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The Curse of Project Management Knowledge
By Harry Hall

Can I be painfully honest with you for a minute?

What I am about to say may not feel good. In fact, I am certain that you will NOT enjoy it.

I have been hoping someone else would do the dirty work. But no one has stepped forward (at least that I know of).

You know how you’ve been struggling with your projects? Are you tired feeling like you live on another planet and no one understands you.

Well, it’s not because you aren’t trying. It’s not because you don’t follow the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). After all, you have your Project Management Professional (PMP) credential. You are a cut above the rest in your knowledge of project management.

So here it is.

It’s because you’re not communicating. Oh, you’re saying lots of words, but few people know what you’re talking about. You start talking about project management and your team members hears “Wah, wah, wah.”

And if you want to connect with your teams, it’s going to require change…painful change. It will be worse than having a bucket of ice water poured on your head. Brace yourself.

“Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” – Albert Einstein

Warning: You Are Entering the Twilight Zone

Take John for example.

John has been a project manager for more than ten years. He received his Project Management Professional (PMP) certification eight years ago. When John studied for his PMP exam, he learned lots of helpful terms, tools, and techniques. Stuff like Earned Value, Monte Carlo, Crashing, Fast Tracking, Stakeholders, Critical Path, PERT…you get the idea.

He has attended numerous project management symposiums and training sessions to earn his Professional Development Units (PDUs) and maintain an active status of his credential.

John is fortunate to work in the Project Management Office (PMO) with several senior project managers. The PMO Director continually reinforces the need to apply a strict code of conduct where the project managers are expected to use the same terms in order to ensure consistency between project teams.

Over the recent years, many employees who previously served on project teams have retired. New accountants, underwriters, customer service personnel, and information technology resources have been hired. Several individuals have no project experience. Some newbies are being assigned to John’s project teams.

If you were a fly on the wall, what would you see in John’s communication?

You might see John working hard with his team. His technical terms and acronyms create darkness rather than light. The newbies (and some of the long-term employees) are struggling to interpret John’s explanations, instructions, and assignments. It’s like listening to an expert mechanic describe the combustion engine.

In a conversation with the project sponsor, John attempts to explain an entity relationship diagram and why it is critical to normalize the database. The sponsor politely nods her head while thinking about her next meeting with the Chief Financial Officer.

Understanding the Curse

What is the curse of knowledge?

Because we know something well, we find it difficult to believe that others do not understand it in the same manner. The more we know about something, the harder it is for us to explain it to someone who knows nothing.

Elizabeth Newton, a Stanford University graduate student in psychology, illustrated the curse of knowledge with a simple game. She assigned a “tappers” and a “listeners.”

The tapper’s job was to tap out the rhythm of well-known songs like “Happy Birthday.” The listeners were to guess each song.

Newton asked the tappers to predict how many of the songs the listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50%. The result was 2.5%.

Wow. Talk about communications breakdown.

The tappers were thinking – how could this be? I’m doing a perfect job of tapping out the song. Why don’t they get it?

Project managers can fall into the same trap. We have used our project management lingo for so many years, we assume everyone understands. The truth is…team members are often confused, frustrated, and lost.

The project managers are not trying to trip people up. Their intentions are good, but they are not connecting with their team members. Morse code is sent; gibberish is received.

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” – Albert Einstein

Breaking the Curse

You don’t need any charms to break this curse, just the application of some simple communications principles. Here are some tips:

  • Don’t try to impress others with your knowledge. Don’t use project management jargon and acronyms without explaining them. Use simple 5th-grade language.
  • Spend more time discovering your team member’s level of understanding and perspective. As you work on your communications plan, be sure to explore the world of each audience. What prior project experience do they have? How well do they understand the project? Plan your communications accordingly.

  • Don’t assume too much. Give instructions or explain a concept. Ask the other person if they understand. In some cases, you may ask the individual to explain what you’ve communicated back to you in their own words.

  • Use their language. When I speak to groups other than project managers, I share my presentation with a group representative. I specifically ask how the group refers to certain terms such as stakeholder or change order or project charter. Then I use their terms.

  • Use concrete language. Don’t use abstract terms. Give them concrete examples. Complement the verbal communication with visual diagrams or drawings.

  • Tell stories. One of the best ways to communicate is through stories. Craft and use stories to inspire and to instruct. Stories are a great way to provide background and provide context and perspective to your stakeholders.

  • Explain new concepts to your team members. Before you perform a new process such as the Nominal Group Technique (NGT), explain the process and give an example.

  • Define and use a glossary. In the planning documents, define a glossary. For example: When defining a quality management plan, schedule management plan, or risk management plan, define a glossary of terms.

  • Continually train new employees. The Project Management Office (PMO) or the group responsible for project management should periodically offer a Fundamentals of Project Management class. Introduce new employees to the basic concepts of project management.

Final Thoughts

If you relate to any of the bad habits I’ve mentioned, you are not alone. We all make communication mistakes, doing things that hold us back from our true potential. The key is awareness. Identify the bad habits and change them.

Schedule time each week to review your progress. Periodically ask others how you can improve your communications.

Question: What do you think are the greatest hindrances to project managers communicating and connecting with their team members?

Harry Hall, PMP, PMI-RMP, is the Director of Enterprise Risk Management at the Georgia Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Company, one of the largest domestic insurance companies in the state of Georgia. You can read more from Harry on his blog.

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