Projects Are Dying Because of Poor Communication in the Workplace. Here’s How to Revive Them

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Between 2011 and 2016, the Veterans Affairs Department wasted more than one billion dollars on failed IT projects aimed at updating the agency’s outdated health records management system.

Neither this waste of money nor the fact that the project had to be completely reset are surprising. The Standish Group found that out of 3,555 projects with at least $10 million in labor costs between 2003 and 2012, only 6.4% were deemed successful. More than 41% were complete failures and were either abandoned completely or entirely reset.

And it isn’t just the government that struggles with project failure.

Globally, the Brightline Initiative estimates that organizations collectively waste $1 million every 20 seconds—or $2 trillion every year—on poorly managed projects.

It’s impossible to pinpoint exactly what crippled all of those projects, but we do know that poor communication is cited as a leading cause for failure on almost one third of doomed projects (29%).

It’s not a lack of budget, or time, or people, but something that we all start learning soon after we’re born, and never stop learning for the rest of our lives.

Feature image showing poor communication between two people

If almost a third of all projects that fail do so because of poor communication, organizations that salvage more projects by improving communication fundamentals will run more efficiently and surge ahead of competitors that fail to improve.

As a small business leader and project manager, you may be thinking to yourself: “So, all I have to do is communicate better with my team to save 33% of my failed projects?”

In theory, yes.

But it’s not quite that simple.

Good communication requires an elegant combination of technology, soft skills, and organization-wide buy-in. You can’t fix poor communication overnight, but it’s critically important that you make good communication a priority.

Poor communication will erode everything your business is built on, from the foundation to the top floor. But if you improve organization-wide communication, you can improve everything else, from profits to market share.

Let’s look at how.

How to fix poor communication in the workplace

Like most issues, fixing poor communication starts with admitting that you have a problem in the first place.

Hunkering down and acting as if communication will improve on its own is a recipe for failure. Below, we’ll look at six common workplace communication problems and pair each with potential solutions to implement at your business.

6 common workplace communication problems

1. Project details are getting lost in email purgatory

 THE PROBLEM:  You have important project details—such as milestone dates, documentation, and status updates—recorded, but they’re hiding in a series of emails spread across multiple threads, maybe even across Outlook and Gmail.

It’s a chore to go hunting for them every time you need a refresher.

 THE SOLUTION:  Stop using email for ongoing project communication. Email revolutionized the way project teams communicated back in the ’80s, but its time as a project communication tool has long since passed.

Email remains a useful tool for things like receiving inquiries from outside entities, sending one-time messages to large groups, or subscribing to industry newsletters. But it’s woefully inadequate for project collaboration.

Instead, use project management software to keep track of vital information including timelines, budget, and documentation, and use a collaboration tool for ongoing project communication and status updates.

2. Lack of communication between distributed teams

 THE PROBLEM:  Your distributed teams aren’t communicating with each other.

You have fantastic teams on the East Coast, on the West Coast, in India, and in London. But when they work on a project together? Communication drops off and projects start to fall apart.

Emails sent across time zones go unanswered for hours, and there’s virtually no face-to-face communication.

 THE SOLUTION:  Use collaboration tools. The latest generation of these tools—such as Asana, Basecamp, and Slack—feature a chat-like interface that facilitates real-time communication, even when it’s 9 a.m. in New York and 2 p.m. in London.

And if it’s 2:30 p.m. in Boston but midnight in Mumbai, the India team can set the collaboration tool to notify them about any missed messages first thing in the morning, unlike an email that gets buried in the pile that accumulated overnight.

Keep reading: Capterra senior project management analyst Eileen O’Loughlin has more tips on fostering communication between distributed teams, from leveraging schedule overlap to virtual team bonding activities.

3. Teams are communicating via too many channels

 THE PROBLEM:  To encourage communication, you’ve given your employees ample channels, from email to mobile phones, from neon sticky notes to every hot new collaboration tool that a manager suggests.

They’re communicating, all right, but project information is spread across so many channels that no one can keep track of it anymore, or find what they need when they need it.

 THE SOLUTION:  Pick a channel and stick to it. As the project manager, you have to establish the rules.

Go over your project communication plan at the kickoff meeting. Then, if someone communicates via the wrong channel—say a team member sends a status update via email when the rest of the team does so in a dedicated channel on your collaboration tool—politely, but firmly, remind them to copy it over to the right place.

A screenshot of the Capterra collaboration software directory

A comparison of popular collaboration software features on Capterra (Source)

You have to take the stance that if the message comes through the wrong channel, it didn’t come through at all. Allowing communication channel creep reinforces bad habits. Whenever someone sends a message to the wrong place, redirect it, and soon enough even the stragglers will catch on.

4. Multiple managers are giving conflicting instructions

 THE PROBLEM:  Your organization is growing and filled with bright leaders taking an active role in your projects.

That’s great!

But the more leadership voices you have on a project—the “too many cooks in the kitchen” effect—the greater the likelihood that wires get crossed and your teams receive conflicting directives on the same project.

That’s not so great.

 THE SOLUTION:  Choose a project lead, and honor their word. The military is really good at this, and they have to be. There’s no room for conflicting instructions when lives are on the line.

This is one area where the private sector can learn something from the armed services. Open dialogue and disagreement are critical elements of innovation and agility, but you still need a project lead to guide that discussion and make final, critical decisions.

If you are that project lead, meet with your leadership team regularly and solicit their feedback while remembering that your teams need a unified voice to deliver a successful project.

5. Key contributors aren’t giving status updates

 THE PROBLEM:  You’re aligned on a communication channel, and your project leadership has a unified voice, but you’re still missing something important.

Your key contributors aren’t chiming in. Whether it’s feedback on an important decision or a status update on a key deliverable, you need information that you’re not getting.

 THE SOLUTION:  Maybe they’re just shy, or maybe they’re feeling guilty about missing a deadline and are hoping nobody notices. But if you foster an environment where all voices are welcome and encouraged, you can start shifting your company culture toward open communication.

Facilitate this by scheduling weekly check-ins between managers and contributors. If a contributor is struggling with making deadlines or meeting quality standards, focus on how you can help them improve through better time management and planning instead of reprimanding them.

Use your collaboration tool to make status updates easier. You can even set up reminders on team channels to automate the process.

6. You hold more meetings, but see less progress

 THE PROBLEM:  More meetings = better communication, and better communication = more successful projects. Therefore, more meetings = more successful projects, right?

Wrong! This is flawed management logic based on the assumption that you’re not truly communicating unless you’re sitting around a conference table for an hour.

 THE SOLUTION:  Before scheduling a meeting, managers are supposed to ask themselves “could this meeting be an email?”

In other words: “Can I save everyone time by conveying this information in a brief message instead of dragging everyone into a conference room and halting their productivity?” I recommend taking that one step further by asking: “Could this meeting be a weekly status update?”

The importance of meetings varies greatly based on role. Managers need to meet to discuss plans and make decisions, contributors need uninterrupted time to focus and produce.

A general rule of thumb for good communication? The fewer meetings, the better. That way, when you do have meetings, everyone involved will know it’s important and the collaboration will be more meaningful and productive.

The path to better project communication

Good communication isn’t easy, and it doesn’t happen at the flip of a switch.

It requires organizational buy-in, unified leadership, and a clear, thorough plan.

If your projects have suffered because teams are losing details in email, struggling to communicate because of distance or communication channel creep, or because you have too many cooks in the kitchen, it’s time to try a new approach and revive your dying projects.

Note: The information contained in this article has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable. The applications selected are examples to show a feature in context, and are not intended as endorsements or recommendations.

Looking for Project Management software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Project Management software solutions.

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About the Author

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Andrew Conrad

Andrew is a content writer for Capterra, specializing in church management and project management software. When he’s not striving for the perfect balance of information and entertainment, Andrew enjoys the great outdoors and the wide world of sports. Follow him on Twitter @CapterraAC.

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