I’m Not Fat, I’m Thrifty: Project Communications

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.

Communication

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.

INTERFERENCE

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!

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I’m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.
  • Ketchup, on a hot dog?!? Seriously?!!? Great Shrieking Jesus …

    You can demonstrate that you received and understood this message by washing off that poor, abused tube of mystery “meat” and applying a liberal dose of mustard. We’ll wait.

  • CaitlinSmall

    So, in this technology driven age and knowing how many problems can arise from email communication, does anyone have suggestions on how to deal with it, since email is essential?

  • Hey, Caitlin! E-mail is only essential because we make it essential. At least that’s my position. One day on a project (before smartphones), I had to go on a trip to a client in Montreal for just one day (a total waste of time IMHO but whatever). I came back to find 326 e-mails waiting for me in my inbox. You know what I did? I clicked the first one, held the shift key and scrolled to the last one, and hit “Delete”.

    TWO PEOPLE bugged me later in the week to remind me for a response.

    I have to wonder how important those other 324 e-mails were.

    Now, I’m not advocating wanton destruction of e-mails like I did. But my position with anyone who wants to talk with me is, if it’s urgent, either pick up the phone or come and see me face to face. People don’t always like that because e-mail is way too convenient. But they learn – “if you want to deal with Geoff, you better go see him or he’ll just claim he never got your mail.”

    Of course, that doesn’t exactly wash with project stakeholders, or my boss, or lots of other people. But I still maintain (even with the rise of smartphones) that project managers should absolutely discourage the use of e-mail as a means for project communication as much as possible.

    That won’t make it go away (I could only wish), but I think it sends the right message.

    Then again, maybe I’m just an old fart. LOL

  • Samandeep Arora

    Hello Geoff,
    I remember the conversation in our final review class regarding barrier for communication via email and after reading your comment I think we can consider not reading the email (let it be because of any reason like ignoring the email or missing it) as a barrier to this mode of communication?

  • From a communications perspective there’s a lot of issues with e-mail, both internal and external. If you’re being flooded with e-mail or worse, spam, then you’ve got a lot of noise to contend with. These are external distractors that can keep you from even seeing the e-mail.

    There are also internal barriers that can prevent communications from getting through (“euw, I’m not opening an e-mail from THAT person”).

    Once you open the mail, then there are all the nuances that get overlooked or misinterpreted (i.e., trolling and flame wars) and since you’re not physically with the sender to ask for clarification, you may react incorrectly with your response.

    E-mail is bane. E-mail is evil. E-mail is very, very bad and should be purged. Why? Because it creates more communications problems than it solves.

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