We’ve all heard the clichés about communication. But putting the ideas into practice is often a lot harder than applying the theories. This is even truer for project management than for departmental management.

For the purposes of this article, I’m looking at department managers who take on the role of project managers for one-off projects or for organizations that regularly rely on department managers to act in the role of project manager, because not all PMs have the ‘luxury’ of focusing solely on project management tasks. Some are temporarily thrust into the PM role while their primary responsibilities – and ultimately skill set – is outside the role of the project manager. We’ll look at the communication challenges faced in these types of situations.

The Communication Challenge

While managing your department, you’re in constant contact with your staff. Their tasks are well defined and recurring. Your people are focused on performance, and their careers depend on how well they execute their tasks. A project, by comparison, is often seen as an intrusion, a departure from the normal routine—even when it’s “normal” to disrupt that routine with a series of projects.

In addition to the manager-team dynamics, you must contend with communication on three other levels:

  • The assignment. The executive (or committee) that first assigned the project to you may not agree with your idea of what the project should achieve; or he may change his mind about the outcome wihtout letting you know.
  • Other departments. The managers of other departments have their own priorities and may resist your schedule. This usually applies in two situations: when members of their department are on your team or when you depend on that department to supply certain information.
  • Outside resources. Your project may depend on help or information from “outside” resources—companies or individuals not part of the organization. These include other divisions, subsidiaries, or offices; a vendor or separate corporation; or a consultant.

Your budget and schedule are your best communication tools. They are useful in communicating with both your team members and outside resources. Each can be used in a number of ways.

The Budget as a Communication Tool

The budget defines the company’s financial commitment, and is used to ensure that project expenses are kept in line. If variances do occur, they often anticipate a scheduling problem as well.

The budget also measures the degree of risk involved with your project. Any change in the company is accompanied by risk, and when time and money are spent, the decision to go ahead is based on a judgment of risk. Management will proceed with the project if it is convinced that the risk is acceptable and that future profit potential justifies that risk. So, for example, when you propose a project, you should communicate in terms of risk and likely reward. Approval will be granted as long as you can convince management that there’s a good chance that future profits will recapture this investment within a reasonable period of time.

The Schedule as a Communication Tool

The schedule defines the project, and, as long as you share it with management, it is a useful tool for ensuring that your definition conforms to theirs. When it’s broken down into phases, with deadlines tied to the final result, management has the opportunity to validate your direction, and you can ensure that your understanding of the project’s goals is correct. At this early stage, you can define exactly what the project should achieve.

You also need to use the schedule during the later phases of your project in conjunction with review meetings to ensure (1) that you are on the right course and (2) that management’s desired outcome has not changed.

Finally, the schedule improves communication with your team, and helps avoid delays. By identifying weak links and by communicating with other department managers and outside resources, you will avoid unexpected problems.

Working with Other Department Managers

For relatively simple short-term projects that are executed strictly within a single department, you, as department manager, have direct control over the time commitments and priorities of each team member.

Because you are aware of your department’s deadlines and workload variations, you can build your schedule around the workload and adjust it as needed. You can also balance departmental and project demands on the basis of your knowledge of each and the scheduling flexibility and control you’re able to exercise.

As the scope of your project grows, your task assumes a greater dimension, and you will begin to work with people from other departments. This is where your communication skills are tested.

A common complaint often heard from other managers is, “You didn’t tell me in time,” regardless of whether problems arise because of deadlines, the use of an employee’s time, or conflicts in commitment. But you can solve most of the problems you will encounter in working with other departments by remembering this key point:

Keep other department managers informed at all times: before and during the project.

By applying a few basic rules for communication between departments, you will be able to defuse the problems that beset all managers at one time or another: territorial motives, power struggles, and—in cases where communication breaks down completely—outright refusal to cooperate. Most of the time, the breakdown of cooperation arises not from a political or personality problem but from a failure in the communication link—especially when you have made the effort to communicate, but only once. People need periodic reminding, so don’t assume that a single message will be remembered.