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Is Poor Communication The Single Biggest Cause of Project Failure?

“We have terrible communication around here!”

“This place is screwed up! I never know what’s going on!”

I regularly hear from project managers, sponsors, and other stakeholders that their biggest problems with delivery come down to communication. Could it be that poor communication is the single biggest factor to tanking projects?

A wise mentor once told me that when someone complains about poor communications, it’s really a sign that something else is wrong. Poor communication is a symptom of deeper problems.

I’m sure there are examples to the contrary, but my bias is that every problem is a leadership problem. If I don’t like what’s going on with my team, I could blame it on the members but I have to look at what I’m doing to make things better. If a company is struggling, they could blame the economy but what were they doing to prepare for the risks? What are they doing to navigate the problems? If I don’t like the current state of my family, I could blame my spouse or children, but once again, I have to take a look in the mirror….

Every problem is a leadership problem.

If the above is true, then poor communications could just be a symptom of underlying leadership problems. There are plenty of surveys that indicate “lack of executive support” is more deadly to projects than any other factor. That’s leadership (or lack thereof).

Poor project management?
Insufficient involvement of users/stakeholders?
Denial of risk?
Difficulty defining work in detail?
Unreasonable timeframes?

All of these are factors that show up on most “Leading Causes of Project Failure” lists, and we could reasonably argue that poor leadership is a primary cause of each of them.

Finally, if most of what I’ve said is true, then I fully expect that poor communications is something project managers, team members, sponsors, and stakeholders will be complaining

about just as much 10 years from now.

And they’ll be just as wrong as they are today…. :)

P.S. Contact me about our project management training series. We help you not only learn how to deliver but also how to lead.

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Comment by Andy Kaufman on November 29, 2010 at 2:49pm
Thanks for sharing your perspective, Christopher! I agree wholeheartedly that communication is at the core of what we need to do as effective project managers and leaders.
Comment by Christopher Casey on November 29, 2010 at 2:35pm
Andy makes an interesting point, but I would invert it and say that every problem is a communication problem. Humans, while capable of complex and sophisticated communication, are as a group, notoriously bad at it. Take any of the "Leading Cause of Project Failures" factors mentioned and you can trace its root cause back to a communication event (or lack thereof) that has nothing to do with with the quality or even presence of of leadership. Here are a couple of examples:

"Unreasonable timeframes"
.
Assuming the unreasonableness is defined by scope and resource issues, it is highly likely the impact of the time frame against those issues was not communicated properly to the proper stakeholder. PMs who whine that their protests fall on deaf ears at the end of the day are doing a poor job of communicating what the consequences of an "unreasonable" time frame will be to the final outcome.

"Insufficient involvement of users/stakeholders"
.
Here again, the critical nature of stakeholder involvement has probably not been communicated to the right stakeholders in terms that they understand and can action. While it may be organizational hierarchy (a boss) that ultimately influences involvement, it is not until the message of what the lack of involvement will mean is received and understood by the appropriate party that any action will be taken.

While you can have communication without leadership, you can not have leadership without communication. As Nitin Nohria, current dean of the Harvard Business School is quoted as saying “Communication is the real work of leadership.”

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