If All Else Fails – Communicate Effectively!

04 April 2017 / By John Manning

Many projects often bring to mind the famous line from Cool Hand Luke“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” One of the definitions of communication from Merriam Webster Dictionary is “a technique for expressing ideas effectively.” On today’s projects, everyone on the project seems to be communicating, whether that be talking, emailing and/or sending correspondence, but the reality is that no effective communication is occurring. Many times, project participants are overwhelmed with the amount of correspondence and get extremely defensive of their positions, especially if they miss something. We may not have a failure to communicate but it appears many times that we have a failure to communicate EFFECTIVELY.

So how do we address this failure to communicate effectively??? I still remember one of my first classes on public speaking where the professor laid out a simple yet effective outline for a speech. He said in the Opening you tell them what you plan on speaking about; then in the Body you tell them what you are speaking about; and, finally, in the Conclusion you tell them what you told them! This has been shown to be an extremely effective means of communicating in speech to inform someone of a topic.

I believe this format works well on a project. As an “Opening” in a project, to make certain all parties communicate well, we as the Owner’s Representative needs to ensure that we develop with the Owner a detailed Project Plan that is communicated to the Design Team to confirm they understand what is required of the facility. Then, as the Owner’s Representative, we need to work with the Design Team and Legal Team to develop a complete set of Design and Contract Documents that detail what the Owner desires from the completed project in regards to scope, quality, time and budget as well as how the parties are to communicate during the project to make sure this is achieved.

Then, as the project moves forward into the “Body,” whether that be the development of the design or the construction of the facility, we as the Owner’s Representative needs to ensure that effective communication occurs. In the modern world one of the potential banes of ineffective communication is email! How many times have you sat there after receiving an email and stewed over what you believe was communicated in that email? You probably were muttering to yourself “What the h**l is that individual thinking?” Unfortunately it has become way too easy to send an email that really does not effectively communicate what we want it to and many times it communicates the opposite of what we want. In the olden days, before the advent of email, communication on projects was primarily thru the form of letters. Time was taken to carefully craft that letter to effectively communicate a position. Nowadays, with email, many project individuals do not take the time to think before hitting “Send” resulting in multiple emails that raise the frustrations on both sides of the communication highway. I would propose it would be better to limit emails and handle as much communication as possible face to face onsite or in project meetings (where there is typically a regimented format). Then when written responses are necessary (outside of meeting minutes) to take the time to craft a letter and attach that to an email. This process I believe would result in less ineffective communications occurring.

In a project, it is important that open communications are maintained if the project is to be completed on time, within budget, for the Quality Standards required. One of my mentors recommended that the best way to achieve this was to be proactive and look to what has to be done in the future and help the team proactively plan to achieve the goal for that event. This happens first by developing a good schedule so all of the Project Stakeholders understand the key elements and the timeline goals to achieve those elements. This schedule is used as a tool every day on the Project to help the Team proactively plan for the future. Then the Team should discuss the next key task (e.g. like place foundations) and detail what equipment, materials and manpower is needed and when to confirm that the goal set forth in the schedule is met. The British developed a written plan for many sections like this in a project to guarantee that all parties are clear. As an Owner’s Representative, means and methods are delegated to the Contractor but you could assist in enforcing communications in this area by requiring written plans of work for particularly critical segments of work for review by your team and the Designer prior to execution. The development of this plan will help all parties be aligned in effectively communicating the goals of that segment. The bottom line in communication on the “Body” of the project, as the Owner’s Representative, is to help and push all stakeholders to proactively schedule and develop detailed plans to achieve the goals of the project.

Finally, as in the “Conclusion” of the speech, when the time comes for action on an activity in the schedule, the Owner’s Representative, should be like the Mother watching her children, keeping an eye out to ensure they are adhering to the agreed upon plan and speaking up when you see your children misbehaving. This could be with proper inspection of the work that is ongoing with the attitude of not catching the Contractor doing something wrong, but working as another set of eyes to help the Contractor keep adhering to the agreed upon plan and speaking up when you see things going off course.

The failure to have effective communications on projects have resulted in a lot of wasted time and money as well as strain to the Project Participants. If the Project is carefully set up and you, as the Owner’s Representative, help keep the project on target, using effective communication, you will have many more successful projects.

About The Author

John Manning

John Manning is the Principal and CEO of KMI International with more than 30 years of global experience in project management of the design and construction processes on resort hotels, parking structures, infrastructure, area development and mixed use. He is a CCM (Certified Construction Manager), PE (Professional Engineer) and a LEED Accredited Professional while serving on the national board of CMAA. He has worked as a project manager for large Owners and Construction Management Firms on projects ranging up to $3 Billion. Mr. Manning also testifies as a forensic expert in state and federal courts.

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