discovery process, working with clients, technical project management, project manager tips, Louder Than Ten PM apprentices, Louder Than Ten apprentices,

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been going through Louder Than Ten‘s Project Management apprenticeship since the spring. As the program has been progressing forward, we’ve been integrating many of the things I’ve learned into Zao processes (with, of course, some tweaks to make them a perfect Zao fit). One of our early takeaways from LTT was the use of a formal Communication Plan, and it turns out, this small thing has totally leveled up our projects and client relationships.

What’s a Communication Plan?

A Communication Plan is a document that outlines the following:

  • Contact information, including names, titles, emails, and Slack usernames, for everyone involved in the project
    • These are separated by team, making them easy to reference and parse
  • The tools we use for communication during the project, as well as how we use them
    • For example, our Communication Plans detail that we use Breeze for specific task breakdowns and measurement, while Slack is used for questions, quick troubleshooting, weekly checkins, etc.
  • Communication related advisories, including things that help keep the project on track and things that can hinder the project

What’s the point?

While a lot of this may seem obvious (and therefore, pointless), we’ve found adding the Communication Plan is helpful on several levels.

A Communication Plan is a resource

Having all of the contact information in one place allows the client to have one easy to read, easy to access document. This means that our point of contact can get in touch with anyone on our team as needed, and feels reassured about accessing us in a variety of ways. It also provides the point of contact something to share with their higher ups. For big projects, stakeholders who are not involved in the day-to-day of the work will still want to be included, and a Communication Plan is part of what keeps them in the loop.

We know that things can get lost in translation when dealing with larger teams that have a hierarchical nature. While we still stress the importance of communicating through our point of contact, this keeps anyone who is a stakeholder but not involved in day to day oversight on the project to have access to our team and be aware of how we communicate throughout the project.

Tool preparation

We happily do a walkthrough on tools we anticipate using throughout the project with our point of contact, including (but not limited to) an informational email along with invites to the Breeze board and Slack room set up for their project. By including the types of tools we’re using (and how we use them) in the Communication Plan, we help our clients prepare to use those tools in several ways:

  1. Their awareness means they can download anything they need to download as needed.
  2. They know what to expect. For video calls, we generally use Appear.in–which means that when we have a video call, the client knows we’re consistently using the link to our room. It takes guesswork out of the equation.
  3. It helps us refine the process. Now, documentation, communication, tasks, questions, etc., all end up in the right place.
  4. If clients have any questions about tools they’re unfamiliar with, they can take a look at the list and ask in advance. This is a huge improvement over confronting them with a tool they haven’t used before at the very moment it needs to be used.

Setting expectations

It allows us to clearly outline communication expectations upfront. Communication is absolutely vital to the success of a project–this is something we all know–but knowing it and doing it right are two different things. Our Communication Plans serve as a resource, yes, but they also outline what we expect and how we deliver.

This includes reiterating the reality that delayed communication on the client’s end can mean a delayed timeline for launch. How many times have we heard the quip about clients always going, “Hurry up…and wait?”

We also use the Communication Plan as a way to make our work hours and availability clear; strong boundaries are vital, and we firmly believe in working during working hours as much as possible. This means our team is not available at three AM on a Sunday morning. While many clients are also great about prioritizing a work/life balance, we make this expectation clear so as not to disappoint (and to hopefully set a healthy example).

We also include a list of things that move forward the project, like the following:

  • Make sure to communicate all necessary information we need upfront. Any surprises that come down the line can impact scope, budget, and timeline. You know more about [CLIENT COMPANY NAME] than we do, so we’re relying on you to provide necessary information that we may not already know.
  • Save your excellent, non-urgent questions for stakeholder meetings and/or to be delivered through [POINT OF CONTACT NAME]. We want to make sure to get all of them, and it’s easier to address questions all at once, rather than piecemeal throughout the day.
  • Please let us know if any of the stakeholders will be unavailable (on holiday or otherwise out) during the project period so we can make sure to schedule accordingly. Letting us know in advance when your stakeholders will be out allows us to keep that in mind with the planning and make sure we can create accommodations as needed for scheduling.

We want to ensure the success of our projects, which we view as collaborative efforts. Our aim is always to build long-lasting relationships, and by establishing what helps us keep the project on target upfront, we empower our clients to communicate effectively (and communicate their needs and boundaries clearly as well).

While we pulled some of these from the LTT Communication Plan template, we’ve added a few that are specific to Zao, and we adjust as needed depending on what we’ve learned about each specific client. We use our potential red flags and vetting notes as a guideline for figuring out what needs to go into the Communication Plan, and adjust it accordingly.

It’s a tangible deliverable

In particular, we’ve integrated this into our discovery process. While we’ve always provided a document outlining our discovery process, including the research we’ve done, the recommendations we’re making, and the time and cost of implementing those recommendations, we’ve also added our Communication Plan and a project plan to the bundle.

We’ve talked about how, depending on the developer (or agency) you’re working with, discovery (or code audits) can sometimes yield a nebulous result. We aim to provide something specific and tangible for our clients, as we want to provide value for their investment, and set a strong foundation for working together in the future.

By creating an individualized Communication Plan for each client, we’ve leveled up our communication, made our expectations clearer, and helped create a baseline for how we work together.

Have you ever used a Communication Plan with your clients?

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Project Management, Tools & WorkFlow
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