The elevator pitch equivalent of project communication

What does the executive need to know about your project

Imagine this scenario: You are managing a multimillion dollar project for your unit which has just run into a minor crisis. You do not yet know what the impact of the crisis is. You walk into the restroom and you come face-to-face with your unit’s senior-most executive. He nods at you and asks you how your project is doing. What do you tell him: do you tell him every detail about the latest crisis or do you just tell him you are doing fine ?

What if you start telling him about the latest crisis: does he start to get panicky ? Is there a possibility that he will over-react ?

What if you tell him you are doing just fine and then he walks back to his desk only to see a detailed email from your project sponsor with concerns about the latest crisis ? How does that make you look in front of your executive ? Does he start worrying that you are out of touch with your own project ? Worse, does he think you are hiding something from him ?

Communication is as much about the receiver as about the information itself

People tend to think that status reporting on a project means just stating facts on a word document. If that was the case, the whole knowledge area of project communication management would boil down to a status report template and that would be it.

One size does not fit all..

Who your audience is defines how and what you communicate. This is common knowledge. That does not necessarily mean everyone pays heed to it. Most project managers have one status report for all occasions and for all stakeholders. I have even known project managers justify this by calling it the “single source of truth for the project”…whatever that means.

Even for different layers of management, what you communicate depends on what the person is actually looking for. Just because you are reporting status to a senior executive does not always mean that you only give them a 30,000 feet perspective of the project at all times. I have known senior executives who like to understand the technical details of every project in their division…it gives them a sense of being on top of things (or maybe they don’t trust their PMs enough).

So, what does your executive need to know

Back to the original question: what do you tell your executive in the above example ?

As a PM, you need to take the following steps every time there is a significant event in your project:

  1. Make sure you understand every detail about the event: how will this impact the schedule, cost, scope ? What more do you need to know about this event so you can better evaluate its impact ? What are the next steps ? Who owns the next steps ? Who needs to give you more information about the event ?
  2. Once you understand the details around the event, make sure you have a detailed plan for what needs to happen next. If you do not have enough information right away to decide the impact of the event on the project, at least make sure you know how to get to a point where you can evaluate the impact.
  3. Once you understand the next steps, evaluate what support you would need from your boss (or his boss) to minimize the impact ? If you feel the event is going to significantly impact the project, make sure you know some ball-park figures (e.g how much delay, how much more money etc)
  4. Next, make sure you are able to write down on a piece of paper exactly what you need from each of your stakeholders. This should include anything you might need your aforementioned executive to help you with.
  5. Finally, it is important for you to anticipate what questions might come up. Who does your executive communicate with and what are they likely to ask him about your project ? What meetings does he go to ? What is your executive likely to ask your boss about the project ? What meetings does your boss go to and what does he get asked in those meetings ? Once you know the above, make sure you view every event with that lens.

Remember, updating people about the status of your project is more than just telling them where you are … it is all about giving them enough information for them to be able to answer questions and/or take necessary action (preventive/corrective). If you are not giving them that information, all the status reports in the world won’t mean a thing.


Re-visiting the scenario at the top of this post: what you tell your executive is: “We are on schedule so far. However, something did come up in the last 30 minutes and we are evaluating the impact. I will send you a detailed update shortly”. Tell him in two lines what help you might need from him and wait for questions.

Reference: Please read this piece for more on communicating with your stakeholders….

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