5 project miscommunication scenarios (and how to avoid them)

Keep and eye out for these scenarios and minimize the potential for a miscommunication.

If you’re part of a creative team that’s been hired by a company to do some work it’s likely because you have some expertise that they don’t. You’ll have to work fairly closely with your client to understand their business, perhaps as well as or even better than they do. But developing that friendly, open and mutually forthcoming relationship is not so easy, especially when the stakes are high.

In the beginning it sort of feels like a party. Everyone is super excited to be there and goals are like, something you can worry about later. Illustration credit: @PabloStanley at https://thedesignteam.io/

What can you do to make sure that you’re doing everything possible to effectively collaborate with a new client? Laying out a framework for communication is always a good start – that is, having a guideline about how you plan to communicate, or what I like to call a ‘working process’. Don’t get me wrong, it’s impossible to put the creative process in a box and this is exactly not that. A working process is just a guideline that outlines key aspects of the project. This could include things who the main stakeholders and stakeholder groups are,  project phases, key activities, documents used etc. It also includes key milestone dates as well as main communication contact points so your client can get a holistic perspective on how you’ll work be working together and what the general timeline looks like. And most importantly, it must include the information about how you plan to manage change on the project.

Aside from introducing your working process and communicating it on an ongoing basis, the  other thing you can do as PM is to look for signals that may point to potential communication challenges. These signals may be obvious or may require you to read between the lines a bit.  The better you’re able to identify them early  on, the better chance you’ll have of addressing them before they become a problem.

What do I mean by ‘miscommunication’?

‘Miscommunication’ is anything that results in a wrench being thrown into your ability to do the best work possible.  This could include anything that results in a wires crossed situation that might first identify itself by the confusion and then likely some rework due to the confusion. Miscommunication might sound like any of these examples:

“Oh I wasn’t sure what you meant by needing access to our analytics, I thought you just wanted sales reports.”

“I didn’t think we were giving you our final approval on this design, just general approval so we can see more versions.”

“Oh I think we need IT’s input on any of this. Can someone go talk to them?”

“So when you said today you actually meant today.”

Assuming that a big part of your job as PM is to keep the project moving forward, any of these miscommunication examples has the potential top stop or slow down the forward momentum.

Miscommunication scenarios (aka ‘orange flags’)

Creative projects can be challenging for a couple of main reasons,

  1. You’re creating something new and probably out of nothing
  2. People (sigh)

The good news is that there are some telltale signs that a miscommunication may be on the horizon. Keeping an eye out for these signs will let you know when you need to change up your communication strategy so that you can avoid a miscommunication situation before it happens. I think red flags are way to serious so I’ll call these ‘orange flag’ scenarios.

Orange Flag Scenario 1: Your client has no idea what you do

Well they kind of do or else they wouldn’t have hired you right? But look, the point here is that it’s your job to help them understand what your process is so that they can do everything possible to make sure the project is successful. Your clients may be in a 100% online business or maybe they’re a more traditional outfit. Regardless, if your job as the PM to do your best to help them feel involved, actually be involved as well as engaged throughout the entire process.

Specific examples where you’ll want to pay special attention to your communication is you’re planning to present something like sketches, some wireframes or maybe a rough prototype. All of these examples we could consider ‘lo-fidelity’, certainly nothing final.  But if you’re the client and you’ve never seen anything like this before, their immediate reaction may not be the one you’d hoped for.

One time following our first wireframe review with a client, the Advertising Manager commented, “so…is it going to be black and white like this because I don’t think our customers will really like this minimal approach.” As the rest of the room nodded in agreement we knew that we’d failed and that no one had really heard anything we said that whole meeting because they were too fixated on the lack of design.

But comment told us exactly what we needed to do. We needed to explain what a wireframe, how to think about and review wireframes and  most importantly, the purpose the wireframing exercise within the context of the project.  In essence, if we had just said that a wireframe is similar to an architect’s ‘blueprint’, a structural outline of what the site could look like, we would have avoided such a situation.

Sometimes an explanation of what exactly you’re presenting before its actually presented will go a long way towards mitigating a misunderstanding. Even if you explain it after the fact, it’s still added stress that can be avoided with a little up-front communication planning. Illustration credit: @PabloStanley at https://thedesignteam.io/

What can you do?

  • Don’t assume anything –  Never assume that your client knows anything about what you do. Always Err on the side over-communicating what you’re doing, where you are in the process and of course, what you need from them.
  • Don’t assume people will remember – Never assume that people are going to remember what you said, 3 weeks ago or even 3 hours ago.
  • Look for a sign of acknowledgement – look for signs that your client is listening. A good way to check is to ask them if they have questions. If they do that’s a good thing, questions usually mean someone’s paying attention. It’ll also help identify areas that are important to your client that you might not have addressed or thought about before.

Orange Flag Scenario 2: Your Client doesn’t know everything about their business

This is not intended to be a jab in any way. Any client that hires you is super smart. In many cases the client who hires you is part of a bigger company. The bigger the company, the more specific each person’s role tends to become and you don’t need to worry so much about what everyone else is doing.

In addition to having roles that are very specific and not having a great deal of overlap is the fact that you’re likely asking questions that have never been asked before. And of course, this is why you were hired, to them get to the bottom of a problem and help come up with a solution. One client couldn’t understand why they weren’t getting any traffic to specific content pages. The content had proven to be relevant, well written and timely but for some reason, no traffic. The editorial team couldn’t figure it out. After some detective work and finding the CMS manager hiding in the depths of the IT department, he was able to quickly tell us that the content hadn’t actually been optimized for SEO because the fields in the CMS the edit team were using CMS fields that were no longer active. So sometimes the answer is there, you just have to help find it.

Don’t expect your clients to know everything, or where everything is for that matter. You’ll likely need to work together with your client to figure out what info you can get, from who and by when. Don’t be discouraged, it’s just part of the process! Illustration credit: @PabloStanley at https://thedesignteam.io/

What can you do?

  • Open an open questions log – one of the best things you can do is write down all the questions that you have  and review them with whoever has been assigned on the client side to be your main contact. Don’t just send them in email, put them somewhere where you can share and update them in real time.
  • Prioritize – Just because you ask for something doesn’t mean you’ll get it. Prioritize what’s most important so that whoever is being tasked to help you can focus on what you need the most. Communicating priorities will also help your contact get the information for you by giving them the context for your ask.
  • Create a more personal relationship – Again going back to the importance of the ‘personal touch’, make sure your contact knows that you’re grateful for their help and that you understand that their job is not easy. You’ll get a lot more by making them feel like a part of the team than through making demands.

Orange Flag Scenarios 3: You’re supposed to shock, they’re supposed to awe

It you hire someone to do a job is makes sense that you can now sit back, relax and just watch the work get done. This is kind of how new clients think as well. They show up to meetings, you present them with some magic. To an extent this might be true, they did hire you to do something they cannot. To be honest, a client that’s never been through the creative process with an outside team has no idea how to act no matter how much you explain it to them. This said, it’s hard to really get their focus. The real test where you’ll understand how happy they really are with the work you’re doing usually comes at the first meeting when they see some actual work.

Communicating your working process to a new client is really important. Just remember though that while you’ve probably explained it a million times, it’s the first time they’ve heard it so they’ll likely be super excited and forget everything you said. Don’t hesitate to say it again, and again. Illustration credit: @PabloStanley at https://thedesignteam.io/

It might be some visual design concepts, sketches, some wireframes or maybe even a lo-fi prototype, but definitely something visual. If the client has been actively engaged with you up until that meeting, responding to requests for information, feedback etc. it’s likely that what you show them will jive with the feelings to date. But if their reaction is than enthusiastic it means that communication needs to get a bit more intense and this is something you’ll have to really work on with them.

What can you do?

  • Review your working process – Go over your working process with your client during the kick-off meeting or sometime very early-on in the process. This will help your client understand how the process and most importantly, know what to expect.
  • Go over it again – Remind them of the working process as often as possible. It’s a good idea mention at the beginning of each meeting what the agenda is and the goals out of the meeting. It may be that you just want them to think about what you said or perhaps you need written feedback returned to you within 48 house.
  • Repeating yourself is ok – Remember that you might have explained it a million times but it’s the first time for your client so don’t feel like you’re patronizing them, they’ll thank you for it later.
  • Use questions to engage  – If it doesn’t seem like your client is quite engaged, use questions to try help spark conversation or discussion. It’s very possible that they don’t know what types of questions to ask or what type of feedback to give you so try to help guide the conversation at the start to get things going.

Orange Flag Scenario 4: Not everyone is excited to see you

I’ll tell you know that IT departments don’t always get the respect they deserve.  IT groups are typically weary of anything that might require them to do something, and rightfully so. IT is usually the last to know about a new project but is somehow left holding the bag when there’s no one else to support it.  So while many people will find IT very resistant to cooperating, this is not without good reason and a very natural response to the stuff that’s thrown at them.

What can you do?

  • Bring it up early – It may not be a day 1 conversation but if you know that something your doing might require input from another individual or group on the client-side, mention it early on. If your client says it’s not necessary to contact them then at least you know.
  • Recognize you are not the 1st priority – It’s good to keep in mind that whatever you ask someone for, this is most likely extra work for them to do.
  • Show your appreciation – showing your appreciation and giving people recognition is a surefire way to make things go smoother. Be thankful to those who try to help you, it’s important.

Orange Flag Scenario 5: You’re a threat

While your client hired you for your expertise and is probably happy to see you, on occasion there might be someone who’s not so happy to see you.

Let’s take an example. Your team has been tasked with redesigning an online store website. The Creative Director on the client-side may naturally feel that you’re encroaching on their territory. While this person was likely involved in hiring you some feeling of competition may naturally ensue. This competitive feeling may present itself in different ways. The Creative Director might try to demonstrate their own expertise to their colleagues by disagreeing with you on certain aspects for reasons that may not be clear. They might also try to exercise their authority over you more directly by giving you inadequate or improper feedback to try and trip you up.  This puts a strain not just on you but on the entire project team, including your client as everyone tries to respectfully consider the input and expertise of their colleague.

Killer communication? Sometimes being the hired guns can make you feel like you you’re the one with the target on your back. But don’t worry, it’s not a real target it just feels like one. Illustration credit: @PabloStanley at https://thedesignteam.io/

What can you do?

  • Take it offline – Take more personal approach and tell them you’re grateful to have them be a part of the process (because you really are), maybe even do it outside of the office.
  • They’re important to success – Communicate to them that their understanding of the bigger picture, not to mention the product, brand etc. is information that is integral to doing your job.
  • You’re on their team – Show them that you are on their team as well, that you respect their input and feedback and that their colleagues are looking to them as well for expertise.
  • Gain an advocate – By doing all of the above you might find that they’re very willing to be an advocate for the work and can help ‘sell in’ work that may otherwise fall on deaf ears.

All of these scenarios have come up on my project, am I a terrible PM?

I’ll tell you first hand that no matter how many projects you’ve been a part of and seen through, there will always some facepalm moment that could have been easily prevented. But don’t let this discourage you, it’s part of the job and the ability to deal with these types of situations is really what will help you improve over the long-run.

What all of this comes down to is managing expectations and being able to get in front of potential communication gaffes but being able to predict what areas of a project might give you some trouble. The creative process is by nature very ambiguous no matter how much process or structure you try to create around it.  Anytime you have people coming together to work on a project there’s a risk of misunderstanding. Being able to diagnose and fix your communication issues can empower you to deliver great results that leave your client delighted instead of disappointed.

The last thing I’ll say is  that you should never ignore your gut. If you’re someone who gets those ‘gut’ feelings, you should listen to them. And if it turns out it was just last night’s taco truck special that’s got you feeling a bit queasy then that’s also good news, for your project anyways.

Of course it’s very possible that your client might just love everything you do, and that’s one problem that’s great to have. Illustration credit: @PabloStanley at https://thedesignteam.io/

If you liked this article you might also want to check out this one too,Project risk: how to manage what you don’t know.

All illustrations I graciously credit to Pablo Stanley – If I could come back with one talent it would be the ability to draw like Pablo.  See more of them and check out some of his articles at https://thedesignteam.io/. You can also follow him on Twitter @PabloStanley, and if you like animals, puns, animal puns and use Slack, check out the Punbot.com – because, what not?