Thursday, May 18, 2017

The project manager’s chief daily task is communication, not decision-making

 (Image: free use under CreativeCommons, no attribution required)

Jim Wink, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander, reported that his team had encountered over 200 unexpected events during the life of a schedule-driven project.1 The sources of such events may vary from one case to the next, common examples being design errors, the failure of a contractor to show up, the bankruptcy of a supplier, and changes in the customers' specifications. Indeed, recent research repeatedly stresses that the key challenge facing the project manager in our present era of high uncertainty is coping with numerous unexpected events.  In turn, disseminating information frequently and routinely is probably one of the most effective means for project managers to ameliorate the negative impacts of such unexpected events. 

Fredrick Brooks, best known as the “father of the IBM System/360,” argued that “the project manager’s chief daily task is communication, not decision-making.2 Hugh Woodward, a project manager from Procter & Gamble, reached a similar conclusion through trial and error. His assignment was to secure an environmental permit for a new product.  While several groups of people distributed over a wide geographic area were involved in the project, the product was fairly routine, the participants involved had some experience working with each other, and the responsibility of each participant was clarified in a preliminary planning meeting which generated a detailed list of action steps and responsibilities. No hitches were expected. 

Yet the schedule was slipping continually. A second planning process was initiated with all involved parties, resulting in a revised plan. Action steps, responsibilities, and deadlines were drawn. Assurances were given that the process flowsheet was now stable and that the formulated strategy for approaching the state regulators was valid.   Yet within days, the schedule was slipping again! 

The solution was simple. Hugh initiated weekly video conferences with all the key participants meeting to share the latest information and to assess the project's status. Through these weekly virtual meetings, the team members were able to quickly collect missing information, identify changes, and solve problems as they were still emerging. It turned out that these weekly video conferences were all that was needed to assure the smooth progress of the project.3

What matters is not only the frequency of the communication but also the spirit of it.

NASA’s Tony Schoenfelder describes some of the communication practices employed by John Hodge, the first leader of the Space Station Task Force:

Hodge combined a number of practices and innovations that led to a unique and uninhibited atmosphere. Each day started at 8:15 AM with an unstructured 15-minute all-hands stand-up meeting. Only those who had something important to say took the floor, while everyone else crowded into the office or hallway to listen. It turned out to be a useful device in that it not only conveyed information, but also physically reunited the team each morning to reinforce the spirit of camaraderie and the sense of shared purpose.… Hodge didn’t believe in secrets. He was completely open with the staff. What he knew, they knew. Members appreciated this unusual candor and reciprocated by keeping him and the leadership well informed…. Hodge was liable to pop up unannounced anywhere at anytime…. He not only got to know each person as a person, but also received an unfiltered heads-up as to what was going on.4

Matt Peterson, at the Boldt Construction Company, used a similar practice.  All on-site team members (the superintendent, field engineers, project coordinator, safety officer, etc.) participated in “daily 10-minute huddles.” Matt reported that these informal morning meetings not only ensured that the team members understood one another’s current workloads and constraints, but often enabled them to identify and resolve conflicting priorities before they became problems.

But effective communication should not be limited to the project's team. Insufficient communication with the client is one of the more prevalent causes for unexpected changes. Yet, project managers tend to communicate with their clients primarily at the early stages of the project, while the project’s requirements are first formulated, saving subsequent communication only for crisis moments. Don Margolies, a NASA project manager based in Maryland, set up a schedule to talk on the phone every week with his client, Dr. Edward Stone, who was based in California. As reported by Don, "In the early stages of the project, much of what was about to unfold was still up in the air. You might say the spacecraft itself was about the only thing not in the air." Yet, they stuck to their weekly schedule and talked over the phone even if it meant just reporting the weather. The benefits of these routine and brief weekly phone calls became evident more than a few times during the project. Their ability, for example, to identify in advance possible cost overruns, enabled them ultimately to complete the $140 million project at $30 million under budget!5

Effective communication can thus reduce costs, prevent problems, and help create a cohesive team. Indeed, disseminating information frequently and routinely contributes to both flexibility and stability. That is, the team’s ability to adapt and solve problems as soon as they occur enables it to quickly regain stability. It therefore behooves the project manager to prioritize communication for the benefit of the team and the project.



1.        Laufer, A. and Hoffman, E.J. Project Management Success Stories: Lessons of Project Leaders. 2000, New York: John Wiley & Sons: p. 76-8.

2.        Brooks Jr, F.P. The Mythical Man-Month. 1995, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley: p. 40.

3.        Laufer, A., Volkman, R.C., Davenport, G.W., and Terry, S. In Quest of Project Excellence through Stories. 1994, Cincinnati, OH: Procter and Gamble.

4.        Schoenfelder, T.E. The idyllic workplace. Ask Magazine 2002; 7: p. 22-26.

5.        Laufer, A., Post, T., and Hoffman, E.J. Shared Voyage: Learning and Unlearning from Remarkable Projects. 2005, Washington, DC: The NASA History Series: p. 31.