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Chapter 2: A twist on how we Communicate

Updated: Oct 4, 2022

Anna was an experienced project manager that was meticulous in setting up her project management plan. She would share it with her team and manager. This was what she called the bible for the project. Within the plan was her stakeholder analysis. Because she was sharing it openly with her team, the tool was used with a positive spin. Whenever a stakeholder was identified as a detractor on the project, she would highlight the positive qualities of the stakeholder and use it with her team to come up with a strategy to get them to become a promoter. Needless to say, Anna was a “cup half full” person.

Along with the stakeholder analysis, Anna had her Communication Plan. She held meetings weekly with her team, her suppliers, and her customers. To share updates on project status she had a bi-weekly meeting with her manager. To make sure that all successes were shared, she would send out a monthly bulletin email giving a project update, any important milestones completed, and personal “thank you” notes recognizing the good work people did on the project.

A couple of months into her project execution phase, the main supplier was no longer showing up to the weekly meetings. It was the third mistake. Anna sent an email trying to understand what was happening. There was no response to the email.

“Why are they not responding?” Anna sighed. Dude looked at her dumbfounded and said “you sent them an email. How personal of an outreach do you think it is?”

“I need to have it documented for my project.” Anna replied.

Dude kept his cool and answered, “So, you are saying that documenting the fact they aren’t showing up is more important than actually finding out why they aren’t showing up?”

“Well, no that’s not what I’m saying! I’m saying that it’s important to have communications recorded.”

Dude smiled and said, “you may want to repeat what you just said and listen to yourself this time.”

Anna looked at him puzzled and then thought of her prioritization. She was being rigid on her project plan, and she totally forgot to think of the supplier as a person. She picked up the phone to call and got a new person answering the call.

“Hi, this is Anna from AZC, I’m looking for John.”

“John doesn’t work here any longer. I’m Matt, how can I help?”

Dude overheard the correspondence and started laughing at the absurdity. Matt continued talking

“John left the company a couple of weeks ago. I just got his accounts and I’m going through his workload.”

Anna was flabbergasted, how could this happen under her watch and not even know it!!!

“Well Matt, John is part of my project, and we have weekly meetings to review the progress. I sent him an email when he did not show up to the last couple of meetings but got no response. We need the delivery this Friday and I don’t know its status at your site.”

“Oh, I can help, let me have a look in our system. Do you have the order number?”

Anna gave Matt the information and soon she felt more at ease with the situation. As soon as she hung up, she told Dude, “You were right. I was a fool communicating with an email and thinking I did my job. If I had not called, I may not have gotten the information I needed to tell the customer about the shipment. In the future, I’m going to send a note right away and follow up with a call.”

Dude chimed in, “Or you could call first, get informed and then write the email which includes the minutes of your conversation.”

“So true!” Anna went to her outlook to find Matt’s email and saw an email from the customer. Their meeting was in two days, and the customer wanted to change the agenda to include the poor installation practices. Totally taken aback, Anna called her service rep.

“Hey Mark, what’s going on out there? Mr. Soo just called and complained about our install of the unit, he wants to add it to the agenda so we can discuss it.”

Mark sighed, “yeah, he surprised us on Monday, came here wanting to see the progress. We were showing him how we plan to install his unit and he was not happy with the position because it obstructed the view.”

The view, Anna thought. The only time you go to the unit is for servicing. What does the view have to do with anything? The service person also told her that it was possible to move the unit, but the customer’s drawings had dictated the position, so they would have to communicate this request on a change order.

Mark continued, “He was not happy when I told him it was his engineering group who made the decision where to place it. He kept telling me I was the expert and should know better. But honestly, I really do not think anyone wants to be here with a beer watching the sunset. When the unit is functioning, it makes a loud noise.”

“Well, he is supposed to talk to me and not to you,” Anna stated. She knew that the communication plan clearly stated all customer communications to be directed to her. She continued, “Regardless, I have all the documentation so I’m ready to talk to him in two days.”

“You want to wait two days for this issue?” Dude chimed in. “Did you not just learn your lesson with the John issue?”

Anna knew Dude was right and calling the customer was the right thing to do. But she was not looking forward to the conversation. Let me call him later today.

By the next morning, Anna had still not called the customer. She received a message on her answering machine as well as another email from the customer who was now feeling ignored. She decided not to call but to respond by email telling he she wanted to discuss the issue tomorrow during their meeting. This will give Mr. Soo some time to cool off, so she thought.

Unfortunately, the customer was not happy and did not participate in the meeting. Now Anna was concerned she was destroying her already fragile relationship with her customer.

Anna called the customer. “Hi Mr. Soo, I guess something came up and you were unable to make our meeting. I’m hoping you have some time to discuss the outstanding points, such as the unit’s positioning.”

The customer screamed on the line, “Finally I get a call from you. I have been waiting days for this. You should have called me as soon as I sent you the first note. Actually, if you are a good project manager, you should have known of this before I even sent you the note. Didn’t your service rep tell you?”

Anna cringed. She wanted to tell him that it was he who asked for it to be discussed during the meeting in his email. Also, the communication plan they both had decided on had him speaking to her and not the service representations on the site. But she took a deep breath. In fact, what she really wanted to tell him was that his people are the idiots here, designing the unit where it was situated.

“Breathe, Anna and just apologize. You don’t want to burn bridges.” Dude said.

“Well, are you still there?” the customer asked.

“Yes, Mr. Soo, I apologize for not reading your email correctly. I was under the impression you wanted to discuss it during the meeting and not earlier. Do you have the time now to talk about it?”

“Yes. That unit is obstructing the view. If my guy needs to service it, he is not able to see his counterpart in the control room and communicate.”

Oh, Anna thought. The view was not a frivolous request at all. “Oh, I see what you are saying.

Mark did tell me about obstructing the view, but he was unclear what view it was obstructing. It seems the general arrangement drawing your team gave us did not specify that request. And once we detailed out the design, we got their approval with no mention of this. It looks like it was an oversight from both sides.”

The customer sighed “yes, you are right with it being an oversight. I went straight to my engineer and told him about the mess up. He was unaware of it. It was something that is better seen in person than on a drawing. He just doesn’t know how we can modify it, which is why you did not get a change request from me.”

Dude whispered in Anna’s ear, “Alright Anna, you have him communicating again instead of screaming. Do not mess this up. Think through your answer.”

Anna thought a moment and then answered, “I’m not sure how to fix this either but what we can do is get your engineers with mine, include Mark since he’s on site and we can brainstorm a possible solution.”

“That is a great idea!” Mr. Soo said. “I have my meeting with the engineering group on this project tomorrow morning at 9 AM. Can you guys make it?”

“I will need to check”, Anna answered. “Let me chat on WebEx with them now while you are on the phone with me so I can give you an answer. I know Mark can make it because I usually call him around 9 in the morning to see what they plan to do for the day.”

Anna sent out the SOS to her chief engineer to see if he could make the last-minute meeting, but she got a maybe out of him. She sent the same message to Mary, the engineer on the project. She was available but had to ask her manager. Anna told her to wait and told the customer “It seems the engineer who worked on the details is available. I will also move my meeting so I can help by facilitating the brainstorming session. Do you want me to send out the meeting invite, Mr. Soo?”

“That would be great, Anna, and I am sorry for my rudeness. I am just not happy with this mess. I started as a maintenance guy and so I see some things that others don’t see. Let us put our heads together and come up with something which is not going to cost me a fortune. Talk to you in the morning.” Mr. Soo said and hung up.

“I can’t believe how the conversation turned.” Anna said to Dude. “Everything sounded like he wanted us to pay for it. At least that is what I read into his notes and voice mail.”

“No one wants to tell you they screwed up. It was smart of you not to blame him but put the blame on everyone. That is what calmed him down. He knows you know but that does not mean he wants you to voice it out. Good job on using your communication skills to defuse the situation. Of course, it would have been ideal for you to call him right after the first email.”

“Yeah, you’re right. I find I hide behind the computer and communicate by emails because it is feels safer. What I am finding out in these last few days is that all I am doing is avoiding the situation instead of approaching it. These issues were not going away even if I wished they would. I just wasted time procrastinating. I need to be more pro-active in my communications starting now.”

Anna walked to Mary’s office. She saw her manager was with her and looking grim. She spoke to them both, “hi guys, so sorry for the craziness but the customer is fuming about the positioning of the unit and does know it’s going to be on his dime. He just wants help figuring out a solution which is cost-effective. This is why I sent you both the requests for tomorrow morning’s call. Can you both make it?”

Mary looked at her manager and he said, “So they know it’s not our fault. It was not clear in your text, so we thought we were walking into a firing squad.”

“No, he is aware of their error so we shouldn’t really bring it up tomorrow. We are to brainstorm potential options and have them decide.”

“In that case, both Mary and I will be on the call. Just send over the invite.”

“Great, thanks so much!”

Moral of the Story

The best way to communicate is to talk to the person. Technology has given us emails, texts, and voice messaging making us less inclusive. We use them as a crutch and do not even realize it. The best way to communicate is still by talking either in person, facetime or on the phone.

Here is the twist…. Communication Plan templates are resources to help you lay out the communications for a project. They are not there to hinder your communications or hide behind them. Many plans include meetings but do not include the daily conversations or how to handle an issue because we think of them as informal conversations. This may work, but as you saw in the story it did not. So, if you missed any form of communication on your project and want to have it reflected in your plan, make it flexible. The Communication plan can be updated during a project to include anything that was missing at its conception.

Lessons Learned on Communication:

1. If communications stop, do not wait until they continue to be non-responsive for a while before you react. Be pro-active, get on the phone to see what is happening.

2. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate on your project! Setting up a Communication Plan does not mean you do not talk outside those predetermined times. Flexibility is key for communication. The plan can be a structured way of ensuring conversations take place, but this should not be a deterrent to tackling issues as they arise.

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