I've seen a few projects come and go throughout the years, and if I were to zoom out on some of the learnings I've made so far, I could conclude some common factors of what to do and not do to get smooth communication that makes everyone feel involved.
The key to success, in my experience, has been all about going into new projects very well prepared. It sounds simple but is not to be underestimated. Organising the process, structure, and all the practical things that come with it well before meeting with the internal and external parties is key to everything.
To manage many different participants scattered over many locations, you, as the project manager, must ultimately decide and take responsibility for everything connected to the plan and the project. It's extra important if everyone works remotely. I have never met a project member that doesn't find it positive that there is a thoroughly thought-out plan for what will happen, when it will happen and what their responsibility is. This way, the team members know from the start where things should be documented, stored, and communicated but most importantly, what responsibility lies with each participant.
I remember when we started with the first remote meeting with a person based in Italy with one of the customers I've worked closely with for a long time. It was our first real test with remote participants. What did I find important in that meeting? Especially the part about introducing the participants more than usual. Since they wouldn't get the chance to chit-chat in real life when leaving the meeting room, the meeting participants needed to get the opportunity to get to know each other well in the meeting. That's nothing new compared to how all projects are, but it has become apparent after two years of only remote meetings how important the human factor is when you meet via a screen.
Regardless of location, the team members need to know everyone else in the group.
Each individual should be aware of the expectations of their role and what the others are responsible for. It is vital that this is well established and that there is no confusion about who will be doing what. If you want all individuals to engage with their respective tasks, it is helpful if they know and understand what they should do. You would think it goes without saying, but one might be surprised how often there is confusion around blurred responsibilities and the consequences that will then follow in its trail.
The project manager's role is to guide and ensure that this plays out frictionlessly. But it applies to the project managers at both ends, in this case, me – and the customer's project manager. There must be a counterpart, or it will fall flat no matter how excellent a plan you have.
However, a chain is never stronger than its weakest link, so after the project managers have done their bit of planning, communicating, and delegating, it's up to the team members to take responsibility for their part in making the magic happen. Even though it's still the project manager's job to ensure that the project participants are on board and have the right conditions to be so until project closure.
Not everyone is comfortable asking. It could be that you haven't quite understood your job or what is expected of you. Being sensitive to that and capturing it in some way is utterly essential.
There are many ways to do this.
For one, if you have a chat channel together, use it. It might not be the right time to address a specific individual in front of the whole group, so you can do a personal check in the chat during an ongoing meeting, like, "Hey, did you follow"? "Was it clear, or should we linger on this topic for more clarification"? If you get a yes, then you, as a project leader, can ask the question more generally. By doing that, you further ensure that all meeting attendees have understood before they leave the room. It's no good when people go from meetings pretending that everything is crystal clear. Then, when the new project starts, it gradually shows after a few days (or weeks!) that someone might not be entirely sure of what they're supposed to be doing. This has direct consequences on so many things, deliveries, delays in the schedule etc. And uncertainty in the group can erode cohesion, efficiency and, eventually, the output.
So, it can't be said enough times: do communicate! And do it a lot, often and all the time.
Another way is to have check-ins along the way, with regular joint debriefings. Ensure that you also have room for sudden ad hoc meetings when something urgent or critical enters the arena. It may turn out that person X has gotten stuck somewhere in her delivery because she has not used the new project tool. The project manager then (hopefully) knows that this is precisely what person Y was sitting with last week and can quickly bring them together for an internal demo and then have the project on full speed again. It's valuable to have the flexibility to call for short meetings to keep the entire team on track and avoid the risk of someone sitting alone trying to invent something that someone else in the group may already have solved. All parties benefit from talking and raising those situations as quickly as possible.
In my experience, it has happened more than once that first when you get to a meeting; it turns out someone hasn't done what was expected because they haven't understood the assignment. This is easy to prevent with constant and continuous communication and cuts unnecessary — a win for the whole team. And for the customer.
It is often more of an instinct than knowing that there is a hiccup somewhere in the process. Still, the more routine, the easier it is to anticipate miscommunication that tends to repeat itself in different projects and contexts.
You need to have clearly defined roles and responsibilities. The project manager needs to tell each of the project individuals what is expected from them, e.g.,
And so on...
If something is unclear or uncomfortable, the person needs to tell me, and I will help them plan and implement everything they are supposed to do. But the individual needs to take responsibility for the quality of their delivery and ensure it is in line with the project plan.
As a project manager, I must always think about how to handle it internally and externally.
A significant part lies in the process, tools, and a well-thought-out plan for how everything should be done. And that we don't cheat with weekly or monthly meetings! This applies both internally and externally.
Whether for a few weeks or several years, you must set a rhythm for the alignment meetings and stick to it. The status alignment should review what has been decided. What has been delivered, by whom and is it on schedule? What comes next?
It takes a lot for something to be lost entirely or fall through the cracks if everything mentioned above is in place. Remember also to document it in some way. Always.
For one, I'm a fan of avoiding emails as much as possible. I always communicate via the project tool to minimise the number of communication channels. So, in the situation where there is an email in Outlook referring to a project activity that can be found in the project tool (for instance, Trello or Teamwork), I always go into the tool and answer the question directly from there.
Alternatively, I reply to the email with a link to the answer in the system. It can almost certainly be perceived as square at times, but everyone benefits from keeping information and data together in as few places as possible.
Another easy thing to do is always to share a screen when going through a task with someone, whether in a physical room or remotely—always having the video on makes a huge difference to the dynamics of a digital meeting. Partly because it's nicer for people to interact when they can see each other and because the project manager has an easier time reading facial expressions and reactions to see what's needed to make the meeting run as dynamically and efficiently as possible.
Don't make your meetings too long, especially on a screen. Rather break it up into two sessions than try to squeeze it all into one because concentration decreases over time - no matter how attractive the topic is.
As I see it, the biggest mistakes in project management are what we've already touched upon – when there are no regular check-ins and if you are unclear about what the different individuals are expected to do.
Furthermore, if you think a tool or process is enough to get things done, you need to think again. A tool can support in many ways, like automating specific tasks that make the life of a project manager easier. But it won't work without the planning, structure and steering to pull it off. However, it doesn't always need to be down to micro-management. Use triggers and workflows where applicable to focus more on tasks requiring manual care. For example, when someone moves a card to the review column in any of the Trello boards for which I am an active project manager, I am automatically assigned as the card owner. This way, I get a notification and can go in and check that everything is in order or if any additional action is needed.
I believe that a project manager gains a lot from being genuinely interested in the person on the other side. Not just work-related, but the extra dimension of knowing them more personally. It positively impacts the relationship because it's good to understand the people you're dealing with – and it's nice! It doesn't necessarily have to be about children and pets. It could just as well be about what might be a typical lunch dish in the culture where the other individual is located (assuming it's someone who isn't geographically in the same place as you, but you get my drift).
A final piece of advice, simplicity and clarity are essential. Don't make things more complicated than they need to be. That goes for all tasks in a project, big or small.
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