Communication Planning and Why Re-use Helps, Written by John Slack, M.B.A., PMP

How many ways can someone misunderstand you?

Communication is challenging in any endeavor; however, it is doubly challenging in the project environment. PMI describes a project as an endeavor with a defined start and stop to produce a unique product. As soon as we start talking about producing a unique product we are starting to have communication issues. What makes it unique? Is it made up of a unique set of components? Is it made up in a unique way from a set of standard components? Is it some combination of both?

Studies performed by the project management Institute indicate that a successful project manager will typically spend more than 80% of their time in communication related activities. Clearly effective communication is at the heart of successful project management. Why is it so difficult to have effective communications?

Unfortunately work in the area of communications has shown that there are far more stumbling blocks liable to prevent effective communication that we expect. The Ladder of Inference is a model of how people process information (presented in “Overcoming Organizational Defenses” by Chris Argyris and “The Fifth Discipline Field Book” by Peter Senge and colleagues). This model is a wonderful illustration of how and why people don’t understand each other. The model looks somewhat like the following:

 

commplan_actions

 

Like most ladders the action starts at the bottom rung. “Real data and experience” is what is really happening in the world around me. It is what we would see and hear if we had a video camera recording in the room. The next rung up is the “selected data and experience.” That is what we actually pay attention to. Obviously that is a subset of the total data and experience that is available. As you might conclude that already shows the first possible error that could be occurring. I might not notice something that is of significance. The third rung of the ladder is where I affix meaning to the data and experience that is being supplied to me. I have another error opportunity here and that I may hear a set of words and affix a meaning which was not the meaning intended by the person speaking. Next I can move up to “assumptions” where based upon my personal history and background I decide the intent that went with the meaning that I ascribed to the words that I heard. I then move up to the next rung and draw “conclusions” about the experience that I am having. I continue up the various rungs and eventually decide upon an action to take. You will note that in the picture I have made the bottom rung of the ladder and the top rung of the ladder bolded arrows. The bottom rung of the ladder is a bolded arrow coming in to me and the top rung of the ladder is a bolded arrow coming from me to the world. The frightening aspect of this model is that most of the processes that have taken place have been within my mind and aren’t shared. Some users refer to this model as the “Ladder of Escalating Error.” I found the following small story on the website http://leadershipdiamond.blogspot.com/2009/04/ladder-of-inference.html  that was a wonderful example of the Ladder in action.

“You are driving down the road at a sedate 40 miles per hour in fairly heavy traffic. A small, beat up sedan comes from behind you, swerving in and out of traffic, traveling far too fast for conditions. He cuts in front of you, almost taking off your front bumper. Hanging his head out the driver’s-side window, he shouts something at you, and speeds away, continuing to quickly weave through traffic.

Your first thoughts are probably “What a fool!”, or something more forceful. Because of our culture, most of us assumed that it is inappropriate to flaunt traffic laws, or to endanger other drivers. You know from the kind of car the person was driving, and the way he was behaving, that this is clearly some deadbeat who shouldn’t have a driver’s license. In fact, you may feel so strongly about this that you offer the fellow a parting disparaging salute as he drives away.”

The person in the story has observed the situation, applied his filters and assumptions about proper highway etiquette and behavior, and come to a conclusion about the character and motivation of the other person in the small sedan. The person in the story has acted upon his conclusions.

In point of fact, the Ladder of Influence can lead to massive errors in our conclusions. In the story just told, the fellow driving the sedan was on the way to the hospital with his wife who was seven months pregnant. Her labor had started unexpectedly. Believing the lives of the baby and the mother were at risk, the husband was driving desperately to a hospital to blocks away. What he had shouted from his window was “I’m sorry, please excuse me.”

Listening to Chris Argyris speak years ago, I became amazed that we can communicate effectively at all. He has tested this model and found it to be consistent across cultures. Chris Argyris believes this is a fundamental model of the way humans operate.

Given that inherent leaning toward poor communications, we need to maximize our use of tools that are actually understood in a consistent fashion.

 

How does the organization communicate consistently?

Project management has a number of tools which are effective in communicating accurately and consistently. One example of a highly effective tool is the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) of the project. Another effective tool is the roles and responsibilities document of the project. Each of these may be presented in various formats however their intent is well understood.

In any project we need to have certain fundamentals agreed-upon. The following graphic contains several of them.

 

commplan_deliverable

 

We have to have agreement upon what will be the deliverables from the project and what activities will be performed to produce them. We also need agreement regarding who will be accountable for specific deliverables as well as what skills and competencies the person who is accountable must have in order to actually be accountable. If we apply our project management tools to this simple picture it shows as follows:

 

commplan_accountable

 

The WBS will identify all of the work in the project. If something is not represented on the WBS it is considered to be out of the project scope. That brings a marvelous clarity to what is included in the project. Any stakeholder may have questions about the definition of a particular deliverable. The fact that they can formulate their question indicates that communication is beginning to take place. Related to the WBS is the roles and accountability document which will identify how various stakeholders relate to specific deliverables. For space reasons, I have only included the relationship of being accountable. The reader may look at various types of role and responsibility documents by looking up various formats such as RACI and RASCI charts.

Another way of looking at this graphic would be:

 

commplan_communication

 

Each of these project management tools are really tools to maximize the possibility of effective communication.

If you accept this idea then it becomes paramount that all projects include these tools and spend the time to make them effective. My experience in dealing with problem projects has indicated again and again that the lack of a WBS is a cornerstone of project failure. This occurs for several reasons. I would contend that the real reason for not producing a WBS is that the project management organization cannot articulate what the deliverables and associated activities in the project really are. This inability should be regarded as a clear indicator that the project is not well understood and already starting into failure; however, the typical excuse given for not producing a WBS is lack of time.

Similarly, a roles and responsibilities document cannot be developed if we have not agreed upon what the deliverables are and what skills and competencies are required to produce them.

A key insight regarding these various tools is that they are reusable from one project to another. Most organizations do certain types of projects. Typically an IT organization can identify 4 to 7 project types that categorize 80 to 90% of their work. That means that the organization has tremendous knowledge that needs to be captured and reused in future projects. If my project has been successful and someone else is going to do a similar type of project they should be immediately looking at my work breakdown structure to see how they would use it as a model. This does put a burden upon me as a project manager. Along with my commitment to the organization to deliver to our sponsor what is promised in the project, I must make an equivalent commitment to my parent organization that I will develop my WBS as well as other project management tools in a way that will allow them to be generalized and reused in similar projects. The benefit far outweighs the cost.

 

Does the organization use its tools in a consistent fashion?

The recurring themes of this article have been to:

  1. recognize that communication has many inherent problems, and
  2. A consistent and well understood toolset is required in order to address these problems.

An organization that practices these concepts is able to succeed in a world where the only constant is change.

 

Research

  1. Lewis, James P. “Project Planning, Scheduling, and Control: The Ultimate Hands-On Guide to Bringing Projects in On Time and On Budget, Fifth Edition.” McGraw-Hill; 5th Edition, 2010
  2. Taylor, James. “Project Scheduling and Cost Control: Planning, Monitoring and Controlling the Baseline.” J. Ross Publishing, 2007
  3. Lewis, James P. “Project Planning, Scheduling & Control, 3rd Edition.” McGraw-Hill; 3rd Edition, 2000
  4. Argyris, Chris. “Overcoming Organizational Defenses: Facilitating Organizational Learning”. Prentice-Hall, 1990.