This post was orignally published on August 13, 2015 and was updated with new information on September 12, 2017.
It’s no secret that communication influences performance. And if you want a high-performing team collaborating on your project, it’s important to implement an effective project communication plan.
In traditional project management terms, a communications plan refers to the specific techniques used to motivate, lead, and delegate responsibilities on any given project. And while creative projects may differ from other industries, at their core, they follow the same tenets of basic communication plans.
The overarching purpose of any communications plan is to articulate your project’s intended goals in quantifiable, measurable ways. A common way to do this is through the clear goal setting.
In this article, I’ll share a few tactics to set goals for your project communication plans. I’ll discuss the well-established SMART criteria, and I’ll also discuss a few alternatives and tips for setting communication goals.
Setting SMART Communication Goals
In management theory, the SMART criteria is one of the most widely followed approaches for goal setting. First introduced by George T. Doran in the November 1981 issue of Management Review, this concept found quick adoption in management circles.
Today, the SMART criteria is widely followed across industries for setting clear, quantifiable objectives.
The SMART criteria gives clear directions for measuring goals that are:
Let’s look at these five factors in more detail:
In order to optimize a project’s efficiency, it’s important to be as specific as possible. Additionally, it’s important to avoid generic objectives in the planning stages.
Establishing a specific goal enables you to clearly define the expectations for the project. The more precise you are, the more effective your communications plan will be.
Specifying your intended end results will also ensure that all team members are on the same page.
But what exact details should you include in your specific goals?
Here are a few things you should focus on:
- Who to communicate with
- What to communicate
- Where and How to communicate
- When to communicate, and why
- Target stakeholders for each message-type
- Channels for each message
- Timeframe for each communication (daily/weekly/monthly)
Here’s an example of a specific goal:
“Send the client a weekly update through email about all completed and upcoming tasks”
In addition to being specific, your goal needs to be quantifiable and have some clear indicator of progress.
While the creative process can often contain gray areas, it’s important to define exactly how success will be measured. If your goals are clearly measurable, your team will know when the intended outcome is met.
You will need to establish consensus between stakeholders and team members about your chosen metrics. Every involved party needs to agree that the chosen metric(s) indicate acceptable progress.
How you measure this metric is up to you. Some common ways to measure ROI on ad and marketing campaigns are:
- Website Analytics: Website traffic and lead conversion via webform submissions are easy ways to track the success of a campaign.
- CRM Sales Tracking: If your business has a robust CRM tool in place, it is important to track your leads, sales, or any other business interactions. If not, spreadsheets can also help manage your customer relationships.
- A/B Testing: Although split testing is typically considered a conversion optimization technique, it is a great way to measure a campaign’s success.
- KPI Tracking: Key performance indicators consolidate various metrics into a concise list that displays the overall performance of your campaign.
For purely creative work, measuring progress can be harder. In such cases, you can use:
- Activity metrics such as number of actions or tasks completed. This gives you an idea of the project velocity. A higher activity usually correlates to faster project progress.
- Tracking milestones can give you a clear, albeit broader idea of the pace of the project. The faster you complete your milestones, the closer you are to finishing the project.
In addition to these, you can also gather subjective feedback from clients or users. Regular surveys will tell you whether you are progressing towards your goal(s) or not.
A goal that requires resources you do not have and capabilities you do not possess offers no real benefits. Thus, besides being specific and quantifiable, your goal should also be attainable with your existing capabilities.
For picking goals that are attainable, you need to assess the following:
- Current and future resource availability
- Project budget
- Budget flexibility (i.e. whether the project can increase to accommodate additional resources).
- Existing skills and abilities, and whether they are enough to achieve the target goal
- Team attitude, morale and other unquantifiable qualities that affect performance, especially for creative personnel
- Attrition rates in your team so you can plan for contingencies in case key personnel leave mid-project
Keep in mind there’s a difference between challenging and unattainable. Taking stock of the above will tell you whether your goal is worth pursuing or not.
Your goal should be attainable, but it also needs to be relevant to your organization and stakeholders. Unless it measures something stakeholders actually care about, it will only end up being a vanity goal.
As far as communication goals go, you should pick something that project leaders, stakeholders and sponsors agree on. A metric relevant to all these parties will make measuring success easier as well.
For example, if you’re running a marketing campaign for a client, measuring the number of MQLs (Marketing Qualified Leads) would be a relevant goal. Measuring the number of new marketing pages created would not; it merely tracks activity, not results.
Talk to your stakeholders and project leaders. Find out what they care about, then use that in your goal setting.
Once you deem your goal attainable and relevant, it’s important to set a time frame for completion. You should be able to specify when your results will be achieved. This deadline will help your team focus their efforts—and will create a sense of urgency.
It’s important to pick a time frame that’s realistic, but challenging. Consult your project schedule for an estimated end-of-project date, then add a buffer to account for any contingencies. Take your historical records into account. If you’ve been historically slow to meet a particular goal, expand the buffer size accordingly.
That’s for project-level goals. You’ll also need similar time frames for smaller, often recurring communication goals. For instance, if you’re sending stakeholders weekly status reports, you want to have a strict time frame for it. Something like “Collect key data by Saturday each week, and send report by next Monday”.
Making your goals time-related will give you the impetus your team needs to meet deadlines.
In the next section, I’ll share some tips on setting better goals.
How to Set Better SMART Goals
Although widely adopted, the SMART criteria isn’t perfect. As Dick Grote, writing in Harvard Business Review, notes:
“While the SMART test may be a useful minor mechanism for making sure that a goal statement has been phrased properly...it provides no help in determining whether the goal itself is a good idea. In other words, a goal can easily be SMART without being wise.”
Keeping this in mind, here are a few things you should consider when setting SMART goals:
1. Consider the Strategic Value of Unrealistic Goals
The Attainable feature of SMART goals can sometimes cause managers to pick targets that are too realistic. A realistic goal might make the manager look good, but it won’t necessarily be best for the client or the organization itself.
As Vijay Govindrajan, a professor at Tuck School of Business writes:
“Realistic goals promote incremental moves; only unrealistic goals provoke breakthrough thinking.”
Prof. Govindrajan goes on to cite examples of Canon’s audacious goal to beat Xerox, or JFK’s goal of landing man on the moon. A more realistic assessment would have dubbed both these goals as “unattainable”.
Yet, the unrealistic nature of these goals is precisely what encouraged lateral, unconventional thinking.
In creative agencies, this kind of unconventional thinking is particularly important; it’s what builds your reputation and sets you apart.
So before setting an attainable goal, think hard. Consider the long-term strategic impact of an unrealistic goal. If possible, pick something that’s challenging, but realistic. You want your goals to fuel innovation, not just look good in a status report.
2. Consider Setting a Range Instead of a Single Figure
Conventional wisdom is to set a single, fixed target when setting your goals. “Finish X tasks each week” or “send Y sales emails each week”.
While this approach works, it can cause problems as well. Your chosen goal might be too unrealistic or too attainable. In the first case, you’ll end up demoralizing your team. In the second, you won’t get the best-possible performance from your team.
One solution to this problem is to set a high-low range instead of a single figure goal.
Support for this solution comes from a number of studies that show setting a range pushes motivated people to work harder, but doesn’t cause others to feel demoralized.
As Steve Martin notes in Harvard Business Review:
“Given that one of the challenges that managers and leaders face is to promote sustained efforts toward the organizational and operational goals they set, this research suggests they may be able to obtain substantially greater success by bracketing the goals they set with high and low levels of achievement.”
You don’t have to do this for all team members; just the ones who have trouble staying motivated through a long project. This gives them the room to re-engage without the pressure of meeting a difficult goal.
3. Collaborate on Setting Goals
A common piece of advice for goal setting is that goals should cascade down from the top of the organization. That is, the CEO sets his goals, the VP sets goals based on these goals, and managers set their goals based on the VP’s targets, and so on.
The problem with this approach is that it effectively shifts blame upwards. Top-level management is also often unaware of the ground realities of day to day project work, leading to goals that simply cannot be met.
As Dick Grote notes:
“If the concept of cascading goals is applied too rigidly throughout an organization, the practical outcome is that nobody can begin the goal-setting process until that person’s boss has finished his goals.”
Instead of cascading goals down, an alternative is to collaborate on goals.
That is, managers work together with higher-level management to set communication goals that are acceptable to both parties. Management can pick ambitious goals that meet the organization’s strategic targets. Project managers can then scale them down to meet the more realistic standards of their teams.
This collaborative approach works far better than cascading goals. It gives top management an accurate picture of what’s attainable, what’s not. At the same time, it pushes project managers to adopt some Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAG) that get their teams to do their best-possible work.
As Peter Drucker once said, “if you can measure it, you can improve it”.
This is single statement lies at the heart of all goal setting activity. If you can set specific, realistic and measurable goals, you can also improve your performance on them. The SMART criteria does exactly that, giving you a framework for setting challenging but attainable goals for your communication plan.
At the same time, it is also important to choose goals that are challenging, yet attainable. The strategic value of such goals can be immense, inside and outside the communication plan.
Further, your goals should be collaborative, bringing together objectives from top management and your own experience as a project manager.
Do all of this and you’ll have a well-defined communication plan with clear goals.