Project Management Communication Skills When in Crisis

By: Olivia Montgomery, PMP on October 24, 2019

What is a steering committee?

A project’s steering committee is the group of business leaders who approve the project’s goals and funding. In some companies, this is a formal committee that meets regularly to oversee all projects and initiatives, but in others, it could just be the CEO and COO. Either way, this group requires an executive-level understanding of a project’s health and progress.

Communication makes or breaks projects. From expectations to engagement, your project management communication skills have the strongest influence on success.

But this isn’t some ivory-tower or best-case-scenario article. Work is messy, and this piece will offer concise recommendations on how to improve a project with effective communication when a crisis arises.

For each scenario, we’ll cover what you can do to improve communication with the steering committee and project team. We’ll be weaving in some of Gartner’s effective communication advice (full article available to Gartner clients only) along with our research to help you out.

Scenario #1: The last minute project assignment

Maybe the original PM needs to take an extended leave of absence or the CEO has greenlit a project and wanted it started yesterday. Either way, you’ve been assigned a new project to launch stat. After the panic has passed, you return to your desk and craft a game plan.

Project management communication skills for …

The steering committee: Understand their communication preferences and requirements. How often do they want status reports? This isn’t a time to try to share with them your intricate processes. Instead, learn their expectations and start meeting them as soon as possible.

The project team: Leave your stress at your desk when you meet with the team. They’ll be under enough stress, so don’t add to it by showing anything but your steady hand on the wheel. Address the circumstances of this last minute project assignment directly and answer any questions they have. Then, share your plan and get the team excited for the new project!

The sense of urgency that comes along with a last minute assignment can lead you to rush. Don’t rush communication, not in this situation or really in any. Gartner advises to “invest the time upfront to prepare for every communication interaction to ensure greater success.” So practice what you’re going to say and have someone else read any communications you’ve written before sharing with the team.

Scenario #2: Project health is red

By “red” I’m referring to reporting on the status of a project using red, yellow, and green. Red means that the health of the project is critical and corrective action is required. (Here’s more on how to calculate project health.) The issues causing the project to be in the red should have been reported as yellow at least once before so it shouldn’t be a shock. But remain sensitive to the fact that no one wants to see that a project isn’t going as expected.

Project management communication skills for …

The steering committee: Be transparent. Don’t sugarcoat or gloss over the fact that the project is struggling and exactly how and why. Keep the update about the facts and be explicit in the ask you have of the committee whether that be to approve more funding for an extended timeline or deprioritize another initiative on the team’s plate so they can focus on this project.

Also, prepare your boss before sharing this bad news with the entire committee. You need her to be your partner in the meeting, not taken by surprise along with her peers.

The project team: Let the team discuss solutions. This is a sensitive time so it’s important to be a leader, not a dictator ordering everyone around with no regard for their buy-in.

Scenario #3: Team morale is low

Symptoms of low morale include vague task updates and calling into meetings late or missing the meeting altogether. Maybe they’re overextended or are seeing issues in the project’s objectives. No matter the root cause, your communication skills can turn things around quicker than you think.

Project management communication skills for …

The steering committee: An informal update is often best here. Your manager needs to know about low morale and will want to know what you’re doing about it, but likely a deep dive is typically not expected.

The project team: Listen and act. Your team might be telling you what the problem is already, maybe you’re not connecting the dots here. Or perhaps they feel they won’t be heard if they do share. Either way, meet with each person one-on-one and share what changes you’re making in response with the entire team.

Follow up is critical when morale is low. It’s not enough to just listen, you must make changes based on the feedback shared in these one-on-ones. Gartner states, “the most powerful message is one that is backed by action—the communicator delivers what is promised.”

Scenario #4: Stakeholder engagement is down

While low stakeholder engagement is similar to the situation of low team morale, the root cause tends to be an intellectual one, as opposed to an emotional one. While there are many reasons stakeholder engagement can be down, your communication skills can come in handy, no matter the root cause.

*Note: Your project stakeholders include anyone with a “stake” in the project’s outcome—so not only executives but also your direct project team.

Project management communication skills for …

The steering committee: Because this group requires the high-level overview, it’s easy to either bombard or alienate them without realizing it. Evaluate if you’re over-communicating with excessive details or perhaps too often. Or are you under-reporting? A lack of interest can be indicative of a lack of info.

Another aspect to consider here is whether you’ve gauged the social climate accurately. As Gartner states, you need to “adjust your communication style to the maturity level and culture of the organization.” Are all members of the steering committee peers? Or a mix of subordinates and their managers? These aspects of the social climate can impact how your message needs to be tailored.

The project team: Ask. And don’t be afraid to share why you’re asking. It’s likely your gut is telling you what the issue is, but it’s still important to listen to your team and hear their point of view. Also, ask for ideas on how to improve the situation. Are they feeling overwhelmed with ambiguity? Or are they not seeing the benefits of their hard work? You need to know.

Above all, be empathetic

No matter if the project going smoothly or if you’re running into issues, be empathetic towards your team’s cultures conflict resolution preferences, skillset, and the pressures they’re experiencing both in your project and in their other job responsibilities.

Project management software can help

We covered soft skills needed for effective communication, but how tasks are assigned and tracked and the format of your project status reports are equally important. This is where project management software can help!

PM software can help standardize communication avenues and avoid confusion as to where to go for project updates. The collaboration, file storage, and reporting in most PM software tools can help:

  • ✔ Standardize communication formats

  • ✔ Centralize project updates via dashboards

  • ✔ Improve communication across the team with @ mentions in tasks

  • ✔ Store and manage project plans and documents

  • ✔ Automate workflows and assignment of tasks and resources

Check out our Buyers Guide for an overview of the features and tips when purchasing project management software. Or if you prefer a more personal touch, give our software experts a call for a free consultation on what software best suits your specific needs. Call 855-998-8505 and reach a human immediately.

Do you have a story to share about when your communication skills saved your skin when a project went awry? Tweet me at @AnalystOlivia! I love to swap war stories.