PMP Exam Prep – Part 13: Project Communications Management

Historically, most candidates find this section on Project Communications Management to be the easiest to pass. This is the time and place where you can gain a lot of ground in your exam score, particularly if you don’t have a lot of knowledge and experience in other sections on Cost and Risk management.

Project Communications concepts covered in this section

There are several Communications concepts that we will cover in this section

  • Informal vs. Formal Communications.
  • Conflict Resolution
  • How differing and different management styles represent the form of communications.
  • Communications Model
  • Communications Channels
  • Kickoff meeting
  • Barriers to Communication
  • What Role the PM should play in Communications Management

The following Project Management processes are covered in this knowledge area:

  • Identify Stakeholders: We need to be able to assemble our project team with the right mix of skill sets.
  • Plan Communications: We need a systematic and repeatable process that helps stakeholders gain access to key information, both in the right place and at the right time.
  • Distribute Information: This process covers the systems and tools for disseminating information to the appropriate stakeholders, as well as covering issues of confidentiality and security.
  • Manage Stakeholder Expectations: A project manager should always be attuned to the varying expectations among different stakeholder groups and work to ensure that these expectations are being met in order to minimize conflict.
  • Report Performance: We refer to the formal and informal processes of communicating information about project performance to stakeholders.
Exam Hint – Look out for questions in the exam pertaining to teamwork. You should look for the ‘rah-rah’ type answers, in other words the answers that seem most like cheerleading. Also, when it comes to Roles and Responsibilities as relating to Communications in this exam, the Project Manager is one of the most common examples.

Communications Model

The Communications Model is a Basic Model for Communications in which you have a communicator, who is actually conveying something and the recipient, who receives the message.

  • Communicator: The Communicator conveys the message. As I deliver this lecture to you, my message is coming to you off the particular medium of live presentation.
  • Recipient: The Recipient is the person for whom the message is intended. The recipient must accept and understand the message before communication has taken place.

Active Listening

A good presenter should be able to offer a message that his audience will accept and understand occasionally. The reason why we use the term occasionally is because of the concept of Active Listening. You can’t always be Actively Listening. Active Listening is when you are participating even by just sitting there and paying attention in the communications process.

You might have experienced this phenomenon before in your car. You are driving along and you are listening intently for the traffic report on the radio. You are focusing on trying to find out about the traffic conditions on the way to work. The report is coming, you hear the music coming on for your traffic report but all of a sudden, someone almost cuts you off and you have to swerve to avoid him on the road. You suddenly realize that you have missed the traffic report which you have been trying to catch for the past fifteen minutes. Even though you were attempting to actively listen, you got distracted.

On the exam, you have to understand that the concept of Active Listening is that the recipient has to  be an active participant in the communications process.

Tools for Active Listening – Feedback

The person who is getting the message is going to get back to the communicator. We also use para-phrasing as a good form of feedback. As you are listening, you want to go back to the speaker and say, I really want to make sure that I know what you are saying. Here’s what I think you said and I want to know if that was the message that you meant to communicate. There’s the feedback to the communicator that you’ve taken in the information, you’ve digested the information and you’re now trying to make sure that you have in fact gotten the message as intended.

Communications Channels

The topic of Communications Channels is a big deal these days. You have to be able to calculate Communications Channels in the exam based on the following formula:

Number of Channels = n (n-1)/2

Where n is the number of participants in the communications model. For example, if 2 people are talking and we substitute n for 2 in the formula, we can calculate that the number of channels is 1. If we have 4 people, then we are going to have 6 channels. If we have 6 people we are going to have 16 channels. It is very interesting to note that as each additional person is added into our communications loop, the number of channels does not rise in a linear manner; it rises in a geometric manner.

Significance of Communications Channels

With an understanding of communications channels, we start to gain an appreciation of how an organization or project needs to structure itself to maximize communications.

  • We need to think about the division of labor within our project Organization
  • We need to think about our types of communications. If we have 1 or 2 or 3 people in our team, we can resort to very informal communications. When our team gets up to 15 or 20 people, informal communications is less effective in getting the same message across to every member of the team. We need to start thinking about using formal communications as our predominant means of communicating to larger groups.

Hint: If you get brain freeze on the exam you have that moment where you forget the formula, the thing to do is to take the scrap paper that you are given and start drawing little circles, one for each person, and then connecting the circles with lines. You draw one circle for every participant in your project and start connecting all the circles with lines. You simply have to count the number of lines and this will give you the result that you are looking for.

Another notion is regarding the way PMI is presenting some of the communications questions is not to ask how many communications channels there are, but to ask how many more channels will be created if we add another 3 people into the group. You have a team of 4 members, and the team is about to be increased to 10 members, how many more channels will you have to deal with? You will have to perform calculations twice to find out the answer.

Different Types of Communications

Communication does not always have to occur verbally, it can occur in different ways. Numerous studies have shown that most of a message is relayed to the recipient though vocal intonations and facial expressions than the actual content of the message, so the verbal component is actually a very small piece of the message. Communication can be formal, or informal. Communication can also be written or verbal and you need to be able to break all of these down as well.

Communications can occur in a variety of formats, some of which are listed below:

  • Formal written: project charter or management plan
  • Informal written: engineers notes and memos
  • Formal verbal: presentations with PowerPoint
  • Informal verbal:  conversations, run-ins in the hallways

Remember that if it is formal, it is part of the project record. Oral presentation would still be part of the formal project presentation, if people think about it, they are still going to reflect back and acknowledge that it is part of the formal presentation itself, whereas a hallway conversation is generally forgotten over time

Why do we need to know this? You will be asked to give examples of these in the exam and you will most likely encounter examples of the four types of communications.

Communication Requirements

The project plan is really a series of plans, there is the risk plan, the schedule plans the quality plan and there is the communications plan. In order to develop the communications plan we need to understand what the requirements for communications are.

This task is the Project Managers responsibility. Communications requirements are the identified needs of the project stakeholders. We need to define the requirements of all of our stakeholders for a particular project and then put a process into place in order to provide these stakeholders with relevant information. This is typically done with a project management information system (PMIS).

The things we need to look at in assembling our project communications requirements are our project Organization and the stakeholder responsibility relationships, our disciplines, our departments and any specialties involved in the project, by discipline, we are referring to a mechanical engineer, a software programmer, we have a marketing expert. Those will be the kind of disciplines that we refer to.

We need to look at the logistics of the number of individuals who will be involved with the project at each location because we are going to collect information and we are going to distribute information to each stakeholder. We also need to identify any external information needs. For example we may have to be involved with the media in very large projects especially where the Government is involved and when the media is very interested. So it is important for a Project Manager to see outside of the Organization and and identify external stakeholders and manage their requirements accordingly.

Timing of Communications

We want to create the communications plan early on in a project. We want this to occur in the planning phase and not wait until it comes to the implementation. Communications planning is really part of stakeholder management.

The Kickoff Meeting

There are multiple objectives for the kickoff meeting, some of which are listed below:

  • The kick off meeting is going to save us time and not cost us time.
  • The kickoff meeting really builds the team’s identity.
  • The kickoff meeting also allows team members to get to know each other.

Furthermore, the project team needs to have an understanding of the various working relationships and lines of communication. We can also reach a common agreement on the goals of our project. We can identify some problem areas and we are hoping to define the objectives of our project to our stakeholders. As we can see, there are multiple things going on in the kickoff meeting.  Essentially underlying all of these activities is the notion that we are going to build the team for the project as we move forward.

One of the things that the kickoff meeting is not intended to do is discuss any hard technical issues you may encounter into the project. It is not a status meeting of the project, you are not trying to explore alternatives to performing tasks in the project its really a get to know one another and establish a common framework of moving forward with the project

For example, I was involved in a pretty large project for the construction of a hangar and we had about 55 people in the room. I had just finished delivering the project objectives and administrative processes to the group and I asked if there were any questions.  Our construction contractor raised his hand and he started to give me a verbal proposal of the change order on the very first day of the project. I had to tell the contractor that the kickoff meeting was not a place to discuss such things and that we would address his issues offline. During the kickoff meeting, we don’t talk about the content of the work, but how together we’re going to get the work done.

When it comes to the exam, you want to look at the answer which says ‘rah rah’ when it comes to the kickoff meeting. PMI will sometimes try to lure you from this question on the exam by saying that the project is a great deal of time pressure from the customer, the project is time constrained, everybody is feeling the weight and the everybody is so stressed out and has no time available. PMI may ask you to consider foregoing the kickoff meeting since you are in a very simple project with a small team. In all these cases, we cannot do without the Kickoff Meeting.

Barriers to Communications

There are a number of barriers to communications and these things stand in the way of active communications.

  • Ineffective Communications Plan: A poorly written or ineffective communications plan with poorly defined communications requirements can result in a lot of wasted time getting information to people who were not initially informed.
  • Time: Time can be an impediment to open communications. We need to have open communications channels in order to be effective in serving our projects. This occurs especially in environments where team members are in different geographical locations.
  • Technical Jargon: It is common for projects to involve team members from different disciplines. Each discipline has its own jargon or terminology. The people who are not familiar with your profession or industry will not have effective communications.  A lack of a consistent set of commonly used terms in a particular industry can also have a negative impact on communications. For example, the term WBS as used in project management is not consistently used in all Organizations. In fact, there are Organizations that choose to use other terms such as Project Breakdown Structure (PBS). We can really get carried away with our own jargon and start confusing those around us. There is a barrier that the Project Manager always has to look at when dealing with the client
  • Noise: Most people think of noise as background noise, or an audio sound such as the clicking of a pen or the hum of the air-conditioning in the background, when in fact noise is a lot more than that. Noise refers to any external environmental factor that is interfering in your ability to communicate. You may have been in a meeting where you were sitting right under the air vent and it was so cold that you wished that you had brought a sweater into the meeting. For example, there was a huge construction project across the street during a meeting and the construction workers were constantly swinging these huge barrels back and forth and the students stood with their eyes focused outside of the window, watching the construction crews swinging the barrels back and forth. For the exam, you need to know what noise is and be sure to be able to distinguish noise from a detrimental attitude or a barrier to communication.

Communications Barriers and Conflict

Communications barriers increase the level of conflict. If you can’t understand the language or terms that other people are using in a room, you will not be able to communicate with them effectively and that will raise your level of stress. Any person who has worked overseas or been in an overseas environment for any length of time will understand the stress of not being able to speak the language. This occurs regardless of whether we are referring to a technical language or a physical language.

Unresolved conflict is a real detriment, and well structured communications will help to eliminate conflict. Conflict may not be entirely eliminated by good communications, since the nature of projects themselves contribute to conflict.

Stakeholder communications

The Project Manager’s role is the key to all project communications. The Project manager must be skilled with communications with the following parties involved in the project

  • Management (Project and Functional): The Project Manager acts as liaison between management and project team. An effective project manager should act as the go-between for management and the project team and prevent management from bothering the project team and getting in their way. The Project Manager has to be able to communicate effectively to management so that they feel that everything is going well and won’t have to bother the team. PMI has found that when people are uncertain about the status of a particular project, that is when they will bypass the project manager and go straight to the team. If you want your top management to stay out of your hair and not bother your team, then you have to think of the best way of communicating with top management and top management as well. So we have to be able to communicate with management and the customer as well
  • Client: It is very important that the Project Manager act as a representative to the customer. It is not always desirable for  project team members to discuss all aspects of the project with the client due to confidentiality concerns. PMI is looking for a single point of contact between the project team and client. It makes it easier for the customer to give feedback because they know who to go to in order to complement or give complaints. It allows the team to designate and train one person who is skilled in client relations; this becomes very important as the project team grows in size. It also eliminates the confusion when many team members talk about to the customer at the same time. PMI’s perspective is that the Project Manager is responsible for establishing good communications between the client and the team. In the exam, you might see questions where the Project Manager is asked to communicate horizontally, vertically and diagonally.

Time invested in Communications

PMI would like the Project Manager to invest a total of 90% of his time invested in acquiring and communicating information to stakeholders. For the exams, if presented with a range of percentages for how much time the project manager should devote to communications, we should look for the answer with the highest percentage, with the exception of 100%, because this value is not realistic. The project manager needs time to breathe, so to speak.

Skills for effective Communications

A project manager should possess the following skills in order to be an efficient facilitator for communications in the project environment.

  • Set up Networks: The Project Manager needs to be ready to share information with his team and be willing to build the networks that go there. PMI Actually makes references to informal networks as well. Informal networks are commonly known as the grapevine. This is a term that occasionally shows up in the exam as a possible form of informal communications. A grapevine is an idiomatic term, which we use to convey the idea of an informal network.
  • Communications Expeditors: This is someone who makes things happen and is very active in bringing people together for effective communications. This involves initiating relationships between stakeholders in a project and establishing communications links and also making people understand what the formal communications channels are and encouraging good informal communications as well.

Communications Blockers

Blockers impede our communications and refer to anything that kills or inhibits innovative ideas. For example, someone brings up an idea in a meeting and someone else tries to assert that the idea will never work. Common statements uttered throughout meetings take on the tone of “That will never work.”; or “We’ve tried that already.

There are some examples of great communications blockers that have occurred throughout history:

  • ‘I think there is a world market for maybe 5 computers.’ – Tom Watson, Chairman IBM 1943
  • Who the hell wants to hear actors talk’Harry Warner, founder Warner Bros Studios (1927) when asked if silent movie audiences would like to hear actors talk.

As the communications expeditor, the project manager takes on the responsibility of trying to eliminate the occurrence of such communications blockers and encourage more open communications.

Tight Matrix

The tight matrix refers to putting all members of the project team into the same office space if at all possible. Studies have shown that when people are physically working together on a project team, better results will occur.

The tight matrix occurs as one way of ensuring more open communications within the team. A tight matrix is not related to the weak or strong matrices that occur in the Project Human Resources section.  A lot of companies have attempted to place all of the members of a team into the same office, or at least the same office space. This practice is popular in the automotive industry where the designers and fabricators are located right next to one another.

In circumstances where it is not possible to place team members in the same location, such as having project team members collaborating from different countries across the globe, then a virtual environment has to be created where team members still have the ability to interact with one another. Weak or Strong matrices might appear as distracter answers in the exam. Loose Matrix is another term that might come up as a distracter answer. The loose matrix does not exist.

Project War Room

One of the best methods of getting project team members working in close proximity with one another is the use of the Project War Room. This term originates from a war-like setting where we have a central location for the military to collect and analyze information on the tactical situation of battle. You can imagine a room filled with maps and charts where senior military officers huddle around a table to come up with winning strategies. The most important thing about the project war room is that it provides the project team with a sense of team identity. A lot of Organizations are starting to realize that the cubicle office spaces that most office workers work in are not conducive to establishing a strong project team identity.

The war room is a place that the project team members can hang up all of their gantt charts and responsibility matrices and could be a conference room or even a temporary office space designated for the members of the project team to interact in. The virtual project war room can be a web page on a company portal that serves as a common repository of information and provides a venue for people to interact specifically regarding the project.

Effective Meetings

The Project Manager is is responsible for organizing and coordinating a variety of meetings. There are staff meetings; status review meetings; schedule meetings and budget meetings. The project manager has to be able to conduct these meetings in an effective fashion such that people will want to attend the meetings.

The Project Manager can establish a meeting policy. For example, only certain people may be allowed to call a meeting; or meeting notes need to be circulated the day before the meeting; or that an agenda must be prepared and followed. Participation should be encouraged throughout the meeting. Finally, all meetings, regardless of purpose, should always be thought of as having some element of team building, as meetings are an excellent opportunity to build the team.

Minutes should also be prepared and circulated. There should be a formal record of the meeting prepared as a means to follow up for what was initially discussed during the meeting. This is an effective tool to ensure and track that the meeting actually resulted in some forward progress for the project.

Time wasted in Meetings

PMI performed a study to investigate the amount of time that is actually productive during a meeting. The results of their survey indicated that up to 25% of the time spent during a meeting was devoted to non-productive or irrelevant issues.

This can be attributed to the following reasons

  • Poor planning
  • Bad leadership during the meeting
  • Unruly or undisciplined participants

Management Styles

These management styles are situational and are neither better nor worse than one another. PMI wants the project manager to realize that there would be certain situations where is would actually be desirable for the project manager to adopt a particular style.

  • Authoritarian management: You have project team members, stakeholders and functional managers associated with a project and they typically want to know why they are here and what you want them to do. There is nothing wrong with being direct with these people to let them know what their level of participation is on the project and what you would like them to do.
  • Combative management: This can be very useful under certain circumstances where you want to generate conflict. Not all conflict is bad and you can be with a group of people and you think that everything is going okay but what you really need is someone to step in and give some feedback.
  • Conciliatory:  You are basically ready to give in based on what is being said across the table. Anything that can be done to keep the brevity going in a certain situation.
  • Disruptive: This style tends to disrupt unity and cause disorder. Sometimes this is going to be very important in a project situation where we need a very different line of thinking on how to conduct our project. Disruptions all and all can be very important which communicates a style or form which a project manager can use.
  • Ethical: Applying fair even-handed judgment as you work through a project
  • Facilitating: The Project Manager can play an important role in supporting the team with resources and helping to take away barriers or obstacles.
  • Intimidating: The tough guy image where you say that it is your way or the highway. In particular situations, intimidating style can be very useful.
  • Judicial: Generally applying sound judgment
  • Promotional: Someone who is out there trying to cheer on the team, trying to motivate the team with the proper types of actions
  • Secretive: Not open or outgoing in speech; activity or purpose. There are times where things are going on in an Organization where the Project Manager knows that he or she may not want to share with the project team because they cause disharmony or loose morale in some way. So the project manager may not at that particular moment in time care to reveal some of that information and that may be good.
  • Management skills:  Recall the five components of general management that are required by a good Project Manager [PLINC] and covered in the section under Project Integration Management.
    • Problem Solving
    • Leading
    • Influencing
    • Negotiating
    • Communicating

The project manager wants to be acutely aware of these concepts when it comes to using his management skills.

Organization Structure

We looked at this previously in the Project Human Resources section. There are some specifics that we have to look in to when addressing the communications aspects of project management in an Organization. Each Organization structure is going to have some impact or ramification on communications.

  • Projectized Organizations:  Very strong group communications boundaries because everyone is working for the project manager in one established team.
  • Strong matrix: Good, strong team identity. Perhaps the team is collocated, making the team’s communication generally straightforward.
  • Weak matrix and functional organizations: complicated group communications because as team members are spread around the Organization, they generally do not have the team identity that we find in the strong matrix.

There is also less face-to-face interactions causing a higher opportunities for misunderstandings. Remember that in both functional and weak matrix Organizations, the orientation is to the functional Organization and not to the project Organizations.

Summary: Project Communications Management

  1. Communications model
  2. Formal and informal as well as written and verbal communications
  3. Barriers to communications
  4. Kickoff meeting
  5. Documentation


In this section, we covered topics such as the communications model, the role of a project manager, effective communications; barriers to communications as well as the importance of the Kickoff Meeting.

In the next section, we will cover Project Risk Management.