not fed with it. I can hardly think about the opposite situation which I experienced. That's why asked in the question. – Pawel Brodzinski Mar 11 '11 at 6:52
  • The listener decides what is relevant to them. The PM needs to know what is relevant to them. I call this the Twitter Rule of Project Management -would the listener subscribe to the feed /stream of communication you are broadcasting vertabase.com/blog/the-twitter-rule-of-project-management – Mark Phillips Mar 11 '11 at 17:51
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    Listener can't decide whether something is relevant for them unless they receive information (the feed exists) which brings us back to a point where we should communicate more and let team members decide whether information stream works for them or not. – Pawel Brodzinski Mar 11 '11 at 20:31
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    Project manager needs to know what is relevant to the listener, as opposed to what they might find interesting. To fine-tune this its worthwhile to break the project down into specific parts. For example, the communications that are relevant to a developer while gathering requirements or putting together stories is very different from the information that is relevant when working on the work packages or mid-sprint. Over-communication happens when every communication becomes an opportunity for someone to "rethink" what they are doing. At some point you need to keep things moving forward. – Mark Phillips Mar 13 '11 at 15:40
  • I think to depend on PM that they know exactly who should receive which message is a risky approach. Sometimes it can be an analyst or a quality engineer who would come up with the best idea to solve a bug in the code. Not so long ago in one of projects team manager thrown an idea which helped to solved serious problem the whole team was working on for a couple of weeks. You never know for sure which information is relevant for whom. – Pawel Brodzinski Mar 17 '11 at 19:00
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As project managers, it's our job to delegate issues and manage communications. The more work we try to take on ourselves, the less communicating we can do.

I read your blog post, and your question involved 150 people. That's a large team and a lot of communication paths!

According to this article, How Many Employees Should Your Supervisors Manage, 20 is the maximum number of employees recommended for a supervisor to manage when there is a wide span of control. With a narrow span of control, the author recommends supervisors manage no more than 5 to 6! Since project managers are oftentimes responsible for coordinating many areas, they usually have a wide span of control and delegate ownership to other individuals or groups.

With 150 people, you would need to divide the 150 into groups of 20 or smaller. Your communication paths would then consist of a liaison within each group, who you hold accountable for ensuring communications.

The liaison doesn't have to be a supervisor or manager, just someone on the team who has accepted responsibility for communicating information to the team and passing information proactively back to you.

For this to work, I want to emphasize that you must hold the liaisons personally accountable for these communications. When information isn't communicated, you need to ask that person why and what he/she plans to do to improve. It's his/her job to keep the people updated.

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  • +1 for "The more work we try to take on ourselves, the less communicating we can do." I didn't want to make the question about communication in big/huge teams. That's definitely worth another question. I rather tried to discuss what kind of/how much of stuff we should discuss openly in project team and whether there's some stuff which we should communicate. – Pawel Brodzinski Mar 11 '11 at 8:25
  • +1 for team size: militaries around the world through most of history have followed that approximate breakdown :) – warren Aug 30 '11 at 14:24
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Joel Spolsky has a great article regarding your question and from his conclusion it's clearly that the answer is yes, it is possible to over-communicate:

When you started your company, you probably did a great job of communicating. Everybody told one another everything. And your customers loved it, because when they called in to ask about their purchase order, everybody knew where it was. But as you get bigger, you can't keep telling everybody about every purchase order, so you have to invent specific communications systems so that exactly the right people find out and nobody else. Not because it's confidential. Because it's a waste of time.

If you follow the links, you will find The Windows Shutdown crapfest, an interesting example and the answer, of an ex-Microsoft employee to Jeol's question on How many Microsofties does it take to implement the Off menu.

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As a leader you have to give what your team need, not what they want.

Ask your self:

  • Is this information relevant for the team?
  • Is this information help the team to understand severity of problems (or the importance of the customer issue)?
  • Will this information make the team more committed?
  • Will this information bring new ideas or improvements?

If two or more answer of these questions is "Yes" then it is okay to share.

The better way to know if the shared information is bringing a positive result is to ask for a feedback from your team. (It can be made personally and informally or by a anonymous survey)

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I agree with Mark. Adding that a communication plan is very important to the success of communication. With the communication plan I stop the famous "meeting emails".

'meeting emails' are those emails that copy everyone, everyone replies, and no decision was made.

The issue with over-communication is that is difficult to detect, and to control. Specially because the people creating it, think they are doing good.

This is a great question.

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  • I agree that "meeting emails" doesn't help to make decisions. But here I focus more on sharing information and not making decision. From this perspective "meeting emails" can do a bit of good job as, well, if they do anything they inform people. – Pawel Brodzinski Mar 11 '11 at 6:49
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I don't have much experience in project management, but I think I have seen over-communication in projects, e.g. when I have joined a project for charity -- some self-organized group. Well, actually, I think that voluntary projects is the kind that is easily over-communicated.

The problem is that: all participants are volunteers so it's hard to enforce decision. People just love to discuss things, express ideas, but it seems like it's never coming to commission. Because we have no clear deadline, the work doesn't get paid, and all of us have "brilliant ideas" to make them real before the project comes to the end. As I look at it now, it might be a lack of leadership, which was responsible for that.

Another reason which is possible: to say is easier than to do, and people love to do easy things. For example, in an open-ended project, it's very tempting to collect lots of information that you'd never use. For example, to create a new product, which can take several years to be on the market (I haven't been there, but one of my friends has). The investigating phase is spread over a long time, which may be related to the fact that collecting market data (user needs, similar products,...) is far easier than "inventing" a new thing.

In short, communication isn't good or bad. It will be good as long as it concentrates into the problem, and not break the predefined schedule.

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  • Actually in the first case you didn't face communication issue but the problem with making decisions. The latter case is lack of clear goal for the product or lack of good high-level schedule to build it. In both cases there communication was extensive but I don't really thing over-communication was a root cause of these issues. – Pawel Brodzinski Mar 11 '11 at 11:57
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Unfortunately yes, over-communicating can become an issue. I have found this area very difficult to measure, and therefore resolve, since what it may be interesting for some people may be an area of concern and conflict to others.

Personally, I have come across several issues when communicating potential changes to the project's allocation of resources. I have always thought that a transparency is the key for building the confidence of a team and awareness of what's going on in the project at different levels. However, there is the risk that team members perceive certain information as a threat to their jobs or misunderstand the purpose of senior management's decisions.

From my point of view I would keep communicating anything related to working packages, open issues, and current status of assigned tasks but I would discuss with my line management to set up a communications plan, delivered by a Communications Specialist (independent role that reports to a different level of management), for information like resource re-allocation (outsourcing plans specially), budget constrains, and any other sensitive topic.

In my current job we have a person in charge of releasing communications in reference to the overall status of the project via email and posts to our SharePoint site. Should there be any questions within my team we openly discuss them in our reviews and I address their concerns to my line management for further support. This helps me to reduce my level of involvement on any matters aside my duties.

Also see: http://www.scottberkun.com/blog/2010/how-to-stop-overcommunication/

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