Communication is the lifeblood of projects. Typically, project managers rely more on formal communication. However, successful project managers know how to tap into informal communication skills to get things done.

Consider a project manager who needs to get feedback on a crucial decision from key stakeholders on his project. There is a whole range of ways to do this:

  • + Send an email update as part of the weekly project report and request a response.
  • + Use instant messaging or Twitter to get a reply.
  • + Review the calendars and schedule a meeting.
  • + Try to find a couple of the key people and talk to them one-on-one.
  • + Look for an opportunity to have a hallway conversation or coffee with the important stakeholders.

The choices above represent the spectrum of communication channels. While project communication plans outline and emphasize formal channels, informal channels like hallway conversations and lunches are rich, spontaneous and interactive, and help not only in communicating, but also in connecting and building trusting relationships.

Memos, website updates, emails and regularly scheduled meetings do not have the same impact.These formal channels, used extensively, can have a numbing effect and lack the quality and intensity of the personal, on-the-spot interaction needed in today’s world of information overload.

The Problems with Informal Communication

An argument against informal communication channels is that things can get out of control when discussions are informal and there is no proof or documentation. Informal channels also introduce the opportunity of rumors spreading through the grapevine.

And what about the new social media tools like, blogs, wikis, Twitter, LinkedIn groups or Facebook? They can be effective for certain communication, as they allow you to tap into a wider audience on a more collaborative platform that enables dialog and discussion. However, these channels have a “spray and pray” effect—you broadcast to a wider audience and hope and pray the right message gets communicated and discussed.

While these are valid concerns, they can easily be addressed. Follow up informal conversations and communications with a written confirmation, or vice versa.

You probably have come across people who are surprised when you call them because they already sent the formal documentation you requested. They don’t understand that you cannot document everything—there is always more to explore, dig deeper into, discuss and gain different perspectives.

Similarly, you could follow up at the water cooler after a regularly scheduled project meeting to ensure that the action items are understood, as some people are hesitant  to ask questions in a formal group setting.

The idea is to strike a balance between using both formal and informal communication channels for the most effective way to gather input and deliver your message.

Here are some tips to effectively balance the use of formal and informal communication channels:

Switch – Typically, formal communication channels are used first, and when there is no response then you are compelled to use other informal means. A more effective way might be to use informal means first and then follow-up with a formal confirmation. This way you have planted the seed; people are expecting your communication and may be more responsive.

Include – Does your communication plan include informal communication? It is a good idea to prepare for it and add an informal communications section to your plan.

Seek Feedback – Build ongoing feedback loops to assess whether you are using the right communication channels. Informal means are more effective to measure and gain insights about stakeholder satisfaction. Some people may not be comfortable speaking up in formal meetings, but they are more open in informal settings.

Formal communication is like a project’s skeleton, providing structure. Informal channels are the nervous system that provides a network to facilitate communication. Both are necessary and need to be balanced and used appropriately to function properly and achieve results.

Jack S. Duggal, MBA, PMP

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