When did stakeholder communication become a box-ticking exercise?

5 ways to turn project reporting from just bureaucracy into an effective stakeholder engagement tool

I gave a presentation last year at a seminar on communication for project managers. In a discussion about using video as a method of providing project update reports, I asked if people thought their stakeholders would actually take the time to view a video that had been emailed to them. I was rather shocked by the response of one of the delegates who said, “Do I care? I’ve sent the report, that’s all that’s needed.”

In a different workshop with PMO managers in December, someone’s new year’s resolution was to ‘stop meaningless reporting’. Well, hurrah for that but the alarm bells are ringing. Are project reports just stuff to be sent out as a box ticking exercise?

Are progress reports a potential risk …?

Regular communication is essential for good project management and reports have a role to play in keeping stakeholders informed about milestones, issues, resolutions, costs, risks and next steps. However, just circulating a report on its own is unlikely to achieve the goal of ‘communication’, which is to successfully exchange information.

SOS communication – ‘Sending Out Stuff’ – could in fact be a source of risk for the project:

  • False assumptions: “I’ve sent the report” doesn’t mean anyone has read it. Your stakeholders don’t have the time or patience to open files or click on links unless they know that it’s going to be useful in terms of what they need to achieve. Just assuming that stakeholders are aware of the most up-to-date information can lead to decisions being taken based on assumptions and mis-perceptions rather than fact.
  • Over-reaction: Progress reports may record issues but are not the channel to communicate bad news. Not forewarning individuals about problems prior to a report being circulated potentially puts them in a difficult situation, which could damage a valuable relationship.
  • Delayed reaction: Regular reports labelled ‘update’ frequently get put on the “read later” pile. Stakeholders may not get around to reading it in time to take decisions or provide intervention when you need them to.
  • Disengaged stakeholders: People tune out of something that pops up regularly and is expected to say the same thing each time. Just sending regular reports in the same format every time risks stakeholders ignoring what you’re saying.

 … or an opportunity?

My point is not that reports per se are a bad thing. It’s that we’re failing to recognise the purpose of the process of reporting. Reporting helps to maintain a dialogue with stakeholders, transfer knowledge, build confidence, enable stakeholder decisions and influence their actions. The process of reporting affects how well we achieve those outcomes.

In a recent APM / GoToMeeting webinar about stakeholder management, Dr. James T. Brown suggested that too many project managers communicate at ‘project level’ ie. just presenting what’s important to the project manager. Instead we need to be communicating at ‘Stakeholder level’, as a peer to each of our stakeholders. That means focusing on what is important to them, highlighting actions they need to take or information they require, managing their expectations, and managing their perceptions of a project in control or in need of intervention.

I hear PM’s say that they just send out reports because stakeholders ask for them. Not only is that a waste of everyone’s time (see above), but it also means those project managers are missing a huge opportunity to use the interaction as a mechanism for managing stakeholder expectations, perceptions and behaviour. Preceding the weekly report with a phone call, to point out a particular milestone achieved or issue resolved, helps to build confidence and keep people motivated. Providing a cover note in the weekly email will alert the recipient to important information that will impact a key decision. A one-to-one meeting with an individual to forewarn them of bad news may help them come prepared when the issue is raised in the next meeting.

Taking advantage of a willing audience

Stakeholders do expect regular reporting. They want to see that you are tracking progress against budget, schedule and scope, and that you are flagging potential risks and pre-empting roadblocks. So they are a willing audience in terms of having you email, phone, visit, attend their meetings, corner them at the water cooler. (Trust me, having a willing audience is a significant asset when it comes to communication. As a marketer, I am usually faced with prospects whose opening position is not wanting to hear from you, which makes getting your message across a bit more challenging.)

So how can project managers take advantage of this willing audience and use progress reporting as a productive and effective process? Here are five suggestions:

1. Be clear about what you want to achieve each time you communicate

Instead of just sending out a report each week, use that progress update event to drive a particular outcome. For example, you may need to ensure the MD feels confident that an uncertainty has been addressed, or remind users to sign up for the next round of training, or encourage your sponsor to accelerate a decision on a business case.
Use a personal covering note or phone call to get the relevant message across. The report plays a supporting role, providing back-up data if required.

2. Make it easy for stakeholders to receive your intended message

People are increasingly reading email on a tablet or smartphone. So it is worth assuming that information at the bottom of a long email is unlikely to be read and attachments will probably not be opened.
Start your message with a brief description of what you need them to know. Further explanation can be provided further on in the email or voice message but don’t just direct them to page four of the report that is in their inbox.

3.  Provide what they need to know, not what they don’t need to know

There is a point where communication becomes over communication. Overwhelming people with data that is not relevant to their particular role in your project risks becoming annoying.
Ask what each stakeholder requires in terms of reporting and updates. Do they want to see a copy of your report every time, relevant sections only, or 5 bullet points and a link to it? What is their preferred method of receiving an update: a face to face chat every week, a text first thing Monday morning before the board meeting, or a phone call only when something is urgent?

Note: beware under communication where stakeholders want to turn off the tap of information. Make a judgement about what information stakeholders really need, which is not always what they ask for.

4.  Change the format to wake people up

When you travel on a plane do you pay attention to the safety briefing from the flight attendants? Probably not, because you’ve been through it before and you know what they’re going to say. The same could be true with your project updates.
So change the routine now and again to encourage people to take notice. For example, summarise your update report in 3 powerpoint slides rather than a 5 page word document; do a 30 second update to video; change the subject of your email from “Project XYZ Update” to “Cake at the next team meeting to mark a milestone” (or whatever is appropriate); or instead of focusing on the report use the interaction to ask for feedback on a particular aspect of team performance.

5.  Evaluate and review your approach

Sending a message does not mean it’s been received or understood. Follow up every now and again to check whether your updates are achieving your objectives. Instead of a general “did you get my email” question, ask for example:

  • “did my report address your concerns?”
  • “do you have the information you require to approve my choice of supplier?”
  • “were you able to view my video report on the train home and did it cover the necessary points?”

If you’re not seeing the outcomes that you need, such as decisions made or feedback provided, then ask how you can improve the way you provide information.
As your project progresses, stakeholders evolve in terms of their level of understanding and involvement, and also their own priorities. Review their communications preferences regularly, asking whether they feel your updates continue to be relevant, useful and sufficient.

 

Do you think project reports are just seen as a tick-box exercise? What techniques do you use to encourage stakeholders to tune in rather than switch off to your communications?

 

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Fran Bodley-Scott

Fran is a business communications consultant specialising in customer and stakeholder relationship marketing. She started out in engineering and product development before moving into marketing and business development. Fran brings a blend of marketing experience, system thinking and creative design to client projects. She is a thought leader in applying marketing thinking inside the organisation and is passionate about improving business effectiveness and efficiency through relationship marketing.

If you are interested in talking with Fran about your project, please get in touch.