Project Management Tips

9. Poor project communication will cause many projects to end unsuccessfully.

Courtesy of TenStep, Inc.

Many years ago, a good project manager might have gotten away with being a poor communicator. The business clients typically didnt like it, but as long as the project manager could deliver the goods, the client may have been inclined to let them do their own thing. In today's world, however, projects need to be undertaken in partnership with the business, and this partnership absolutely requires solid communication. In fact, many of the problems that surface on a project are actually the results of poor communication. Poor communication can lead to the following trouble areas.

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  • Differences in expectations. Project managers need to strive to ensure that everyone associated with the project has a common set of expectations in terms of what is to be delivered, when and at what cost. The place to initially set these expectations is with the Project Definition (Charter) document. However, many project managers do not keep key stakeholders up-to-date as expectations get changed. Perhaps it is just as simple as some stakeholders thinking that the project is going to be completed on December 31, when it has been extended until March 31. People make decisions based on the best information they have at the time, and if the project manager does not keep everyone under a common set of expectations, things can start to get out-of-sync fast.

  • People are surprised. If people are not kept informed as to what is going on, they will be surprised when changes occur. For instance, if you are not going to be able to make your deadline date, you want to make sure people dont read it suddenly in a status report. Proactive communication means that you raise the potential of missing your deadline as soon as it becomes a risk. Then you continue to keep people up-to-date on the status. If you have to declare that you cannot meet your date, people are prepared. People get angry and frustrated when they find out bad news at the last minute, when there is no time left to have an impact on the situation.
  • No one knows what the state of the project is . On some projects, people are not really sure what the status is. The communication on these projects is short and terse and does not give the reader a real sense as to what is going on. Again, people cannot make the best decisions if they do not have good information. If they are not sure about what is going on, they have to spend extra time following up for further information. In fact, if you send updates to stakeholders and they continually follow-up with you for more information, it is a sign that your communications are not targeted correctly.

  • People are impacted by the project at the last-minute . This is a prime cause of problems. In this situation, the project manager does not communicate proactively with other people about things that will impact them. When the communication does occur, it is at the last minute and everything is rush-rush. For example, this happens when the project manager does not tell resource managers that team members are becoming available until the day they are released. Or it could include the project manager that knows for three months that a specialist is needed, but only asks for the person the week before. In each case, the other party is surprised by the last minute request and does not have time to adequately prepare. 

  • Team members dont know what is expected of them. In the prior problem situations, communication problems surfaced between the team and outside parties. However, poor communication also occurs within a project team. Some project managers do a poor job of talking with their own team to explain what they are expected to do. Sometimes the project manager is not clear on when assignments are due. Sometimes the project manager has a vision of what a deliverable looks like but does not communicate that to the person assigned until the first attempt comes back wrong. Sometimes the project manager does not communicate clearly and team members spend time on work that is not necessary. Again, all of this causes extra work and extra frustration on the part of the project manager and team members alike.

Whats the solution?

Some project managers dont understand how to communicate well and are just poor communicators to begin with. If you think you are in this group, you should look for training or mentoring opportunities to become better skilled. However, in most cases, the problems with communication are not a lack of skills, but a lack of focus. Many project managers place communicating proactively on the bottom of their priority list. When they do communicate, it tends to be short and cryptic, as if they are trying to get by with the minimum effort possible.

The key to communicating is to keep the receiver as the focal point not the sender. Try to think about what the receiver of the communication needs and the information that will be most helpful to them. If you are creating a status report, put in all the information necessary for the reader to understand the true status of the project, including accomplishments, issues, risks, scope changes, etc. If you are going to need a resource in the future, communicate proactively with the resource manager as early as possible. Then keep reminding them of the need as the time gets closer. For the most part, if you ever surprise someone, it is a sign that you are not communicating effectively. (The only exception is when the project manager is also surprised.) The project manager should also communicate clearly with their team. If you find people are confused about their end-dates or if they are doing work they dont need to do, think about whether you communicated to them effectively.


Many projects have problems. Poor communication can cause many problems and aggravate others. On the other hand, proactive communication can help overcome many other mistakes. Dont consider communication to be a necessary evil. Instead, use it to your advantage to help your project go smoothly with less frustration, less uncertainty and no surprises.



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TenStep, Inc, specializes in methodology development, training and consulting in project management, Project Management Office, Portfolio Management, and the project lifecycle.

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