“What we’ve got here is … (a) failure to communicate!” Strother Martin, taken from the movie “Cool Hand Luke”

N(N-1)/2, where N=#of team members or stakeholders on the project

This is the formula for identifying the number of communication channels and is frequently a test question for Project Management certification.  What it means to project managers is that the larger the project team, the greater the complexity and the more time that needs to be spent communicating.

Perhaps sharing a lesson learned that I experienced will help bring this formula into perspective as a useful tool in your project manager toolkit and not just an academic exercise.  As a Senior Director of Project Management with 20 years’ experience managing projects, I was responsible for managing large multi-year engineering engagements to build telecommunication networks.  On this particular day, I was reminded that even an experienced project manager needs to pay attention to the basics.

I was managing a large telecom project expanding an existing fiber statewide network to bring broadband access to underserved or un-served communities as the result of a federal grant.  I worked with a great team who believed in the value of what we were building and was very conscientious of working with all stakeholders and following compliance requirements.  Stakeholder management on a project of this size can be an extremely challenging undertaking considering the number of geographically dispersed communication channels including; federal, state, county, and city agencies, as well as private land landowners, contractors, and consultants.

This brings us back to our formula and how it impacted me in a very real way.

We had:   9(10-1)/2=40 communication channels in play including:

  1. Project Manager
  2. Award Recipient (the project’s sponsor)
  3. Federal agency providing grant funds
  4. Federal agency providing cultural clearance
  5. Award sub-recipient (the project’s “secondary owner”)
  6. Engineering subcontractor
  7. Cultural consultant
  8. Subcontracted Archeologist
  9. Construction Field Manager
  10. Private landowner

On this day, during a routine project status call, the project sponsor brought to the team’s attention a situation that later subjected our project to a Performance Improvement Plan issued by the federal funding agency (which, needless to say, is the last thing any project manager or project owner wants to receive).

At the onset of the project, the team went through a very lengthy process of gaining environmental approvals, which included the development of cultural plans on each construction route.  As part of the grant, conditions were put in place pertaining to responsibilities and obligations should a construction route change in a way.  On our project call, I discovered that a route change had occurred without appropriate approval.  This was a serious error directly related to the challenges of effectively managing complex communication among the project’s large number of diverse communication channels.

Let me describe the various communication channels involved to bring this into perspective.

The award from the federal government is given to a company that is known as the “award recipient”.  They may have other companies involved in the project, known as “sub-recipients”, but ultimately the award recipient is responsible for the management of the entire project.  So there is a layer of communication that occurs between the recipient and the sub-recipient.

My company was hired by the recipients to provide engineering and project management services.  Our firm, in turn, hired various subcontractors to perform permitting and cultural consulting services.  This introduced another layer of communication between the engineering subcontractors, the sub-recipient and his contractors, and ultimately the award recipient.

There is also a communication channel between the recipient and the federal agency providing the grant which includes a federal program officer whose job is to make sure the award recipient follows all the federally mandated rules, regulations, and guidelines. In addition, other government agencies are involved in project construction from cultural, environmental and permitting perspectives.

Back to our story, so why did the route change occur and why did the client find out through a subcontractor before the project manager knew? 

As a seasoned project manager, I thought I was doing the right things.  We held weekly calls with the various recipients where program requirements were reviewed and routes discussed.  There were also calls between the cultural consultant and construction field managers to relay the exact areas of the project deemed culturally sensitive.  In the end, it was determined that the area where the unapproved route change occurred was supposed to have been surveyed by an archeologist.  A miscommunication between the cultural consultant and the sub-recipients field manager resulted in construction occurring without the required survey (Strike 1!) and without an approved monitor (Strike 2!).  When discovered, this was not relayed through proper channels to the project manager or to the federal program officer (Strike 3!).  This was a serious communication failure that resulted in the project being placed under a stringent performance improvement plan.

As a direct result of the painful lessons learned in this situation, the team took decisive actions to ensure this would not happen again.  Procedures related to proper communication protocols, route changes, and inadvertent cultural discovery were reiterated in a formal written communication which the entire team had to sign.  Several training sessions related to these procedures were held and became part of our regular status calls.  We instituted a bi-weekly cultural dashboard to convey project metrics and held a bi-weekly call with the federal program officer and federal cultural agency to discuss each route’s cultural and environmental status.  Route change processes were formalized internally and the federal program, realizing they needed to provide better guidance, issued more structured procedures to assist all current award recipients.  In the end, we received praise from the federal program officer on our dashboard reporting and our increased communication and related reporting transparency with the program.  These actions helped the project team regain the program’s trust.  In fact, what started out as a potential project killer, turned into a learning event and a success story for our project.

Mistakes will happen on a project, but it doesn’t have to be your project’s death toll!  Using direct, proactive and appropriately targeted resolution-oriented communications can help turn a bad situation into a success if your heart and head are in the right place and the team works together.  Our team turned potential failure into success through a better understanding of the importance of communication channels and their impact.

Do you have any stories to share related to miscommunication occurring due to the number of communication channels involved?


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