Whether you are managing one large project or many small projects, effective communication skills can help reduce your stress and give your project(s) a higher probability of success. New learning and development professionals typically learn project communication skills on the job, often through trial and error. Five experts shared their tips so you can learn from their experience.
- What communications should a new L&D professional be having about the overall business goals/desired outcomes for the project?
Corporate Training Manager | Patterson Companies
Whether we are internal or external L&D professionals, it’s becoming more imperative and expected that we position ourselves as strategic business partners to the organizations we support. Training, learning, and/or performance solutions not only need to be aligned to the mission of the business, but they also need to directly enable key organizational objectives.
Meaningful conversations with project stakeholders need to incorporate important considerations:
- What are the main priorities for the business unit/function/team (at the moment, quarterly, annually)?
- What are some of the biggest challenges the business unit/function/team faces?
- How does the business unit/function/team acquire new knowledge, skills, and experiences currently?
- What metrics/KPIs (Key Performance Indicator) or other measurements are used by the business unit/function/team as indicators of success?
Using the feedback gathered, along with your functional knowledge of the business, you can start to lay the foundation for your L&D strategy. From there, consider how the training/learning services provided by your team help that particular business unit reach success. Sharing that vision throughout the project also contributes to stakeholder buy-in and ultimately to project success.
- Do you have suggestions for how L&D professionals should set up expectations for team communications?
Learning & Development Specialist | Thrivent Financial
I try to set expectations by demonstrating the types of communication I expect from the rest of my team and the cadence at which I expect it. This is a more informal approach that boosts collaboration. We also have formal conversations at project initiation that reinforces these expectations. I try to be as predictable as possible about when and how I communicate internally so my team begins to anticipate and plan for where the project will take us. I never want the designers to feel caught off guard.
As the project manager, I’ll typically be the one who business partners seek out and expect communications from, and I habitually bring the designer in when I’m drafting my regular business partner status updates so they have a voice in these updates. By doing this I also get their buy-in on the deliverables I’m putting forth because it gives me an opportunity to ask if our milestones are realistic for them.
- How would you suggest that an L&D professional plan for and communicates about getting input, review, and approval from the subject matter expert(s) in a timely fashion?
Commercial Education Manager | The Toro Company
As subject matter experts (SMEs) are critical to the success of nearly every L&D project, it is equally critical that we understand and engage them in the proper way. Although some SMEs may be more than happy to give their time and talents—anxious, in fact, to share their expertise—others may not be so enthusiastic. Also, throughout the course of a project, you may find the energy of early adopters either fades or becomes refocused elsewhere. So what is one to do with the shifting priorities and personalities of our very necessary SMEs?
I’m afraid there is no “one size fits all” solution to this dilemma. We mustn’t forget that SMEs are people too, subject to the same quirks and peculiarities as you and I are. What works for one may not work for the other. As with any good effort though, clear communication, well-stated expectations, and follow-through are vital. Beyond sound project management, however, the answer becomes much less clear. My best advice, having worked with just about every type of SME imaginable, is to remain flexible.
Get to know your SMEs as early as possible in any project. The more you know about their habits, work routines, and potential distractions, the better off you’ll be. Adjust your approach and avoid surprises. This may seem daunting and overly burdensome, but it’s absolutely necessary. People are creatures of habit and they’re not likely to change those habits for the sake of your project. Rather than fight human nature, my suggestion is to control what you can and adapt where you must.
- How does an L&D professional go about setting up a workable timeline, how often should that timeline be revisited, and who should they be communicating with about that timeline?
Project Manager | Fredrickson Learning
First, break down your project into large chunks of work. If you follow ADDIE, your large chunks could be Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate. For each chunk list out sub-tasks. Within the “Develop” chunk I might list out the following:
- Initial course development
- Stakeholder review
- Stakeholder feedback integration
- Final course review
- Course testing and publishing
Think about who this schedule is for. You may create more than one version; a developer may appreciate a detailed schedule, while a stakeholder may only need a high-level view. Next, you’ll need time and duration for each task (# of hours over # of days). For the above example, I may make some notes like this:
- Initial course development: 40 hours over 2 weeks
- Stakeholder review: 3 hour meeting, can’t happen on Thursdays or Fridays
- Stakeholder feedback integration: 8 hours over 3 days
- Final course review: handle by email, give team 1 week
- Course testing and publishing: 2 days for our team, then the LMS team needs 2 days turnaround
Now, you can use project management software to lay out your schedule, or you can take the list with your time estimates and a calendar and create the schedule manually. I just refer to a calendar and work backwards from the target end date. Build in some slush time, especially if you’re not sure about your time estimates. Be sure to consider dependencies of tasks on other tasks, availability of your resources, and holidays and PTO. If your end date is not firm, it may be best to only schedule out one phase at a time.
Finally, run the schedule by your team and stakeholders and incorporate their feedback. Everyone affected by the schedule should have input.
While executing your schedule, check your progress against the schedule at least weekly. Document the reasons for variation between planned and actual progress. It’s good practice to document the decisions made at key approval points and to track open issues that are impeding progress. Adjust the schedule as needed along the way. Your job is to mitigate the risks that you can and communicate clearly each step of the way.
How often you communicate about progress with stakeholders depends on the project and the company culture. You may want to schedule a weekly check-in. Discuss and document the reasons for schedule changes, decisions made, and impacts to the project.
Finally, after each project, document all your lessons learned and use these to make your project schedules and plans more accurate for each subsequent project.
- Do you have suggestions for how L&D professionals should set up expectations for stakeholder communications?
Instructional Designer | Polaris
Stakeholder communication can be a project maker or breaker. Has your project sponsor ever been surprised because they don’t read emails? Maybe the LMS administrator took PTO on launch day because they didn’t know it was launch day. Or even worse: maybe your audience didn’t know training requirements were changed until the training was due. Yeesh.
Everyone who’s affected by your project is a stakeholder, and they need to know how they interface with the work. Setting expectations from the beginning can save your projects from challenges that cost time, money, and quality. Here are five guiding questions I use to keep my stakeholder communication game on point:
- Who are your stakeholders and how do they touch the project? Who is affected by the project? Do they get to provide feedback or are they just in the loop? I use a RACI matrix to set this expectation—it’s a classic and it won’t let you down. You should create this and share it with all stakeholders from the beginning of the project and maintain it as the project evolves.
- What’s the most effective method of communicating with your stakeholders? Are your stakeholders most responsive to face-to-face meetings? Do you need an approach that works across time zones? Does your organization use a tool like Basecamp that generates communication for you? Get to know the needs and preferences of the stakeholders, as well as the tools available. Identify what works for the group and set expectations by letting them know how they will receive communication, especially follow-ups—and there will be follow-ups.
- How do my stakeholders communicate with you? Have your phone on silent? Are all your notifications turned off? Your stakeholder should know the best way to inform you of tasks completed or project risks.
- How often should you communicate with your stakeholders? Stakeholders should know when the project will affect them, when it is affecting them, and when it is done affecting them. Map out your plan, then time your communication around that. Depending on their project role and responsibilities, they could receive communication daily or just a handful of times. Regardless, they should know what to expect up front.
- What should you communicate? Set the expectation that stakeholders will know the project status, formal approval points, their action items (if they are a contributor), turnaround time, and what needs to be celebrated.
After you have answers to these questions, you will be on your way to developing a thoughtful, clear communication plan. As you take on more projects, keep track of lessons learned. They will be your best teacher.
Consider using these ideas and best practices as you engage in your learning and development projects. Watch how your SMEs, stakeholders, and project team respond as you engage in more intentional communication.