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I am struck, when I read this extract from Communicating Upwards for Effect, (Lynda Bourne’s great chapter in Darren Dalcher’s collected volume, Advances in Project Management) on the basic flaw in most governance procedures. In many cases, these place emphasis on using written communication as a prime medium for reporting problems or progress – or soliciting decisions. The trouble is, as Lynda so coherently explains, communication of anything with any degree of subtlety or complexity, requires a dialogue; something that report-writing generally eschews.

Effective communication between project stakeholders is always difficult and misunderstanding and confusion are easily created. The key to effective communication is clarity created through simplicity. As Albert Einstein once said, ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.’ This is particularly true when trying to communicate project objectives to senior executives.

The communication problem is compounded by project management jargon, technical industry jargon and language differences. Within the ‘project community’ we have a range of terms that have a specific meaning, ‘critical activity’, ‘time now’, ‘EV’, and so on. People in the general business community frequently use the same words in similar context but apply completely different meanings. We say something; they attribute their different meaning and know they have understood exactly what we’ve said – but their understanding is not what we meant!

Albert Einstein also summarised the problem nicely: ‘The major problem in communication is the illusion that it has occurred.’ Without an accurate understanding it is impossible to agree, disagree or resolve anything.

Lewis Carroll considered communication in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1872): ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – nothing more and nothing less.’ Interestingly, Humpty Dumpty’s view of communication is similar to that of most people’s.

The trouble is if you want to communicate with a purpose, the listener needs to understand what you have chosen the word to mean and this is not helped by the English language! A few examples to confuse anyone:

  •  The bandage was wound around the wound.
  • The farm was used to produce produce.
  • The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
  • We must polish the Polish furniture.
  • I did not object to the object.
  • The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
  • They were too close to the door to close it.
  • The wind was too strong to wind in the sail.
  • After a number of injections my jaw got number.

No wonder the English language is hard to learn!

Whilst any language is superficially made up of words and words have meaning, context is critical. An example is, ‘Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.’ This sentence could be rewritten, ‘Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to bestow the gift.’ What’s really interesting though is most people with a good command of English within the context of the whole sentence would have little difficulty in distinguishing between:

  • present = the current time
  • present = bestow or give
  • present = gift.

But it’s not that simple! Context depends on a whole range of factors including professional background. Ask an architect for the plans for a project and expect to see a bundle of drawings. Ask the same question of a Project Management Professional (PMP)-qualified project manager and expect to see a bundle of documents including the schedule, budget and scope. Same word different meaning based on the context the listener is working within. Your boss’s context is almost certainly not yours and you need time and a two-way dialogue to ensure correct understanding.

Source: Communicating Upwards for Effect, Lynda Bourne in the collection Advances in Project Management, edited by Darren Dalcher, 2014, Gower Publishing, Farnham. Full text available on www.gpmfirst.com