“If we spend 90 percent of our time on communication, it makes sense to have a method to figure out if we are spending out time wisely and, if we are not, what we can do to improve communication,” writes Mark Phillips in his book, Reinventing Communication. That sounds sensible, so I was keen to read more.
Reinventing Communication isn’t a soft skills book. There’s nothing fluffy about it as it aims to follow a scientific approach. This is an interesting concept for something that has traditionally been seen as a project management soft skill – Phillips says it can be used as a performance management tool.
The new language of project communication
The book is quite technical and there is a large new vocabulary to learn. He writes about Planned Communication (P COM), Actual Communication (A COM), and Communication Variance (COM V). COM V plus schedule performance indicates that a project is performing as planned with less than the planned amount of communication i.e. the team are efficient. As you can imagine, Phillips places a high value on EVM for communicating status as this fits with the analytical, data-based approach he advocates.
How practical is this?
Some of the ideas sound theoretically quite good but to a practitioner simply don’t seem workable. I’m not honestly sure, for example, how I would work in an environment where the project communications plan mandated the maximum number of emails I could send per week. How does that work in practice if a major issue hits and I need to do something about it? Phillips writes:
“We can also apply simple arithmetic and see whether the quantity of communication leads to a particular pattern of behaviour. For example, will sending 10 emails to my customer have them get back to me any faster? We can apply more advanced analytical methods such as studying word choice or the emotional tone of an artifact and see whether these make a difference in how people behave.”
We could, or we could just get on and manage the project. I doubt many project managers have time to do a controlled experiment about tone of voice in email, sending two different versions and seeing which group gets on with it faster. And how would you know if other factors were at play?
The book includes a checklist with steps to take to implement communications as a performance management system on your project. It’s step by step so this is useful, and it includes a reminder to translate the output of each step into measures. I understand the benefits of setting this up as it helps identify project problems early, based on observable and measurable phenomena, but the whole thing seems very clinical.
Phillips does acknowledge that projects are each different. There is no single right answer, because much of project management is defined by the people and environment. “We need to recognise that a project is a social environment,” he writes. Therefore you have to tailor project communications to account for the environment.
I have to confess that I struggled to stay awake while reading Reinventing Communication. That’s partly because I’m sleep-deprived with two babies in the house, but partly because I found the book’s theoretical style heavy going.
It’s interesting in an academic way but for practitioners? I’d like someone else to implement communications as a performance management tool on their project to give me real life proof that it works. If you try it out, let me know!
I asked Mark for his comments on this review and he said:
“One of the reasons behind the book was to challenge existing perceptions of communication as a soft skill so I was quite pleased to read that it did. I’ve tried to bridge the gap between the community that can execute effective communication as a soft skill (like yourself) and the community that could so much benefit from improving communication, such as engineers who became project managers or KPI/metrics focused managers. The idea behind the approach is to demonstrate the importance of communication through measurable data.
“Existing research into the importance of communication overwhelming shows how important it is in a general sense. I hope to empower project managers with the tools to prove its importance on their specific projects.
“Another goal is to show project managers how they can actually improve their communications, in a measurable way, without having to be masters of soft skills, which can be difficult for some people. I’ve done this by focusing on measurable aspects of communication, such as the total number of emails sent to a client in a week. For example, this aspect of communication, the total amount broadcast out, has been shown to make a difference in the effectiveness of communication. If a project manager consistently sends 10 emails to a client each week and doesn’t get the responses they need to meet deadlines, they can look at reducing the number of emails and seeing if that makes a difference. This approach can help non-soft-skills oriented people think about the importance of communication and recognize the effect it has on project performance while providing a clear way for them to make their communication more effective.”
Thanks, Mark, for taking the time to respond.