What’s the number one factor that influences whether your project is a success or a dud? While we’d love to say it’s the project management tool you use the truth is it’s something else: Communication. That’s why having an effective communication plan is so important.
You wouldn’t just dive into a project without clearly defining your scope, resources, and timeline. So why would you just start shooting off emails and messages without knowing how, when, and why you’re sending them?
Like the other processes and documents that ensure your project stays on track, a communication plan ensures everyone knows what’s been agreed-upon and expected of them throughout the project’s lifecycle.
Yet unlike a Scope of Work or Project Proposal, not everyone takes the time to define a communication plan at the outset of a project. Maybe you think it’s too much work for the size of your team. Or that your team already knows how to communicate. But why leave it up to chance? A great project manager knows the true risks of miscommunication and plans accordingly.
In this guide, we’ll run through a simple process for creating a communication plan as well as provide templates and examples you can use with your own team.
What is a communication plan? And why do you need one?
Communication is a strange beast. We all know how to read and write, yet our words still get misconstrued, feedback gets ignored, and you end up with a whole bunch of “Oh, I thought you meant X!”
Not only that but finding the right cadence of communication can feel like a Goldilocks situation. Too little and your team and stakeholders get confused about priorities and progress. Too much and you’re suddenly the King of micromanaging.
A communication plan ensures that your frequency, type, and level of communication are just right.
Avoid feeling like Goldilocks. A communication plan ensures that your frequency, type, and level of communication are just right.
Think of a communication plan as a road map for project stakeholders. It breaks down what kind of information that is required to be communicated, who should be given that information, the timeline upon which the information should be delivered, and which communication channels will be used for that delivery.
When done properly, a communication plan provides optimum clarity and serves as a tool that sets out clear objectives before a project commences.
What should a communication plan include?
Project communication is a two-way street. And much in the same way you work with stakeholders to set expectations on what’s being built, you also need to set expectations on how milestones, issues, updates, and critical information will be communicated throughout the project. This is literally a way to get the whole team on the same page!
At a high-level, a communication plan should include:
- Purpose and approach. Think of this as a really clear summary of the entire communication plan—why it’s in place, the approach you’re going to take, and how it connects to the rest of the project.
- Goals and objectives. This is where you start to drill down on expectations and what you’re planning to accomplish.
- Stakeholder information. Clearly define who needs to be communicated with throughout the project, the type of information they need to receive (and at what frequency), and their preferred method of communication.
- Tools. This is where you answer how you’re going to communicate with everyone at different milestones or key moments. For example, meeting summaries, formal presentations, and custom project dashboards are all options.
- A high-level outline of internal project communication methods. While a communication plan mostly deals with people outside of your core team, it’s still a good opportunity to outline the methods you’ll be using for day-to-day communication.
Here’s an example.
Let’s say you have two teams both working on a website redesign for an outside client. One has a communication plan in place while the other doesn’t. Now, let’s say the client is an old friend of your company CEO.
You send over your latest design and something’s wrong. Your designer mixed up the brand books and you ended up using their old company logo!
For the team without a communication plan, the client doesn’t know when, how, and to whom they’re supposed to give feedback. So they call up their old friend and… I’m sure you know how that plays out.
On the other hand, the team with a communication plan has a clear plan about when feedback is expected, in what format, and when a response will go out. The client doesn’t have any uncertainty that the issue will be dealt with so no need to go over your head.
There are few things clients love more than a well-defined communication plan with clearly established pathways to success.
Clear communication and communication plans are essential to the success of a project. Yet more than just a way to keep your project on track and clarify your system of updates, a project communication plan has other key benefits, including:
1. Keeps you and your stakeholders aligned on the project’s goals
A communication plan starts with the big picture and then gets refined into specific goals.
This is a great way to make sure that both the broader vision and the more micro objectives are shared. Plus, you can schedule regular intervals for feedback, which helps to ensure that everyone stays on the right track and is happy with the progress being made.
2. Helps create transparency and get stakeholder buy-in
By mapping out every bit of feedback and every key point of communication, you’ll ensure every shareholder understands their clearly defined role and how they’re part of the bigger project. As project management expert Moira Alexander writes:
“Without full buy-in from team members, sponsors, and other stakeholders, projects may seem to be progressing smoothly and then suddenly take a sharp turn for the worse, risking the final deliverables and customer satisfaction.”
In order to avoid that, you have to map out everything—from determining motivations and managing contributions to soliciting feedback.
3. Builds better relationships with clients or outside agencies
There are few things clients love more than a well-defined plan with clearly established pathways to success.
By creating a communications plan, you’re not just promising the client or outside agencies an outcome, you’re actively showing them how you’re going to get there.
Many of the most common mistakes made by project managers are related to communication: Not setting clear goals upfront, not breaking big projects into smaller and clearly assigned tasks, not providing feedback on a regular basis.
All of these issues might seem like they can be resolved within the team, but a poorly managed project will inevitably trickle down to the client, perhaps testing their patience or even irrevocably altering their impressions.
A 3-step process for how to make a communication plan that won’t let you down
Every project is different and so are your communication requirements. A large, complex project involving multiple teams might require a tightly structured communication plan. While smaller projects or sprints with only a few stakeholders, on the other hand, might need less structure and information.
The great thing about a project communication plan is that it’s completely customizable. Yet no matter the size or complexity of your project, it’s key to clearly define your communication plan before you get started.
The following 3-step process will give you a framework for creating a communication plan for any project.
1. Define your communication goals and requirements
In order to kick off your communication plan, you’re going to have to look at the project holistically and map out all of the key informational steps.
Think about the kind of communication that can move a project like this forward, who will need to send and receive that communication, and how that transmission will play out. How can your project management tool (like Planio) be used to reach maximum communication efficiency?
This kind of plan often encourages stakeholders to think about the project in a new and helpful way. For example, if you’re a project manager who’s launching a new website, you’ve probably already thought about benchmarks and deliverables when it comes to design, development, and copywriting. But what about the timeframe and methods of communication with other stakeholders?
According to one estimate, up to 90 percent of the time in a project is spent on communication by the project manager. So it’s important to both get it right and make it as efficient as possible!
This starts by identifying the 5Ws and 1H of your project:
- Who needs to be communicated to?
- What needs to be communicated to them?
- When should this be communicated?
- Where should it be communicated?
- Why is communicating this to them essential to the project’s success?
- How is this going to be communicated? Is their preferred method for getting updates via email, call, in-person, video, or something else?
Up to 90 percent of project time is spent on communication by the project manager. So make sure it's not wasted time.
Communication can get tricky, so in addition to answering the 5Ws and 1H, you’re going to have to consider your work environment and any cultural factors that might have an impact on how you communicate with certain stakeholders.
Make sure you think about:
- Standards and policies (including human resources protocols) the project must comply with
- Project management processes already in place
- Cultural norms or issues with communication
- Project management software that offers communication tools
- Organizational culture and structure (i.e., how this project works into existing and established frameworks)
2. Gather stakeholder information and communication preferences
Alright, it’s time to answer the biggest question: Who needs to know about your project progress?
At this stage, you’re going to have to think not just about what you’re communicating but how you communicate it. What are the most effective ways to disseminate information, which communication protocols are already in place, and what tools can make this process smoother?
In a workplace, communications can run the gamut from informal hallway chats or post-work beers to formal corporate presentations and annual reports. There are also company-wide project management systems, like Planio, with tools designed to either keep the whole team on the same page or to limit information for the handful of stakeholders who need to stay in the loop—especially in the case of sensitive information.
And here’s another thing to consider: No two stakeholders are the same, so make sure you factor that in when putting together your communication plan.
Here are some other things you might want to consider when it comes to managing communications with stakeholders:
- How urgent is the information, and do I need a quick response?
- Does the project require specific technology solutions, and do those need to be factored into communications?
- Are all of the pieces in place to facilitate the communication plan, or is additional training or staffing required?
- For longer-term projects, are team members mindful and paying attention to any updates in relevant technology that can be implemented into the communication plan?
- Think about the structure of your team and their specific communications needs—for example, a virtual team will work differently and have different requirements than a group of colleagues who share cubicle walls
Consider breaking down your stakeholders (especially at the highest level) and their specific communication needs into a chart that looks like this:
To keep this information updated and available to everyone who needs it, you can make your communication plan in a tool like Planio.
Planio’s internal communication tools help keep all of your project knowledge and documents organized. For example you could create custom fields for stakeholder communication tickets and include topics like:
- Stakeholder contact information
- Communication milestones
- Update templates
The custom fields can be set as searchable, used as filters and as a basis for grouping your tickets. This way you can create an issue list, which tells you exactly when and why to contact your stakeholders ensuring everything is available and ready to go when the time comes.
Using project management software is a great way to organize and facilitate communication, and also make the process as transparent and consolidated as possible.
3. Set your regular communication types and schedules
A communication plan outlines not only how you’ll engage with outside groups and stakeholders, but also within your team. But that still leaves a lot of options (especially if you’re managing a remote team).
Here are some regular communication types that might work for various aspects of your project:
- Weekly phone check-ins
- Weekly email reports
- Major milestone meetings
- Daily emails
- Annual reports (and related presentations)
For each of these communication types, your communication plan should specify what they’ll include and who’s responsible for them.
In order to keep things as organized and clear as possible, consider keeping a chart of required communications, like this one here:
Again, this is a great opportunity to use Planio. By creating recurring tasks for these communication types you can set deadlines and reminders, assign roles and responsibilities, establish workflows, and use a template to define exactly what needs to be communicated.
By breaking the plan down into easily digestible parts, you can ensure that each part gets ticked off on time, by the team members responsible.
6 best practices for using your communication plan
Let’s do a quick recap. In a nutshell, a communication plan includes your project goals and needs, stakeholder information (including the 5Ws and 1 H), and a schedule for regular, team-wide communication.
While that should be enough to get you organized, there are a few key differences that will make this document actually useful:
- Focus on clarity and don’t get stuck on the details. There’s a difference between details and minutiae. Don’t get bogged down in providing excess details in your communication plan unless it contributes to clarity.
- Standardize your communication process. In order to make this process stick, you’ll have to acknowledge that it’s going to involve trial and error. By developing a template, you’ll create a path to improve, move forward, and entrench the process for future projects.
- Use agendas, templates, and rules for meetings. It’s crucial to manage this process and use all of the tools at your disposal, including agendas and templates. And just because there’s a meeting in your communication plan, doesn’t mean you should let that meeting run off the tracks.
- Know who is responsible for what communication. Proper project management requires the proper allocation of roles. There should be no confusion about what’s required by each team member, including their role in the communication plan.
- Understand your communication culture. Every workplace has a different way of doing things, so make sure that your communication plan fits in with—or improves on—the existing culture. Ask what frameworks are already in place to help you succeed, which new project management norms you can implement to make everyone’s life easier.
- Update your communication plan throughout the project’s lifecycle. Your communication plan will be the result of a thoughtful process that takes a huge number of variables into account. But that doesn’t mean it won’t change. Make sure you include in your plan the opportunity to collect feedback and make changes to the plan as you go.
Your communication plan is a blueprint for project success
When it really comes down to it, communication truly is the “lifeblood” of any project. Unless you establish a way of sharing information upfront, you’ll be vulnerable to any number of common pitfalls.
Follow these steps and use the communication plan template we’ve provided to keep your project on track and stakeholders happily informed.