7 Ways to Avoid Communication Breakdown on Your Creative Project

September 12, 2017
9 minute read

Originally published September 12, 2017. Updated May 28, 2024.

 

Out of every $1 billion spent on projects, $135M is “at risk” of project failure.

And the leading cause of project failure? Poor communication.

Communication breakdowns in the office can have disastrous consequences, especially regarding project management. They are often cited as the leading cause of project failure, and it's not hard to see why.  

Communication - or the lack of it - is the cause of one-third of all failed and delayed projects. Without clear and precise communication, you’ll struggle to define goals, set schedules, and align your team with the client’s needs. When team members are not effectively communicating with each other, important details can be missed, deadlines can be overlooked, and misunderstandings can lead to costly mistakes. 

Without clear and open lines of communication, projects can quickly spiral out of control, resulting in missed opportunities and wasted resources. Organizations must prioritize effective communication strategies to avoid the pitfalls of project failure.

How can you avoid communication breakdowns on your next creative project? What steps can you take to avoid communication mistakes?

I’ll share some answers in this blog post.

 

What Is Communication Breakdown?

The communication breakdown definition in Deakin is “a failure or interruption in the process of exchanging information or ideas between two or more people.” When we say there has been a breakdown in communication, it means that there was a failure or disruption in the exchange of information between individuals or groups. It occurs when the intended message is not received or understood as intended.

This breakdown can happen in various forms, such as misinterpretation of words, lack of clarity, or even complete silence. When we define communication breakdown, it normally encompasses the consequences of these situations. Communication breakdown examples that you may have already encountered include the following:

  • Important updates that aren’t disseminated to all members of the team
  • Managers who are not informed of the progress of the project
  • Client requests that are not properly understood
  • Specific instructions that aren’t not followed because of a failure to document them
  • Unaligned expectations between managers and team members

In today's fast-paced world, where communication is vital in personal and professional relationships, a breakdown can have severe consequences. It can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts and hinder productivity. Therefore, it is crucial to promptly identify and address communication breakdowns to maintain effective and efficient communication channels.

 

What Causes Communication Breakdown?

A breakdown of communication can be caused by several things. While the specifics might vary from organization to organization, communication breakdown in most cases can be traced to:

 

1. No Clear Communication Plan

The client communication plan is one of the most important tools in the project manager’s toolkit. This document tells everyone on your team how, where, and when to communicate with all involved parties - team members, managers, stakeholders, and sponsors.

Projects without a detailed communication plan often suffer from haphazard and inconsistent communication. Since there is no guidance on what to include/exclude, stakeholders and team members swing between clueless and overwhelmed - neither of which is ideal.

 

2. No Clear Reporting Relationships

The success of any project depends not only on communicating clearly but also on communicating the right information to the right person. A junior-level resource doesn’t need the same information as the VP sponsoring the project, and a stakeholder doesn't need to know the nitty-gritty of the project.

Communication breakdowns can occur for many different reasons, including confusion in the team structure and procedures. This is why you need clear reporting relationships. Everyone on your team should know exactly who to contact in a specific situation and what to communicate with them. A clear hierarchy will solve the problem of oversharing and undersharing. It will also give everyone a clear point of contact in case of any emergency.

 

3. No Clear Leadership

How organizations communicate is often a cultural issue. If some businesses seem better at communicating than others, it’s usually because the leaders at the top have set a clear precedent for communicating effectively.

The lack of clear leadership on communication can - and often does - trickle down to the rest of the workforce. If the leaders are reticent or inconsistent in their communication, it can give the rest of the employees the impression that they can do the same.

This happens at the organizational level as well as the project level. If project leaders don’t step up to share issues and insights with team members, the rest of the team can adopt the same habits.

The result? Communication breakdowns and eventual project failure.

 

4. Lack of Effort and Initiative

In the fast-paced world of work, it's easy to get caught up in the tasks at hand and forget about the importance of communication. Sometimes, teams become so engrossed in their work that they unintentionally stop communication. It's not that they don't care or lack initiative; it's just that communication simply doesn't cross their minds. This can lead to breakdowns in communication and misunderstandings, even when everyone involved has good intentions. 

Several communication breakdown scenarios happen even when the involved parties have good intentions. Teams need to be aware of this tendency and consciously prioritize communication, ensuring everyone is on the same page and working towards a common goal.

 

5. Unhealthy Team Culture

What causes communication to break down? One of them can also be an unhealthy team culture. When a team's culture is toxic or dysfunctional, it creates an environment that discourages open and honest communication. Team members may feel afraid to speak up or share their ideas, fearing judgment or ridicule. This lack of trust and psychological safety hampers effective communication, leading to misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

In the next section, I’ll share some effective communication tips.

 

7 Tactics to Avoid Communication Breakdowns

 

Changing how you communicate is neither easy nor instantaneous. You’ll have to develop thorough plans and then develop a culture that encourages clear communication.

Start by following these tips on how to avoid communication breakdown:

 

1. Develop a Communication Plan

 One of the best ways to prevent communication breakdowns is to develop a clear and precise communication plan. This is one of the first documents you should create for every project, regardless of its size and scope. Develop a template, then customize it for each project.

In a nutshell, this plan should include:

  • Event-specific communication protocols: List exactly what to communicate before/after specific events, such as weekly stand-up or kick-off meetings. Define deliverables, preferred channels and the target for each event.
  • Stakeholder-specific communication protocols: One of your core responsibilities is keeping stakeholders—on your side and the client’s—updated. Identify stakeholders and list their communication preferences—what channels they prefer, how often they should be contacted, and what to include in each message.
  • Communication channels and content: Identify what information needs to be communicated regularly (such as daily/weekly updates, bug reports, etc.), then identify the preferred channels for them. Also, identify to whom these messages should be addressed.

For more details, refer to this article on how to create a client-focused communication plan.

 

2. Use the Right Communication Tools

While email is still a great communication tool, it is not the only one available. Some messages are better reserved for phone calls or Skype chats. Use the right channel for the right communication type to avoid people getting overwhelmed or missing important information.

One way to do this is to prioritize different types of messages and then establish protocols for communicating them. Something like this:

  • Phone calls for urgent messages such as emergencies.
  • Skype calls for weekly client updates.
  • Slack chat for internal team communication, issue tracking, data sharing, etc.
  • Emails for important project updates.

Match the seriousness of a message type with the seriousness of the communication tool. For instance, an emergency message is better left on a high-priority channel like phone calls.

For important messages, it’s also a good idea to use two separate communication channels and ask for confirmation of receipt. This will not only ensure that important messages are not missed but also give you a paper trail.

 

3. Use a Collaborative Project Management Tool

Collaboration and communication go hand in hand. Organizations that collaborate effectively are also invariably good at communication.

Collaboration-focused project management tools are commonplace now. These tools give your entire team a single platform to communicate and collaborate on projects. You’ll have all your important project documents, schedules, etc., in one spot.

Start by identifying a good creative industry project management tool and running it through a few projects. The key is garnering a cohesive, collaborative environment that promotes task ownership among project team members.

A project management tool like Workamajig can consolidate all communication on a single platform, improving clarity and productivity.

Your productivity will increase as your time frees up a bit, your team will be more accountable for their tasks, and project information will be more up-to-date. More importantly, a centralized platform backed by regular training will help you create a system for communicating and sharing that you can reuse across projects and teams. An example of this is Workamajig, the all-in-one project management suite built for creative teams. It provides the following perks:

  • Everything in one place
  • Project Management
  • Resourcing & Scheduling
  • Task Management & Time Tracking 
  • Custom Dashboards
  • Business Insights

Using a collaboration tool is a major step you can take to facilitate better communication and collaboration.

 

4. Develop a Culture of Communication

Businesses that communicate well often see it as one of their organizational traits—a part of their corporate DNA. As I mentioned above, the precedent is usually set early—founders and key executives focus on communication from the very start, guiding others to follow suit.

For long-term changes in the way you communicate, commit to developing a culture of communication. If you’re a project manager, you can start from your team. You can do this at an organizational scale if you're a business leader.

Some ways you can develop a communication culture are:

  • Practice transparency and openness: Share your business strategy, hiring decisions, project direction, and vision in a clear, transparent manner. This will encourage others to practice similar transparency in their communication. Moreover, welcome feedback. Communication breaks down when we are defensive and when people feel unsafe.
  • Make it a part of onboarding: When bringing in new people, make communication a critical part of the onboarding process. Establish the importance of communication early, and you’ll quickly make it a habit for your new hires.
  • Use more convenient communication tools: An easy way to encourage communication is to use a faster and more convenient communication tool. Ditch email for something like Slack, where people can jump in/out of conversations in an informal setting.
  • Have a bias for communication when hiring: Pay close attention to how someone communicates. Do they communicate clearly and transparently? Do their messages have the right style and tone? If you focus on these issues while hiring, you won’t have to worry as much about training them later.

5. Be Aware of Communication Weak Points

Suppose there’s an urgent issue that needs the CEO’s attention. You leave a message with the CEO’s secretary, but it never gets through because the secretary forgot about it. The issue goes unresolved, derailing the project. This is an example of a communication “weak point.” Even the best-formed communication plans can go awry due to a single weak point in the communication chain.

To be effective, you need to be aware of these weak points and find ways to fix them. Consider it during risk planning and identification. Who and what are the weak points? That VP? The CEO's secretary? The PMO director (yes, it happens)? The project sponsor? Certain key stakeholders?

Dig through and identify:

  • Stakeholders, team members, sponsors, etc., who have reputations as bad communicators.
  • Communication channels with unusually poor response rates on previous projects.
  • Outside contractors who don’t have access to your internal communication tools/protocols.

You need to know if a stakeholder is often unavailable to make important decisions, and you need to know if a specialist freelancer is tardy with emails.

Once you’ve identified these weak points, you can find solutions. If the specialist freelancer doesn’t respond to emails, you may call him instead. If the stakeholder isn’t available, you can ask him to delegate decision-making to someone else.

When communication breaks down, don’t be discouraged. Proactively address the information and embrace the fact that improving communication will always be an ongoing collective organizational effort. Be aware and be ready to jump the communication gap, if necessary.

 

6. Run Better Meetings

Meetings are underused as a communication tool. They are great for bringing people up to speed on key issues and can also create a friendlier work environment.

How do we minimize communication breakdowns in meetings? When running meetings, here are a few things to keep in mind:

 

I. Conduct weekly meetings

Always do your best to keep the project team meetings going at a weekly pace. Even if there isn't much to talk about – even light discussion is productive as it keeps team cohesiveness high.

The information you garner from these meetings is often priceless, and the new ideas and strategies that are sometimes discussed can quickly transform a struggling creative project.

 

II. Involve higher management and stakeholders in meetings

Periodically involving those “extended” team members—high-level management and stakeholders—in the down-and-dirty meetings can serve several purposes. These include promoting communication, increasing project visibility, and increasing client satisfaction and awareness.

Never underestimate the value that your creative client gets from seeing or hearing your CEO in attendance during a weekly status meeting with the client.

 

III. Have a clear agenda and deliverables

While the team-building aspects of meetings are certainly important, it’s critical to approach each meeting with a fixed agenda and try to avoid going off-tangent. Space out during meetings may also cause a break in communication, so it’s good to stick to the agenda.

Establish clearly what you hope to achieve from each meeting. Develop a system to gather and share insights from each meeting with participants. Follow-up as necessary. 

This will avoid the dreaded Dilbert-esque meetings that go nowhere and consume everyone’s time.

 

IV. Document Minutes of the Meeting and Ensure Accessibility

Taking detailed notes during a meeting and distributing them afterward allows everyone to clearly understand what was discussed, decisions made, and action items assigned. 

Documenting the minutes can clarify and address any misunderstandings or misinterpretations. Additionally, ensuring accessibility of the minutes is important for those who were unable to attend the meeting or for future reference.

 

7. Practice “Deliberate” Communication

So much of our communication—both inside and outside the workplace—is poorly thought out. There is no “deliberateness” to it; we dash out emails without clearly thinking how the other party will perceive them.

To be truly effective, your communication has to be more deliberate. That is, each message has to be well thought-out, factoring in:

  • The recipient’s communication style
  • The recipient’s favored communication channel
  • The clarity of the message
  • The succinctness of the message
  • The necessity of the message

An effective and practical way to minimize communication-style bias is to ask and listen. Check in on people and be open about your intentions to communicate well so they can help and participate. Essentially, you’re asking whether a message is necessary, clear, and precise.

Such deliberateness will improve your communication skills. Ensure that your team adopts the same principles, and you’ll suddenly find your entire organization communicating more effectively.

 

Conclusion

So many things can go wrong with our projects. Maintaining a high level of accurate communication is one of those things that we have nearly absolute control over. With project managers spending nearly 70-80% of their time communicating, getting this part right will show great results in all your projects.

What about our readers – what do you do to help ensure no big communication breakdowns can wreck a project? What are some of the ways that organizations of which you are aware try to improve communication?

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