Project Practitioners > Unanswered Questions

Unanswered Questions

By Lisa DiTullio

It doesn't matter what form of communications is, when the recipient does't respond, it's frustrating.  What do you do?

When establishing the relationship with your project sponsor, be sure to spend time with him or her to establish communication preferences.  Find out how frequently you should update your sponsor on project activities. What level of detail does your sponsor need to be satisfied?  What is the preferred mode of communication -- in person, email or by phone?  How do you define "emergent" situations, and how will you notifiy your sponsor of such events?

Once you have establish your communications protocol, you're all set, right?  Not necessarily.  Nothing is worse than sending the agreed-upon email only to receive deafening silence on the other end.  Whenever possible, project sponsors should respond to your questions or issues within 24 hours of receiving your email, even if it's to acknowledge receipt of the message.  Understandingly busy, not all emails can be addressed in a timely manner.  However, a "Got it; will call later" lets the sender know the message has been received and a response is forthcoming.

What is more disconcerting is when there is no response or  acknowledgement.  This can cause a tremendous amount of stress for the sender; addressing the issue with a sponsor is much more difficult than addressing it with a colleague or teammate.  You've already made the first effort by asking which method of communication she prefers.  You've complied, and yet still no response. 

A courtesy follow-up through another mode is an option; follow-up on silent emails with a phone call or swing by her office to check if the email was received.  Another option is to continue to do what you are doing, which is sending your messages according to the agreed method and them make the best choices you can without her input.  Do keep a record of emails and texts, just in case you need them. 

Do you have other suggestions on how to handle the situation?  Let us know what works!

Lisa DiTullio, Principal, Lisa DiTullio & Associates,

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

I couldn’t agree more Lisa. Not responding and acknowledging communication is one of my big pet peeves. While often times the recipient has reviewed, is working on things, or mulling them over, it definitely creates undue stress on the project manager. My thinking is if a project is important enough to get underway, it should be important enough to follow up on and do it the right way. Avoiding communication and not being as available and engaged as needed, is detrimental and will eventually result in issues. So much can be avoided and managed by proper communication.

I agree… Is there anything more frustrating than the hurry up and wait syndrome that this creates?

One method I’ve used to help over come these scenarios is; once you have established your communications protocols and defined what an "emergent" situation might be. (as best you can anyway) I send an email describing the situation, what my next course of action is going to be and ask for a reply if the sponsor DOESN’T want me to proceed with it. This put the onus on them to take action, of course this has to be laid out as part of your communications protocol and it doesn’t help if you run into something that absolutely needs their input… but I’ve found it useful. I also always ask for a “read receipt” on that kind of email, which helps 80% of the time.


Your article and the questions it raises has everything to do with what I believe to be the most important aspect of establishing, sustaining and nurturing a successful relationship. Communication!!

In my mind, communication is everything. Absolutely. In every relationship. No exceptions. The problem is that many people don’t know how to communicate well. They don’t understand - or they simply don’t care - how their relationships are affected by the way they communicate. This is troubling. Even more troubling is that they may not value the relationship enough to communicate in a manner that reflects an appropriate modicum of respect or shared commitment.

My experience suggests the answer to this dilemma will vary depending on the personalities involved and the particulars of schedule, proximity, workload demands, availability, etc. These are variables any leader must manage, especially when working within a matrix environment. And they are variables that often affect more than communication.

The answers will likely involve 1) well defined and clearly stated expectations regarding communication (which you’ve addressed), 2) a means to keep communications “on the radar”, visible and recognized both within and outside the project team, and 3) some form of accountability in cases where communication is ignored or falls short of what is required to keep the project moving forward.

Communication is hugely important. I am intrigued by its variability, its complexity, its influence and, of course, its value. It needs to be taught, studied, understood, practiced, analyzed and optimized. It defines our individual relationships, it influences group dynamics, it steers organizational behavior, and it shapes and characterizes the cultures in which we exist. Wow! How important is that?

Peter, I like your suggestion for applying the old English Common Law principle of “Qui Tacet Consentire”. In situations where an answer doesn’t come, a “Silence is Consent” approach is risky but not overly risky; if they don’t answer, they must agree, or at least not disagree so strongly that they are compelled to answer.


p.s. – Lisa, I really hope you devote a portion of your upcoming book to this topic.

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