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Project Communication: Why Is It So Hard?

Communication ProblemsWe all know the theory: Communications are critical to project success. You have probably heard advice such as communicate something “five times in five different ways” for it to stick, but why is it so hard?

If people would just listen—or read what we send them—then communications would be easy, right? This may seem a reasonable assumption, but because we are part of the system, we are also part of the problem.

Getting information from one person’s head into another’s is a long chain of events with conversions and noise within the process. Like rolling a ball downstairs hoping it will land in a cup at the bottom, there are lots of things that can go wrong along the way.

Communication and Project Failures
Effective communication is essential for project success. PMI research suggests communication breakdowns account for 30% of project failures. Some online discussions attribute 100% of project failures to communication failures.

The variation in percentages stems from how we classify issues such as changing project objectives or poorly articulated requirements. Some people classify them separately from communication failures, others as a type of communication breakdown. Either way, communication is a critical skill for any project manager, but we rarely discuss the process.

The Communication Chain
Several widely used models of communication offer insights into the process and challenges involved. Shannon and Weaver created a popular one called “The Mathematical Theory of Communication” that looks like this:

Basic Comms path

Let’s say we want to announce that the demo of our new rocket has been moved from Thursday to Friday because rain and strong winds are forecast for Thursday. In the model, we represent the sender (1); we decide to send our message via email and compose the following message body: “The launch is delayed until Friday for weather issues. Same venue and timing.

The wording of the email is how we encode our thought (2). The medium of written text delivered via email is the signal we send over the channel (3). People receive the signal (our email) and decode it to extract meaning out of it (4). From this process, the receiver interprets the message (5). They may provide feedback (that also gets encoded, transmitted and decoded).

Opportunities for Error
As we all know from dealing with people, just because we have a thought and try to convey it to others, that does not mean that thought will make it through the process intact. As an example, Lucy, who uses a look-and-guess method of reading, sees “The launch is delayed…” and she panics, stops reading any further and immediately assumes the entire project is behind.

Pablo, who’s job it is to make the propulsion system weather tolerant, sees this as an attempt to shame his work publicly. Bill has been too busy relocating frogs from the launch site to open all his emails recently, but he will be ready for the launch on Thursday.

These examples illustrate some possible outcomes and additional elements of the communications process. The words that we choose that have a single, clear meaning for us may be interpreted differently by others. Our communications also occur in an environment with noise and information loss. Finally, the sender’s and receiver’s context matters, as does their intent. These elements have been added to the image below:

Full Comms path

The sender context (6) impacts the encoding and channel chosen, as too does the receiver context (7). The encoded signals are sent through channels with noise and a possibility for corruption or meaning loss (8).

Language can be imprecise, and the possibilities for misinterpretation are almost endless. A simple “How did you find the meeting?” question could be answered as “long and boring” or, “I looked up the room location on the floor plan and walked there past the cafeteria.”

Faults with encoding, channel choice and decoding are widespread. Throw in different cultures, generations, technical jargon, and acronyms with multiple meanings, and it’s a wonder we get anything done sometimes. We are rolling lots of balls down the stairs, but not many are landing in the cup.

Crafty Solutions
Once we appreciate the opportunity for communications to miss the mark, we can craft more robust messaging systems.

  • Prioritize: We can check our encoding and structure the message so the most critical information is conveyed first. Maybe we start with “Due to inclement weather, the launch is moved…” if we know the cause of the delay will be scrutinized. Also, assume not all of our communications will be read to the end, so move the critical information to the front in case people only scan it.
  • Choose your channel: Long lists of instructions are not best conveyed via a phone call. Text messages are great for on-the-go synchronization, but maybe too informal to send critical news to stakeholders you interact with infrequently. Delicate matters are best-handled one-on-one in person or on the phone, where there is the opportunity for immediate Q&A.

Think about the type of information and message you are conveying and use the right medium. Consider visuals. Schedule information might be best shown with a timeline; geographic data with a map or floor-plan.

  • Don’t be afraid to duplicate and use multiple channels: Our brains are all wired differently, and we all have unique preferences for both format (sound, visual, written) and medium (F2F, email, video, project website). Typically, it is safer to over-communicate and send things in multiple formats via different channels to ensure the message gets through.

Be careful, though, that our messages do not get muted or hidden for creating too much chatter or noise. Electronic tools make it easy to hide conversations, so clearly label duplicates and what is new or noteworthy.

  • Seek confirmation and feedback: Registered mail services exist for when we need to know if a letter was delivered. Some of our messages are significant enough that we should confirm they were received and understood. So, maybe we follow up after communicating a plan with a phone call to confirm receipt, check understanding and ask if there were any questions.

Likewise, we should ask if we are communicating enough, appropriately and successfully. Communication plans help define the sets of information, format and delivery frequency at the start of projects, but this is not a once-and-done process.

We should be checking in periodically with people to ask if the communications are working, if people have what they need, and how to improve. Phase gates, steering committee meetings, demos and retrospectives are all opportunities to inspect, learn and adapt our communications approach.

  • Turn to technology: We live in a time of unprecedented information transmission and data-filtering technology. We have more tools and channels for communication now than ever before, yet things still get mixed up and missed out. While these tools can add to the sense of “overwhelm” and channel choice, they can also be used to create safety nets and save time.

We can create reminders to check in with key stakeholders. We can forward messages from platforms we do not like to ones we prefer to use. Tools can aggregate information from multiple sources and distribute messages to many recipients through numerous channels. By mastering some essential communication tools, we can increase our coverage and free up time for thinking about how best to craft our messages with less chance of misinterpretation.

Mind the Gap
Once we realize there is a significant gap to overcome between getting a thought from our heads to those of others, we are halfway to building robust and reliable communication systems. We must not assume our messages will be opened, read, interpreted or regarded with the importance we assigned to them.

Heck, I am surprised you even made it to here in this article! So, expect gaps, design your communications with redundancy, make them visual and compelling, then maybe—just maybe—enough people will get the message.


[Note: For more articles from Mike Griffiths, visit his blog at Mike first wrote this article for here.]

Adapting to All-Remote Talent Management

Remote WorkerThe recent article “Can We Still be Agile?” examined two successful organizations that many years ago deliberately chose an all-remote workforce structure. Most of us have recently experienced unplanned and quickly implemented trials of all-remote work, so let’s examine the advantages and disadvantages when planned for and optimized.

All-remote organizations have no central hub(s) for workers. Instead, their staff all work remotely, as shown by the highlighted third element in the image below.

All Remote

By being deliberately all-remote, there are no different sets of contributors (co-located vs remote) or different forms of communication (face-to-face vs dial-in). Instead, everyone experiences a consistent and universal interaction style.

Case Studies in All-Remote
A few organizations have been successfully using Type-3 (all-remote models) for years. They deliberately chose this format and believe it offers many advantages.

Companies like Automattic (which build WordPress and Tumblr) employ over 1,100 people in 75 countries using an all-remote model. GitLab (makers of source code repository and DevOps tools) has 1,295 team members spread across 67 countries using its all-remote work practices.

Automattic embodies some aspirational goals in the Automattic Creed that reveal some of its intent. These include:

  • Never stop learning
  • Do not just work on things assigned
  • There is no such thing as the status quo
  • Never pass up an opportunity to help a colleague
  • Communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company

Similarly, GitLab has its own published values and manifesto. GitLab's “CREDIT” values are:

  • Collaboration
  • Results
  • Efficiency
  • Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging
  • Iteration
  • Transparency

The term CREDIT also describes the good-intent it assumes from its remote peers. GitLab also has a remote manifesto:

  1. Hiring and working from all over the world instead of from a central location
  2. Flexible working hours over set working hours
  3. Writing down and recording knowledge over verbal explanations
  4. Written-down processes over on-the-job training
  5. Public sharing of information over need-to-know access
  6. Opening up every document for editing by anyone over top-down control of documents
  7. Asynchronous communication over synchronous communication
  8. The results of work over the hours put in
  9. Formal communication channels over informal communication channels

All-Remote Advantages

1. Access better talent – Traditional co-located organizations rely on attracting the best local talent and those willing to relocate. This local and relocating talent pool gets further reduced to people who are willing and able to come into the office for the prescribed office hours.

  • Human expertise and ability are globally distributed. The likelihood of having world-class professional talent in our home area is about the same odds of having world-class sprinters, pianists or painters. We may be fortunate and find one or two, but are much more likely to find the talent we desire in the rest of the world.
  • All-remote organizations often also add the flexibility of allowing individuals to work whenever they choose. Now the collection of qualified candidates expands again to encompass part-time workers and those with personal or family health issues to attend to also first. Or maybe they have a passion for water skiing or gardening and prefer to work when it is dark.
  • Since all-remote organizations work largely asynchronously, part-time and odd-time work can also be accommodated. You may be wondering how project managers track the hours? They do not; instead, they monitor results (which are what really matters anyway). These all-remote organizations are results-focused. As long as people get their work done, collaborate, contribute and help move the organization forward, nobody cares when or where people participate.

2. Reduced overheads – Remote workers can save on housing costs by living somewhere cheaper. They can also save on commuting costs and work clothes. All-remote organizations save on office space costs and relocation costs. In addition, there is a reduced overhead in materials and energy usage, helping the environment.

3. No “Us” and “Head Office” divisions – Without head office hubs and satellite offices, everyone is on an even playing field. This removes “fear of missing out” feelings and creates a more co-operative environment.

4. Free to travel and move – If someone wants to move or travel, then they can do so and remain productive. Changing health conditions and life priorities of workers and their partners are common reasons why people leave office-based jobs. Now they do not need to. This extra stability increases retention, accumulated domain knowledge and working relationships.

5. It attracts the self-motivated – Knowing you will be judged on your results, not your attendance, attracts self-starters who are motivated to deliver. There is no turning-up in the office and expecting someone to show you every step of your job. Onboarding and learning a role takes some self-starting skills. These are typically attributes employers are looking for regardless of the work environment.

All-Remote Disadvantages

1. Onboarding – Getting people acquainted with how things work is often best achieved through face-to-face interactions with someone who can answer the myriad of diverse questions that arise. Both Automattic and GitLab have extensive onboarding handbooks, videos and FAQ resources but still admit this process is a challenge.

2. Initial loneliness – Working without meeting your peers can seem isolating for some workers (and a blessing for some introverts). All-remote organizations build connections through their video meetings and work interactions. One policy of GitLab is to celebrate and learn from interruptions. Whenever a child, pet, or delivery interrupts a video call, there’s an opportunity to learn about the person. “Tell us about…”

3. Self-discipline – Some people struggle to maintain focus while working from home or their favorite coffee shop. People can use technology to filter out distractions (noise-canceling headphones, focusing applications), but it boils down to doing the work. Some people can do this; others struggle.

4. Stifled Innovation – Some all-remote critics claim without serendipitous water-cooler interactions, companies miss out on new product or improvement ideas. However, successful organizations such as Automattic have creeds that incorporate “Never stop learning,” “Do not just work on things assigned” and “There is no such thing as the status quo” to encourage innovation.

5. Communications – It is generally easier to call and work with people you have physically met in person. Before COVID-19, all-remote organizations still had meetups and gatherings where people got to meet each other.

6. Time zones – It can be challenging to find time for meetings when everyone is geographically distributed. People need to flex their schedules and make accommodations to have real-time conversations.

7. Tax and labor laws – It can be challenging for all-remote organizations to keep up with the local tax, labor laws and currency fluctuations. If Bob decides to follow summer surfing and works in Australia, Fiji, Indonesia and Hawaii, there is a significant amount of administration to do.

All-remote organizations used to be the minority—then suddenly, many of us were forced to work that way. This came with no deliberate choice or preparation, all while also dealing with homeschooling and a major health crisis. These circumstances are not the best way to experience and evaluate something.

Much like being hit by a car, taken to a hospital, or given a new food to eat for the first time, the circumstances likely influence our perception of the new experience. However, recent WFH experiences have shown it is possible and will change how many organizations attract, hire, measure, motivate and compensate workers in the future.  


[Note: For more articles from Mike Griffiths, visit his blog at Mike first wrote this article for here]



Inside the PMP Question Writing Process

InsideWhen you hear the words “PMP Exam” what springs to mind?

If you already have the credential, then probably the study period and stress associated with obtaining it. If you are thinking of taking the exam, then maybe some apprehension and anxiety. An effective way to reduce this anxiety is through learning about the exam goals and approach. Information is power, and it never hurts to be more aware of the process before taking the exam.

The Credential vs. the Exam

Obtaining the PMP credential requires more than just passing an exam. It also involves an assessment of education, project management experience and validation of project management education/training.

Discussing the relative merit of the PMP or the application process is outside the scope of this article. Anyone interested in learning more about the credential in general, is advised to see the PMI website. Instead, we will focus on PMP exam questions for those interested in taking the exam.

We will investigate how PMP exam questions are created and referenced to existing resources. Understanding the process can help anyone studying for the exam learn smarter and reduce stress – which can be a performance inhibitor.

Where do PMP Questions Come From?

The PMP exam is designed to test the application of generally accepted project management knowledge and skills. So to create valuable questions, PMI needs to understand what the generally accepted knowledge and skills in use by project managers are.  This is achieved by a Role Delineation Study, a survey of practicing project managers that asks them to list the tools, techniques, knowledge and skills needed to complete their job effectively. 

Based on the research and questionnaire findings of the Role Delineation Study an Exam Content Outline of approved topics is created. This filtering of possible exam topics is shown below.

Role Deliniation Study

Question writers (know as item writers) write questions based only on the topics in the Exam Content Outline. Additionally, each question has to be linked to two reference publications to help verify it is based on agreed practice rather than the interpretation of the item writer.

So, item writers use the Exam Content Outline as a list of topics and reference publications as the source of truth to create questions for the exam. It is worth noting that typically each of the reference publications contains coverage of topics outside of the exam content outline that will not be featured in the exam. Instead, only content that relates to the exam content outline can have questions based on it. This complete process is depicted below:

PMP Question Process

Why This is Useful

Just like running a project, understanding what is in scope and out of scope is critical for success.  If a topic is not in the Exam Content Outline, you do not need to study it.  It might still be useful and valuable to you as a project manager, but it will not be in the exam.

This whole selection process has been completed recently. Project management professions were surveyed about the practices and skills they use. The current PMP Exam Content Outline that describes the scope of the exam for the remainder of 2020 has been updated to a new PMP Exam Content Outline that defines the scope of the exam from 2021 onwards.

For more details about how the PMP exam is changing in 2021 see this article that explains some of the content changes and the adoption of other question types beyond Multiple Choice Questions (MCQ).

What PMP Questions Test (and What They Do Not)

The science of instructional design often references ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy’ as a framework to describe the levels of thinking and comprehension involved when learning new material. Like many established theories, it has been criticized as limited or outdated by some researchers, but it is still widely used.

Bloom’s taxonomy describes a hierarchy that starts from a base of simple recall and progresses through layers of understanding and application until people can create new approaches based on the underlying ideas.

Bloom 1

Everybody goes through these stages as part of learning and being able to use new skills. The stages can be divided into two main categories of recall and application.

Bloom 2

Effective exams have a combination of recall and application type questions, with a preference for the application of knowledge. An example of a question that tests recall only would be:

A communications management plan is a document that includes descriptions of:

  1. Project-level performance reports
  2. Activity-level status reports
  3. Stakeholder interaction requirements
  4. Responsibility assignments

Correct answer: C. Here we just need to recall that a communications management plan contains information about stakeholder interaction requirements. However, the PMP exam uses predominantly application-type questions that first outline a scenario and then present a question. These elevate the question from recall to application. For example:

Your team planned to complete six stories in the current iteration. But as you reach the end of the iteration, only four of them are done. What should you do?

  1. Return the remaining stories to the backlog for re-planning
  2. Ask the product owner to extend the iteration
  3. Work on the remaining stories when you can fit them in
  4. Schedule the remaining stories at the start of the next iteration

Correct answer: A. In this example, we have to first interpret the scenario by analyzing the situation, then evaluate the best response. It tests for more than just recall of facts or concepts, instead, it requires us to apply an understanding of timeboxes and backlog prioritization.

The goal of question writing is to test candidates' application of knowledge, not just recall. For this reason, most questions in the PMP exam are situational. Meaning they present a scenario and question then ask for the best response for that situation. These types of questions test a candidate at the ‘Apply’ and ‘Analyze’ levels of Bloom’s taxonomy by requiring them to use their knowledge in the setting of the scenario and make connections between topics.

It’s Not So Bad, You’ve Got This

Exams can be stressful, so it is natural to avoid thinking about them too much. However, understanding some of the design principles behind the exam can help to calm our nerves.

The exam topics come from Role Delineation Studies of real practitioners, not sadistic academics. The whole scope is defined in the Exam Content Outline and does not encompass every project management technique. Questions are based on scenarios to make sure we understand and can apply the concepts, not to confuse us with long-winded stories.

Like switching the light on to illuminate the source of a scary noise at night, more information usually reveals less for us to fear rather than the monster we had been dreading. Learning a little about the PMP exam structure explains a few factors and gives us one less thing to worry about.


[Note: For more articles from Mike Griffiths, visit his blog at Mike first wrote this article for here.]