Effective Communication and Influence

Definition: Communication is a two-way process in which there is an exchange of thoughts, opinions, or information by speech, writing, or symbols towards a mutually accepted goal or outcome [1].

Keywords: behavior, behavior change, communication, elaboration, elaboration likelihood model (ELM), influence, message, persuasion, processing, social

MITRE SE Roles & Expectations: MITRE systems engineers (SEs) need to understand that communication is vital for transformation success. They are expected to assist in developing communication strategies as part of organizational transformations. Systems engineers are expected to be able to communicate and interpret the "big picture" across multiple disciplines, teams, and environments. They translate the visions of leaders into the engineering work performed by technical staff, and communicate information broadly and accurately to achieve project success. In addition to being able to express ideas in a clear and compelling manner, they must adjust their language and communication vehicles to capture the attention of diverse audiences. Within their project teams, MITRE systems engineers are expected to help establish an environment of trust by communicating openly and behaving consistently in words and actions. In addition, they are expected to communicate effectively to persuade or influence others outside their formal authority to accept a point of view, adopt a specific agenda, or take a course of action that is in the best interests of the sponsor and the wider stakeholder community. They are expected to be proficient in analyzing audiences, organizing ideas effectively, choosing appropriate media, and knowing how to promote ideas to a wide range of audiences. Proper use of a systems science approach to communication will help build good relationships with team members, sponsors, and other key stakeholders, to increase the likelihood of project success.

Elements of Communication: In supporting program management a key "purpose of effective communication is sustaining the on-going work with maximum efficiency [1]." This goes beyond just sending progress reports and providing periodic briefings. It also includes communicating high quality standards for the project team, communicating clearly the financial impact of the work, and defining the outcome and benefits that stakeholders can expect [1, p.1]. It involves facilitating broad participation in the decision-making process, thereby increasing support and commitment to the project. A systems engineer who carries out these activities effectively may better accomplish the project objectives, and lead to a more collaborative relationship with the customer [1, p. 2].

Best Practices

An approach to developing effective communications and influencing sponsor interactions is shown in Figure 1. The figure depicts a four-step systems approach to developing a communications strategy, building an action plan, executing the action plan, measuring feedback to assess the effectiveness of communication activities, and integrating feedback into revisions of the communication activities to improve their effectiveness.

Figure 1. Communications Roadmap

Strategic Communication Planning in Government Agencies: As government agencies expand and improve their services, they often undergo a fundamental transformation of mission, strategy, operations, and technology. If managed effectively, these changes can increase the quality of government services and reduce taxpayer costs. Often, there is strong resistance to change within an organization because it requires that people change not only the way they work, but their attitudes and beliefs. This is challenging,  but such transformation is essential if government agencies are to provide the high quality of service expected by citizens and mandated by legislators.

For most large government modernization programs, an organization's predominant focus is often on the enabling technology—the definition, acquisition, and implementation of information technology systems. If a program's success depended solely on installing the right hardware and software, however, many more modernization programs would be successful. It is the people who are going to use the new technologies who add an unpredictable, complex dimension.

This article sets out a four-step approach for preparing a communication strategy and plan. It incorporates industry best practices as well as MITRE lessons learned and proven methodologies in supporting government agencies and private sector organizations.

The Role of Communication in Transformation Projects: People don't like change—they fear the unknown, fear losing control, worry that their jobs may change or go away. Affected individuals may oppose a transformation program by refusing to implement the necessary changes in their daily operations or by speaking against it and influencing others to oppose it. If the benefits of the transformation are not communicated broadly and consistently, departments and business units may refuse to support it. They lose sight of the overall mission of the agency, compete with each other for funds and resources, and refuse to see the value of collaborating with other units.

Open and frequent communication is an essential factor in successful transformation. Give people the information they need about the benefits and impact of the transformation, and they will more readily accept and support the effort. Leaders of transformation programs need a strategy that incorporates the communication needs of key stakeholders, the resources and channels required to reach these audiences, and the processes that support an understanding of the goals and benefits of the transformation program.

Developing the Communication Strategy: The requirement for a communication strategy may be triggered by a variety of events: a new administration or agency leadership, a significant change in an agency's mission, or a legislative mandate that requires significant reorganization or modernization of an agency's operations or systems. In each case, the failure to consider the "human dimension" in a transformation leads to a higher percentage of failure.

The application of a systems science approach is effective in helping agencies understand the human dimensions of their transformation and in understanding how to effectively integrate communications into the transformation program. This approach requires that systems engineers listen carefully to the sponsor's needs and concerns, and then collaborate with them to develop and validate an effective communication strategy by:

  1. Assessing and analyzing both the communication needs of the agency's key audiences (internal and external stakeholders) and their concerns regarding the proposed transformation effort
  2. Developing clarity about the goals and objectives that the communication effort is intended to accomplish
  3. Establishing governance, with clear roles and responsibilities for those involved in the communication effort
  4. Conducting an audit to determine existing internal and external communication resources and channels, and identify opportunities for new resources and channels
  5. Identifying a measurement process and feedback mechanisms to ensure that the strategy is achieving its goals.

Developing the Communication Plan: After the communication strategy has been validated and accepted, the next step is to develop and implement a communication action plan to deliver key messages to each audience—in the language and through the channels that are most effective for each group. Development of the plan could include the following steps:

  1. Determine the activities needed
  2. Develop key messages targeted to specific audiences and establish the process through which these messages will be reviewed and approved; this concurrence process may vary according to the audience (e.g., internal vs. external, legislative vs. media, etc.)
  3. Identify the resources and/or communication channels that may be required and that would be most effective for each audience (e.g., electronic vs. print vs. in-person meetings; mailings and phone calls; website and social media such as Facebook)
  4. Establish a detailed timeline for delivery of the messages, with sequenced delivery and multiple impressions for greatest effect.

Executing Communication Activities: The execution of communication activities begins when triggering events occur (i.e., program milestones that will affect users/stakeholders, system deployment, or significant unplanned events). The execution of communication activities should include the following steps:

  1. Review planned communication activities with the sponsor and revise the plan to address the specific triggering event
  2. Obtain the needed media/channel resources
  3. Draft the material
  4. Perform internal edits and reviews
  5. Execute concurrence process
  6. Assign delivery dates
  7. Execute communication activity.

Measuring Effectiveness: Measuring the effectiveness of communication activities is a critical component in the development of an effective communication strategy. The measurement process should include the following steps:

  1. Define measures of effectiveness and a measurement process to assess the results of various messages, channels, and delivery schedules
  2. Review measures of effectiveness and clarify if needed
  3. Implement measurement process
  4. Collect and analyze feedback data
  5. Assess success of communication activity
  6. Identify need for additional communication activities or improvements
  7. Incorporate feedback from measurements to continuously improve the communication process and activities throughout the transformation.

The exact form of communication needed during a transformation project is driven by a variety of factors: the sponsor's culture, the nature of the transformation, the communication channels available, and the time and resources available for communication activities. The following are key discussion points for developing sponsor buy-in for communication planning:

Explain the importance: A failed program is a waste of valuable funds, time, and reputation.

Three out of four large IT programs fail to achieve their objectives.

  • Poor communication is a primary factor in one third of failed programs [PwC Mori Survey 1997].
  • Good communication is a critical factor in 70 percent of successful programs.

Communication planning reduces risk of project failure.

  • Accurate, truthful, and timely information replaces gossip and rumor and eases anxiety.
  • Key leaders will become champions if they understand fully the impact and benefits.
  • Employees who trust the communication process are more secure, focused, and productive, providing better service to constituents.

Explain the value: People are afraid of the unknown, but they'll support a project if they can see its value.

Resistance to change is normal. In government agencies, resistance is caused in part by:

  • The graying workforce — nearly half of government employees are approaching retirement in the next five years. Some may lack the time to learn new processes or skills that a major long-term change may require.
  • Change fatigue — employees are exhausted by multiple (and often conflicting) initiatives launched by short-term appointees.
  • "Wait them out" — change is often imposed from above with little input from actual users, who may delay the change by simply waiting until the leadership changes.

Focus on addressing "What's in it for me?"

  • Identify key stakeholders and their particular concerns and needs.
  • Determine the specific benefits (and pain points) of the project for each stakeholder group.
  • Communicate early, often, and clearly. Tell stakeholders what is going on, tell them why, tell them what they need to do, and specify the benefits for them.
  • Set up feedback mechanisms and solicit stakeholder input to continuously review and improve the project.

References & Resources

  1. Amin, A., November 2008, The Communication Key of Program Management, PMWorldToday, X (XI).

Additional References & Resources

  • Campbell, G.M., 2009, Communications Skills for Project Managers, AMACOM.
  • Cialdini, R., 2008, Influence: Science and Practice, 5th Edition, Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
  • Dow, W. and B. Taylor, B., 2008, Project Management Communications Bible, Wiley Publishing, Inc.
  • Harvard Business School Press, 2003, Business Communication, Harvard Business School Publishing.
  • Hirsch, H.L., Essential Communication Strategies for Scientists, Engineers, and Technology Professionals, Second Edition, John Wiley & Sons.
  • Kendrick, T., 2006, Results Without Authority: Controlling a Project When the Team Doesn't Report to You—A Project Manager's Guide. American Management Association, AMACOM.
  • Kerzner, H., 2009, Project Management Case Studies, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  • Kliem, R.L., 2008, Effective Communications for Project Management, Auerbach Publications.
  • Perloff, R., 2008, The Dynamics of Persuasion: Communication and Attitudes in the 21st Century, 2nd Edition, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Phillips, J. J., and W.F. Tush, W.F., 2008, Communication and Implementation: Sustaining the Practice, Pfeiffer.
  • Ruben, Brent D. and Lea P. Steward, May 2005, Communication and Human Behavior, 5th Edition, Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.


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