If you have been following my project related posts on this Blog, you know that one of my themes has been effective communication with all project stakeholders.  Of course, this means using different types of communication, with different types of stakeholders,  in different types of situations. 

It has often been said that, if you want someone to talk with you in a meaningful way and to listen to what you have to say, you first have to say something of importance and value to the other person so that he will feel that you value  his “stake” and continued involvement in the conversation. 

Communication has several components.  The simplest characterization is that something is conveyed by one party to another,  and the “something” is received and understood by the other party.  Without this sending and receiving, we do not have effective communication.

Four communication mechanisms are:

1.  Situational Communication

2.  Empathic Communication

3.  Resonance Communication

4.  Metaphorical Communication

I will discuss the first two of these communication mechanisms heren, and the last two in Part II.

While you won’t find these discussed in any standard project management texts or in the PMBOK section on “Communication“, these four approaches to communication have been cropping up in my experiences with successful projects time and again.  They seem to dominate the landscape of “real” project management.  And in my experience, those project managers who are able to master these four “methods” of communication have flourished.


Ken Blanchard’s consulting group made famous a discipline known as “Situational Leadership.”  In essence, it meant defining the types of situations in which a leader finds himself, and then adjusting leadership “styles” to the task at hand. 

Communication in projects is much the same way.  The project manager must recognize and be constantly aware of the situation and business context facing the project team and then adjust his leadership and communication approach accordingly.

In graduate school at The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, studying nuclear science and engineering, I had a chance to work with a famous researcher, Dr. Ziya Akcasu, in his discipline of nuclear reactor control theory .  Dr. Akcasu and I developed a research paper which I presented at the American Nuclear Society (ANS) Annual Meeting in Boston in June 1971.  While I was attending the Boston meeting, Dr. Akcasu was on the west coast attending another meeting.

On the morning of my presentation, I was second on the agenda to speak and, as I entered the lecture room, I noted that there were about one hundred people in attendance, which was a good size group for the topics we would be covering.  After the first speaker finished and answered questions, I walked to the podium and introduced myself and the paper topic.  Most of the one hundred patrons had maintained their seats and, in fact, a few others had entered and lined the back walls of the lecture room. 

Before I had a chance to continue, from the back of the room, someone asked, “Will Professor Akcasu be presenting today?”  Although I was a little taken aback by the question, I replied that Dr. Akcasu was on the west coast attending another conference and that I (“the designated graduate student and co-author”) would be presenting our results. 

Suddenly at least three quarters of the room rose from their seats and left somewhat boisterously.  After the dust settled, the remaining twenty five or so people looked at me and I looked at them.  Then, without really thinking about what I was saying, these words came forth, “Well, now we have a smaller group who is really interested in the results of this groundbreaking work.  We should be able to have a good open discussion of the details.”

As people left the room that day, they thanked me for the “intimate” atmosphere I had created.  I have often thought about what the lesson learned from that presentation might be.  My answer:  “Fame ensures millions of patrons but only the true scholars command the dedicated few.”

Of course, my methods of communicating with the twenty five or so remaining observors was quite different from the methods I might have employed with an audience of one hundred.   This was a good example of Situational Communication in which a person adjusts his style to accommodate the change in situation, circumstance or context.  Pure lecture was certainly not called for with this intimate group.

I recall a Project Lessons Learned Breakfast Forum that I facilitated in my PMO work with ConocoPhillips.  A very experienced financial systems project manager told the group that his greatest challenge in completing a major SAP ERP Financials project on time was that the project was dependent upon several other projects that were scheduled to complete just before his project’s deadline.  In order to meet his own deadline, he spent a good deal of time in the last days of his own project ensuring that the other project managers successfully managed their own projects so that his project would not suffer any delays.

Such an endeavor is hard to delegate to others.  It takes foresight and experience that cannot be easily conveyed to others.  His management–and on-time completion–of the  SAP ERP Financials project was another form of Situational Communication.


At the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, I was a PhD candidate in Nuclear Engineering.  One requirement for obtaining the PhD was passing a written and oral preliminary exam (called “prelims”), after which I could proceed to the research phase of my candidacy. 

I had heard numerous worrisome reports from students who had failed the prelims three or four times before finally passing. 

The prospect of failing the prelims terrified me., so I developed a strategy that defined two possible courses of action:

(1) I could spend all my waking hours studying every resource on nuclear science and engineeering that I could get my hands on; or

(2) I could align myself with a professor who was doing research in a field of my interest and go into the prelims with a certain amount of research already behind me along with the endorsement of that professor. 

I chose option two. 

On the day of the oral examination, I had already taken the written portion of the prelims.  While the written examination had been particularly difficult, I thought that I had done well and had a chance of passing the prelims on my first attempt. 

At the oral exam, I nervously answered the questions (in a way that I thought was somewhat incomplete).  After answering the questions, I then had a chance to describe some of the research on which I was working.  At the end of the oral exam, I asked the assembled group of professors if I could say a word to them before leaving.  I told the group that while I knew my opinion didn’t really count, I did not think I had done as well as I had expected, and that I knew I understood the field of nuclear engineering much better than had been conveyed during the oral exam. 

The professors listened and then one well known professor said “Mel, just remember this: No one has ever passed this test who should have failed, and no one has ever failed this test who should have passed.” 

To this day, I am uncertain exactly what he meant, but since I did end up passing the prelims, I think that it was his way of communicating with me that there was nothing else that I could have done in that oral exam that would have mattered to the final outcome.   He was sensitive to how helpless the prelim exam process had made me feel, and he wanted me to know that, whatever the outcome, I had done everything I could do to prepare for the exam.

This was an example of Empathic Communication, in which one party is “sensitive” to the feelings and explicit or implicit needs of the other party.

Shortly after the merger of Conoco and Phillips Petroleum in 2002, the newly-merged corporation was faced with a dilemma–in some geographic regions of the world, there was operational overlap.  One such area was Canada, where there were three or four distinct organizations with similar oil and gas operations, and unique internal operational systems. 

The decision was made to consolidate these operations into one Canadian organization going forward, with SAP being the ERP standard for all systems.  This meant that business processes would be changing,  and as a result, jobs, roles, and the people occupying those roles would also be changing. 

A huge Organizational Change Management Plan (OCM) was implemented.  When they chose the project manager for the project, it was someone who had recently completed a similar project in Europe.  For the first two to three months of the project, the project manager and project spoonsor traveled to all of the major operational centers of the organizations that were being consolidated.  They held personal conversations with each employee to gain their input and to understand their current roles.  These communications were extremely empathic in nature because not only did they seek each employee’s buy-in, they also conveyed to each that they would play a very important ongoing  role in the transition from the old organization to the new.  Some employees would become “power users” of the new systems , some would become casual users,  and some would play a support role in providing key information for the systems.  In other words, the success of the project, and that of the new consolidated organization, was in the hands of the employees and not in the hands of the project managers and sponsors.

Is that how it is in your organization?  Do the users of the systems and the “supporting cast” feel like they have a real “stake” in the delivery and the outcomes of the key projects that will “make or break” the organization in the future?  Please provide your insight in the comments.

I will discuss the last two methods of communication in Part II.

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