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Why good communication is at the heart of a successful digital project

  • By Paul Spearman
Paul Spearman

We’ve all been on projects which perhaps didn’t go as smoothly as they could have done. And invariably when it comes to the project review meeting where we try and diagnose how things could have gone better, most of the problems turn out to have originated from the same thing: poor communication.

Occasional misunderstandings and strained working relationships are part and parcel of digital projects when everyone is under pressure, but are always caused by an initial failure to communicate clearly. Even missed deadlines and last-minute bugs can have their roots in poor communication.

But the good news is that there is a lot you can do to ensure that communication is clear and eliminate many of the issues that may arise. In this article I’m going to explore some of the tactics that I’ve seen work and how we try and ensure there is good communication across the projects that we deliver to our clients.

The power of strong communication

I can’t stress how important strong communication is to a successful outcome in a digital project. A project which works like clockwork and is delivered on time, meets customer expectations and ends with an outcome that everybody is happy with, will inevitably be based on clear communication.

Sometimes in looking at a successful project we overlook the importance that good communication plays – it just tends to happen and can even be something we take for granted. But every great piece of coding relies on a clear and well-communicated set of requirements and related acceptance criteria. Every project delivered on time and budget is often dependent on the regular communication of a good project manager. And every happy customer is also dependent on them having clear expectations about what will be delivered and when, and an agency having that shared understanding. Good communication is essential.

When communication goes wrong

When communication goes wrong on a digital project it is either down to miscommunication or more likely a lack of communication and it tends to happen across four key areas:

    • Across the core project team
    • Between a digital agency and a customer
    • Between IT developers and non-IT folk
    • Between two digital agencies.

I find considering kind of communication that occurs across a project and the potential areas where miscommunication can occur, helps us to consider the approaches that ensure clarity. c. Let’s look at each area in turn.

Across the core project team

Strong communication across the core project team is a given and this has its roots in strong project management. A great PM sets out the way the team are going to communicate and makes sure everyone is happy with it at the start, mitigates for when there might be misunderstandings, and makes sure everyone knows what is happening. Clarity is king.

As well as the PM role, the underlying project methodology is also important, as it embeds clear communication in the meetings, processes and systems that are in use. At 3Chillies we follow Agile methodologies and have invested in a proper DevOps model with the right touchpoints and tools. Yes, I know every digital agency says that, but we follow through with it using robust systems and the commitment to a DevOps culture to make it all work. When there is a set process and system to record what has been done so everyone – agency and client side – can review it, and there are the right meeting formats from the daily standup to the sprint review and beyond, then strong communication is embedded in the way everyone works.

Between a digital agency and a customer

Of course, there can be misunderstandings between an agency team and a customer. I like to think that our level of communication is strong, but we’re also not perfect and occasionally there are times with hindsight we could have communicated elements on a project better. Poor communication between an agency and client is often down to miscommunication around expectations, either through output, timings, level of cost or the service delivered. When there’s a disconnect between what the client thinks is going to happen and what the agency thinks its delivering, then you’re in trouble.

That’s why it is essential to make sure that a customer is always kept informed about upcoming issues, that there is total transparency around costs accrued, and there is clarity around what is being delivered. In a project, some of the granular detail becomes important such as a client and a developer going through the minutiae of acceptance criteria to make sure both agree it and understand the detail behind it. Other details such as sharing when the lead backend developer is going to be on holiday also makes a difference and helps to shape expectations.

For hosting, maintenance and support there needs to be a clear Service Level Agreements and agreed ways to communicate so a client knows if they should be sending an email or can pick up the phone.

Good agency-client communication outside the project also relies on good relationship management. We have dedicated account managers for all of our clients, but also Bryan (my co-founder at 3Chillies) and I are also very hands-on and we are all involved in building close relationships with our clients. We meet with them from time to time and they know if that things do go wrong they can always get in touch with us directly.

IT developers vs non-IT professionals

Unsurprisingly, a major area where there can be misunderstanding is between IT professionals and non-IT professionals on a project. Inevitably this happens most commonly between an agency’s development team and a client’s digital marketing function, but it also can occur between a client’s own IT function and a marketing team. It can also happen vice-versa with IT professionals not understanding advanced marketing concepts and terms.

Specific vocabulary can lead to issues. When a developer talks about files, documents and pages in relation to a CMS it can mean different things to when a non-IT person talks about files, documents and pages. Nobody is wrong, but it can lead to different interpretations of the scope of a features, how an issue is being described, or what acceptance criteria mean.

The remedy for this is to get developers and marketing teams together and go through exactly what they mean, perhaps through a shared screen. Even if everything seems obvious, there can be no assumptions. Sometimes marketers can feel like they should know what a technical term means so

they don’t speak up, and it works exactly the other way round too with developers. Generally, developers and marketers who end up asking lots of questions of each other – even if they might seem obvious or even silly – are the ones that are going to communicate with clarity.

Another flashpoint is a misunderstanding of the effort required and time taken to develop a feature or sort out an issue. Something which seems minor and relatively straightforward to a non-developer might actually take much longer, because it involves deeper changes, or have a dependency on other coding being carried out. The failure to communicate the effort can lead to issues. Where we can, we always try to be transparent about effort and explain the “why” in layperson’s terms; not every non-IT person wants that detail, but we will try to offer one.

Finally, sometimes developers might not understand the relative importance of what might seem like a minor feature to them, but actually is important to the way the client works. Again, this is something that should be captured in the requirements, but it can get lost in translation and needs to be reiterated. A coder needs to know why they are developing a feature, how it is going to be used, and its relative importance.

Between two digital agencies

Sometimes communication is not always as smooth as it could be between two digital agencies. It helps when agencies are used to working together, but again it’s a key responsibility of every agency involved on a project to make sure the relative PMs and roles are working on the same page, primarily through the same Agile and DevOps approach. There needs to be clarity over who is responsible for each activity.

Fostering a culture of communication and transparency

Perhaps the most important factor in all this is having a culture of good communication and transparency. In the cut and thrust of a busy and pressurised project, miscommunication and misunderstandings can happen, but if everyone is committed to being open, then actually the impact is minimal; then everyone develops the great working relationships that are at the centre of successful projects, enjoyable projects and clear communication.

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