Communications just fascinates me. Given that it’s something that all of us do every day, you’d think it’d be something we got pretty good at. Nothing could be further from the truth. As practised as we are in communicating with others, we humans, in general, really really suck at it.
It’s not like we don’t try. Unfortunately none of us have RJ45 jacks in the backs of our skulls, so we can’t just wire ourselves together for efficiency.
SCHRAMM’S COMMUNICATION MODEL
A very smart guy named Wilbur Schramm recognized this and developed the very communication model that the PMI uses in their latest version of the PMBoK. Wilbur believed that communication begins with an idea. Ideas are great, but they’re born in the mind – which is a place other people have no direct access to. In order to get an idea across, the sender needs to first choose a medium (e-mail, spoken word, skywriting), and encode the idea into a message.
Groovy. Once that’s done, the sender transmits the message to the receiver, who then decodes the message on their end, back into the original idea. Communication isn’t complete, though, until the receiver acknowledges receipt of the message, and can demonstrate that they understood its contents.
Here’s where we run into trouble. As much as we’d love to pretend we’re good communicators, we have to recognize that none of us live in a vacuum. From the very beginning of the process right through to the very end, there are factors that conspire to ruin our message and either send it right out into space, or garble it into something other than what we intended.
For example, if I were to walk into class without a shirt on, my students might recoil in horror and say,
“Omigod is Geoff ever fat!”
This message is crystal clear. However, for folks who grew up around my neck of the woods, saying such a thing is terribly rude. In order to communicate this thought, some of my local students might find themselves locked in an internal conflict, as they struggle to find the right words to say. Prior to any actual communication, they might alter their message as follows:
“It’s nice that Geoff doesn’t let any milk go to waste.”
In this example, the original message about my weight has been replaced with a new, more pleasant sounding message about my dairy consumption. However, the clarity of the original idea is now gone, and must be found in the subtext of the communication.
“No, Geoff, really, have another hot dog.”
This is a problem. Can the message encoder be certain that the recipient of the message will know to look for the subtext? Not always. This is an example of an internal barrier interfering with the encoding process. The message has been altered before it’s even made it to the transmission stage.
Noise and internal barriers can interfere with a message anywhere during the process, from encoding, through transmission (ever tried asking a favour of a friend watching the Superbowl?) through decoding. (“Honey, that’s a terrific haircut!” “You don’t love me!”)
COMMUNICATIONS MANAGEMENT PLANNING
This is why Communications Planning is so important in the world of project management. Left to our own devices, we humans tend to fail over and over and over at accurately sending and understanding the messages we communicate every single day. With so many people surrounding the same body of work, the potential for colossal communication screw-ups (and ultimately work screw-ups) is rampant.
My favourite example of fouled communication on a project surrounds the mindless use of e-mail. Pretty much all of us these days find ourselves overwhelmed with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of e-mails a day. It’s very easy for us to select a big chunk of them and batch delete them without ever having read a single word. Some days it’s just the only way to cope with the volume.
We all have to deal with this. Why then, do I hear phrases like “whaddya mean you didn’t know about the meeting – I sent you an e-mail” in the hallways on a daily basis? It’s almost as if our own difficulties staying top of digital correspondence don’t apply to other people. The nature of e-mail lets us ignore that all-important feedback loop Schramm identifies in the diagram above. “His computer got the message – therefore he must have too.” And consequently, “I don’t need to follow up.”
A good communications plan can help address a lot of these problems. There are lots of templates out there to develop such a thing. But there’s a catch. Any monkey can fill in a template. What matters are the decisions that go into completing one. A good project manager will evaluate not just the individual communication needs of the people attached to their project, but also the risks associated with specific communications media and make smart selections accordingly.
Do you have a story about communication gone awry on your project? Shout it out in the comments below!