The Project Manager’s Guide to Communicating Upwards

Insights | 10 August 2016

Imagine all the hard work that goes into a project before a single status update is shared with top executives.

The project plan itself equates to many hours logged. Aligning sponsors and executives with overall strategy – you’ve ticked that box. Now you are gaining momentum and influence for your project and key decisions are ready to be pushed through.

Sounds like a fantastic position to be in. But this stage of a project also means deciding exactly what, and how, to start communicating upwards to senior management. It’s a prospect that can make even the most seasoned PMOs or project/programme managers lose sight of their strengths.

Perhaps it’s because everyone knows exactly how high the stakes are.

Our recent PMO Executive Survey revealed that a large number of PMOs are either still in the process of establishing respect, or people within their organisations are actually unaware of the services the PMO provides. A 2015 Power of Effective IT Communication Survey[1] conducted found the state of communication between IT and non-IT professionals is one of crisis, inferring “only four out of one hundred [their emphasis] believe that they are highly effective in communicating with their non-IT colleagues”. Imagine: 96 out of 100 people going into formal presentations already believing their message won’t connect with their audience.

So how can project managers improve their ability to relay an effective message to a non-IT audience? We leveraged the latest research and expert insights to find out. Here are five essential tips that will help anyone master the art of reporting ‘up’:

1. Lay the Groundwork

A truly successful project update begins long before an executive audience is around to hear it. This table-setting should come in the form of a formal communications plan within the overarching project strategy that factors the communication needs of every stakeholder. Detail and stipulate early on how all communication will be executed, whether as project status reports, regular meetings, or informal emails – you’ll be in good company if you do. The Project Management Institute[2] found that high-performing organisations, defined as those averaging “80 percent of projects on time, on budget and in line with goals”, are “nearly twice as likely to use formal project communication plans compared to low performers.” Convinced? Good. Start your project plan with a defined communication cadence baked in.

2. Know Your Audience

In an article for the Harvard Business Review, How to Present to Senior Executives,[3] communications expert Nancy Duarte suggests you assume everyone in the audience is time-crunched and thoroughly impatient. And it’s not because they don’t want to hear your update, but because “their schedules are jam-packed — and they have to make lots of high-stake decisions, often with little time to weigh options,” Duarte wrote, adding “if your spiel is short and insightful, you’ll get their ear again.” If you are unsure of the format your executives and c-suite prefer, find that out in advance – it can take a lot of pressure off. If they love bullets, bullets they should get.

3. Take the Opportunity to Reinforce Roles

Despite the pressures at hand, don’t forget any time in front of executives and influencers is prime ‘attention’ real estate. Consider using your updates as an opportunity to reinforce roles. A key relationship to focus on here is that of your executive sponsor. Research from the Project Management Institute and the Boston Consulting Group[4] shows communication problems exist even with executive sponsors, who arguably should have more of a pulse on the project than a less-connected member of the C-suite. Their research shows that one of three primary factors limiting the ability of an executive sponsor to be effective is “inefficient communication” with project leaders. Be 100% sure your greatest advocate in the room is your executive sponsor, or risk confusion. Use their time wisely throughout the life of your project to reinforce how important they are to its overall success. The PMI/BCG report also says sponsors typically work on three projects at a time – over and above their regular jobs – “spending an average of 13 hours per week on each project they sponsor.” That’s a commitment worth nurturing.

4. Keep a Solution-First Focus

No one wants to communicate project setbacks in front of an executive audience, but sometimes there is no avoiding it. So what if instead of dreading being the bearer of bad news, you viewed it as an opportunity to build trust and credibility? After all, the CIO Executive Council survey also found that 4 out of 5 (80 percent) of IT leaders believe trust and credibility are of the highest possible importance. Be honest about the issues but come prepared with some idea about how you will resolve the issue and come ready to present some thoughtful contingency solutions. The most effective updates absolutely do acknowledge risk and operational impact, something echoed by the PMI/BCG report. They describe optimal updates as:

  • Regular vs. ad-hoc
  • Calibrated to the appropriate level of detail for the sponsor
  • Placed against forward-looking milestones. Milestones should then be tied to key performance indicators (KPIs) “describing lead indicators of known risks” or to operational or economic impacts.

These are the type of “genuine, useful insights that help executive sponsors stay actively engaged,” the report says.

5. Tell a Story

If so many IT managers and project leads believe they are ineffective at communicating with non-IT professionals, then it’s hardly surprising if dread follows most invitations to speak to higher-ups. Harnessing the universal appeal of narrative storytelling can help bridge this gap. “People are not inspired to act by reason alone,” writes Professor Stephen Carver in a widely shared presentation[5] on how project managers can use the art of storytelling. Carver, a senior lecturer in Project & Programme Management Innovation and Process Management at Cranfield University School of Management, UK, writes that a great story doesn’t shy away from emotion or complexity. Communicating the struggles your people and project planning has overcome can do more to communicate your team’s abilities than a thousand detailed documents. Duarte, the presentation expert, echoes this idea. She suggests following Aristotle’s three-part story structure, which has a defined beginning, middle and end to “create a message that’s easy to digest, remember, and retell.” And remember, effective stories are not about length, but impact.

In all, whether leveraging the power of narrative storytelling or simply knowing your audience, communicating upwards is essential to capturing and keeping project support. It’s also a useful skill, so embrace the opportunity. You’ve earned it.




[4] Project Management Institute/Boston Consulting Group study


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