The role of Oration in Communication – a lost art?

October 30, 2012

The core purpose of communication is to elicit a change in perceptions, understanding or behaviour in the receiver; this is particularly true of communication with your team members. But if you want a person to remember or respond to the contents of the message, the first essential is for the message you are communicating to be ‘received’ – far too many messages are simply ignored because the sender is perceived as ‘boring’ or the message is seen as repetition of the same old information.

Effective written communication is a skill that is still appreciated and used by a range of professionals. How to write effectively is outlined in our White Paper WP1010 – Writing Skills  and page layout is discussed in WP1065.  However, you need to apply a completely different set of skills and re-structure the information if you want to communicate the same message verbally, this is the art of ‘oration’.

The Ancient Greeks developed the art of oratory over 2000 years ago. In classical Greece and Rome, the main component was rhetoric (that is, composition and delivery of speeches), and was an important skill in public and private life. Good orators are able to change the emotions of their listeners, not just inform them.

The ancient art of oration is still an important skill to acquire even when you have access to powerpoint or are only speaking to one or two people. The challenge of effective oral communication is staying on message (mixed messages don’t help anyone) whilst changing your style and rhythm to avoid becoming boring……

Great communicators use a similar approach to great music. It does not matter if you listen to Beethoven’s 5th or one of my favourites, Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ you find consistency and variety in the same piece. Patches of high intensity contrasted with quieter movements within a memorable and complete masterpiece.

The same effect can be achieved in your communication by balancing positive and negative elements of a message or changing the direction of the information flow, for example:

  • If you want someone to stop an undesirable behaviour certainly point out the problem (a negative) but also highlight the benefits of the change you want to occur (the positive).
  • Rather then just telling the team they are behind schedule change the direction of the information flow and ask then for ideas to regain the lost time.

The message can be consistent but the variety leads to engagement, the other key element is to finish on a high – great music does not fade away, it builds to a crescendo!

Really great communicators such as, Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, JFK and others all had a consistent heartfelt message they wanted to communicate in a way that would create a strong reaction in their listeners, all had very different speaking styles, but each had a real sense of rhythm and performance. Read any of their great speeches and you can see the words are carefully crafted for effect, but when you listen to the speech, the presentation adds enormous weight to the message.

Whilst you may never need to ‘fight on the landing fields’ or ‘have a dream’ to change a nation, taking the time to think through how you will present the information in your communication in a way that is engaging and memorable will help you be more effective in literally getting your message across to your audience.

Rhetorical devices
Effective communicators use a range of devices to increase the resonance of their message, some of the more common include:

1. Allusion: an indirect or casual reference to a historical or literary figure, event, or object (but the link has to be understood by the audience).

2. Antiphrasis: the use of a word opposite to its proper meaning; irony. Example: The project manager calmly yelled at his team about the importance of testing!

3. Apophasis: accentuating something by denying that it will be mentioned. Example: I won’t even mention that you misspelled the client’s name in the report.

4. Aporia: expressing doubt about an idea, conclusion, or position.

5. Aposiopesis: stopping abruptly and leaving a statement unfinished, giving the impression that the writer or speaker is unwilling or unable to continue. Example: Pat’s behaviour in the meeting made it clear to everyone that he was . . . but we won’t go there.

6. Analogy: a comparison of two things. Metaphors and similes are both types of analogy.

7. Hyperbole: using exaggeration for emphasis or effect; overstatement. Example: If you take the challenge of speaking to the team too seriously, you will surely go mad.

8. Sententia: quoting a maxim or wise saying to apply a general truth to the situation, thereby offering a single statement of general wisdom. Example: Perhaps we should all remember what Stephen King once said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

9. Pleonasm: using more words than necessary to express an idea.

10. Epizeuxis: the immediate repetition of words for emphasis. Example: The answer to that question is no, no, no, a thousand times no (used a lot by politicians…)

You don’t need to remember the names of these techniques but the concepts can help develop the effectiveness your communication in every circumstance. Formal presentations also need preparation, for more on this see WP1009 – Presentation Skills.

Developing an effective oral communication capability is a skill that requires practice and benefits from pre-planning before you start an important communication. How much time do you spend working on the data in your messages compared to the way you are going to communicate the information?

PMBOK 5th Edition some key changes #1

October 20, 2012

We are starting work on the updates to our training courses needed for next year and rather like most of the enhancements in the 5th Edition (due for publication on 31st December). Over the next few months we will be posting a number of commentaries on the changes and improvements. This post looks at some of the key changes.

The new PMBOK® guide now has 47 processes (up from 42) and a new Knowledge Area:

Four planning processes have been added: Plan Scope Management (back from the 3rd Edition), Plan Schedule Management, Plan Cost Management, and Plan Stakeholder Management. This change provides clearer guidance for the concept that each major Knowledge Area has a need for the project team to actively think through and plan how aspects from the related processes are planned and managed, and that each of the subsidiary plans are integrated through the overall project management plan, which is the major planning document for guiding further project planning and execution.

The addition of a new knowledge area called ‘Stakeholder Management’ making 10 Knowledge areas is great news!! In keeping with the evolution of thinking regarding stakeholder management within projects, this new Knowledge Area has been added addressing Project Stakeholder Management. Information on stakeholder identification and managing stakeholder expectations was moved from Project Communications Management to this new Knowledge Area to expand upon and increase the focus on the importance of appropriately engaging project stakeholders in the key decisions and activities associated with the project. New processes were added for Plan Stakeholders Management and Control Stakeholders Engagement. We will be discussing this important initiative in later posts.

Data flows and knowledge management concepts have been enhanced:

The PMBOK® Guide now conforms to the DIKW (data, information, knowledge, wisdom) model used in the field of Knowledge Management. Information/Data is segregated into three phases:

Work Performance Data. The raw observations and measurements identified during the performance of the project work, such as measuring the percent of work physically completed.

Work Performance Information. The results from the analysis of the performance data, integrated across areas such as the implementation status of change requests, or forecasts to complete.

Work Performance Reports. The physical or electronic representation of work performance information compiled in project documents, intended to generate decisions, actions, or awareness.

Understanding the information in the reports and making wise decisions are functions of the competence of the individual manager reading the report and are therefore beyond the scope of a process (for more on effective communication see:

Annex A1 – The Standard for Project Management of a Project created.

This new annex has been designed to serve as a standalone document. This positions the Standard for Project Management away from the main body of the PMBOK® Guide material allowing the evolution of the Body of Knowledge material to be separated from the actual Standard for Project Management. Chapter 3 remains as the bridge between Sections 1 and 2 and the Knowledge Area sections and introduces the project management processes and Process Groups as in the previous editions of the PMBOK® Guide.

More next time.

The limitations of root cause analysis

October 15, 2012

Learning lessons from projects is not as simple as you may think! Projects are complex adaptive systems linking people, processes and technology – in this environment, useful answers are rarely simple.

Certainly when things go wrong stakeholders, almost by default, want a simple explanation of the problem which tends to lead to a search for the ‘root cause’. There are numerous techniques to assist in the process including Ishikawa (fishbone) diagrams that look at cause and effect; and Toyota’s ‘Five Whys’ technique which asserts that by asking ‘Why?’ five times, successively, can you delve into a problem deeply enough to understand the ultimate root cause. The chart below outlines a ‘Five Whys’ analysis of the most common paint defect (‘orange peel’ is an uneven finish that looks like the surface of an orange):


These are valuable techniques for understanding the root cause of a problem in simple systems (for more on the processes see WP1085, Root Cause Analysis); however, in complex systems a different paradigm exists.

Failures in complex socio-technical systems such as a project teams do not have a single root cause. And the assumption that for each specific failure (or success), there is a single unifying event that triggers a chain of other events that leads to the outcome is a myth that deserves to be busted! For more on complexity and complex systems see: A Simple View of ‘Complexity’ in Project Management).

Complex system failures typically emerge from a confluence of conditions and occurrences (elements) that are usually associated with the pursuit of success, but in a particular combination, are able to trigger failure instead. Each element is necessary but they are only jointly sufficient to cause the failure when combined in a specific sequence. Therefore in order to learn from the failure (or success), an approach is needed that considers that:

  • …complex systems involve not only technology but organisational (social, cultural) influences, and those deserve equal (if not more) attention in investigation.
  • …fundamentally surprising results come from behaviours that are emergent. This means they can and do come from components interacting in ways that cannot be predicted.
  • …nonlinear behaviours should be expected. A small change in starting conditions can result in catastrophically large and cascading failures.
  • …human performance and variability are not intrinsically coupled with causes. Terms like ‘situational awareness’ or ‘lack of training’ are blunt concepts that can mask the reasons why it made sense for someone to act in a way that they did with regards to a contributing cause of a failure.
  • …diversity of components and complexity in a system can augment the resilience of a system, not simply bring about vulnerabilities.

This is a far more difficult undertaking that recognises complex systems have emergent behaviours, not resultant ones. There are several systemic accident models available including Hollnagel’s FRAM, Leveson’s STAMP that can help build a practical approach for learning lessons effectively (you can Google these if you are interested…..)

In the meantime, the next time you read or hear a report with a singular root cause, alarms should go off, particularly if the root cause is ‘human error’. If there is only a single root cause, someone has not dug deep enough! But beware; the desire for a simple wrong answer is deeply rooted. The tendency to look for singular root causes comes from the tenets of reductionism that are the basis of Newton physics, scientific management and project management (for more on this see: The Origins of Modern Project Management).

Certainly starting with the outcome and working backwards towards an originally triggering event along a linear chain feels intuitive and the process derives a simple answer that validates our innate hindsight and outcome bias. However the requirement for a single answer tends to ignore surrounding circumstances in favour of a cherry-picked list of events and it tends to focus too much on individual components and not enough on the interconnectedness of components Emergent behaviours are driven by the interconnections and most complex system failures are emergent

This assumption that each presenting symptom has only one cause that can be defined as an answer to the ‘why?’ is the fundamental weakness within a reductionist approach used in the ‘Five Whys’ chart above. The simple answer to each ‘why’ question may not reveal the several jointly sufficient causes that in combination explain the symptom. More sophisticated approached are needed such as the example below dealing with a business problem:


The complexity of the fifth ‘why’ in the table above can be crafted into a lesson that can be learned and implemented to minimise problems in the future but it is not simple!

The process of gathering ‘lessons learned’ has just got a lot more complex.

Thoughts on communication

October 8, 2012

There have been a couple of ‘stories’ in the Australian media of late that suggest a fundamental change in the communication landscape is emerging. One is the ongoing furore around a comment in very bad taste made by radio presenter Alan Jones at a private function organised by a political party, the other concerns perceptions about one of our political leaders. For the purpose of this post, the facts of the two situations are less important than the trends they suggest are emerging.

The Australian government does not try to moderate good taste and within sensible limits around defamation, incitement and vilification we enjoy the privilege of freedom of speech which I believe is critically important; therefore:

Alan Jones has a right to exhibit bad taste and make his comment and the 1000s of other people who are using social media to express their objection to the comment have an equal right to ‘free speech’ and the whinging from the 2GB management (Jones’ radio station) about the effect of the social media campaign on their advertisers is also ‘free speech’.

Having said that, what I believe is really interesting is the shift in power that is evident. As a high profile radio presenter, Jones used to have almost complete power, he controlled the microphone, could rubbish detractors on air and cut off their response. That power still remains but has been circumvented by social media; a sustained campaign by the ‘twittering classes’ has cost 2GB hundreds of thousands of dollars in cancelled advertising – a new paradigm for directors and managers to deal with.

In a similar vein, the ongoing ‘noise’ around opposition leader Tony Abbot’s attitude to women will be interesting to watch through to a conclusion, if one is ever reached……

But even at this early stage there are a number of observations that are likely to become increasingly important in an effective stakeholder engagement and communication model for any entity; both individuals and organisations.

  1. Negativity is becoming a very dangerous weapon to deploy. American politicians of all persuasions have been running negative advertising about politicians of the other persuasion for many years. The negative advertising has worked, the America public consistently place politicians at the very bottom of any list based on ethics, trust, etc. Used car salesmen and journalists are preferred to politicians and the situation is not much different in Australia. If you start using negativity, the power of social media to spread the negativity almost guarantees it will come back to damage the initiator. In the connected age, negativity is rapidly becoming a WSD (of similar power to a WMD but read ‘weapon of self destruction’).
  2. Perceptions are easily created and hard to dispel or change. I have no idea how Tony Abbot actually works with women, but a negative perception has emerged. Perceptions are frequently wrong, but they are based on what people believe they saw or heard. Consequently this type of social perception cannot be changed by people with a vested interest telling others they are wrong, to quote Margaret Thatcher “Power is like being a lady… if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t” – the same applies to perceptions. Perceptions can be managed but they are built over time and have to be changed over time and this can only be achieved with a sustained change in observed behaviour – words are not going to do anything.
  3. There seems to be an emerging disconnect between perceptions and emotions and reality. This was the focus of my blog post Credit, Trust and Emotions. What’s not mentioned in the blog, but is in the RBA report, is that non-mining business investment has been increasing rapidly despite the flat business sentiment. The real economic situation and actual investment levels are aligned, but the business sentiment is failing to recognise business reality.

Managing a corporate image, your project’s image within the organisation or your personal image is certainly getting to be a whole lot harder. What I’m wondering based on the above is, are we starting to see a real shift from positional power, supported by negativity and traditional advertising to something more subtle, distributed and potentially positive, and if so how can this be effectively managed?

Productivity decline should generate more projects

October 6, 2012

Projects and programs are the key organisational change agents for creating the capability to improve productivity through new systems, processes and facilities. But only if sensible projects are started for the right reason.

Declines in productivity seem to be widespread. In Australia, labour productivity in the market sectors of the economy increased at 2.8% per annum between 1945 and 2001, reducing by 50% to an annual rate of 1.4% between 2001 and 2001.

  • The measure of Labour Productivity is the gross value added per hour of work.
  • The ‘market sectors’ measured exclude public administration, education and healthcare where measurement is almost impossible.

Some of this change can be attributed to macro economic factors, there were massive efficiency gains derived from the shift from paper based ‘mail’ and copy typist to the electronic distribution of information, improved global transport systems (particularly containerisation) and the restructuring of manufacturing post WW2. These massive changes in the last half of the 20th century are not being replicated in current.

Whilst this decline in the rate of improvement in labour productivity is significant, the capital inclusive index is a more telling statistic. The multi-factor productivity index which includes the capital invested in production, giving a purer measure of the efficiency with which labour and capital are combined to produce goods and services. In the six years leading up to 2001, this measure of productivity grew by an average of 1.5% per annum, in the decade between 2001 and 2011 this reversed and productivity fell by 0.4% per annum.

Around 40% of the decline in the last decade can be explained by massive investments in mining and utilities that have yet to generate a return on the capital invested. The other 60% represents the massive cost of ‘new capabilities’ in general business for relatively small, or no improvement in productivity.

One has only to look at the ever increasing number of ‘bells and whistles’ built into software systems ranging from high definition colour screens to features that are never used (and the cost of upgrading to the ‘new system’) to understand the problem. 90% of the efficiency gain came with the introduction of the new system many years ago, the on-going maintenance and upgrade costs often equal the original investment but without the corresponding improvement in productivity. Another area of ‘investment’ for 0% increase in productivity is compliance regimes. Whilst there may be good social arguments for many of these requirements, the infrastructure and systems needed to comply with the regulations consume capital and labour without increasing productivity.

In Australia general management have been rather slow to appreciate the challenge of declining productivity, the impact being cushioned by a range of other factors that helped drive profitability. But this has changed significantly in the last year or so. There is now an emerging recognition that productivity enhancing organisational change is an imperative; and smart management recognise this cannot be achieved through capability limiting cost reductions.

Organisations that thrive in the next decade will:

  • Enhance customer satisfaction and service,
  • Enhance their engagement with their workforce, the community and other stakeholders,
  • Enhance their products and capabilities, and
  • Improve their labour productivity.

Achieving a viable balance across all four areas will require an effective, balanced strategy supported by the efficient implementation of the strategic intent through effective portfolio, program and project management capabilities that encompass benefits realisation and value creation.

The three key capabilities needed to achieve this are:

  • The ability to develop a meaningful and practical strategic plan.
  • An effective Project Delivery Capability (PDC); see: WP1079_PDC.
  • An effective Organisational Change Management Capability; see: WP1078_Change_Management.

Improving productivity is a major challenge for both general management and the project management community; and the contribution of stakeholder management and project management to the overall effort will continue to be a focus for this blog.

Linking Innovation to Value

October 1, 2012

In a recent post looking at the The failure of strategic planning  and the overall value delivery chain centred on projects and programs, the link between innovation and the strategic plan was raised briefly. The purpose of this post it to take a closer look at this critical ‘front end’ of the value chain because it does not matter how well you do the wrong projects! The ability to generate sustainable value for an organisation’s stakeholders requires the right projects to be done for the right reasons; and yes, they also need to be done right!

The section of the ‘value chain’ leading into a portfolio management decision to select a project or program as a viable investment is far more complex than the section after. Once a project or program has been selected, it needs to be accomplished efficiently, the outputs transferred to the organisation and the organisation adapt to make efficient use of the ‘deliverables’ to realise the intended benefits and generate value. This flow of work is primarily the responsibility of the project/program sponsor initially supported by project and program management, and then by organisational ‘line management’ until the final transition to ‘business as usual’ operations.

Developing a business case to the point where it can be accepted for investment is more complex, involves a wide spectrum of managers and potentially involves a number loops.

The three elements in this section of the overall ‘value chain’ are a viable strategic plan, a realistic business case that supports an element of the strategy and an effective portfolio management system to optimise the overall portfolio of projects and programs the organisation is capable of investing in.

The key is an effective and viable strategic planning process that is capable of developing a realistic strategy that encompasses both support and enhancements for business as usual, as well as innovation. Strategic planning is a complex and skilled process outside of the scope of this post – for now we will assume the organisation is capable of effective strategic planning.

The sign of an ineffective, unresponsive strategic planning process is seeing business cases fired off by business units without any reference to the strategic plan or worse projects being started without strategic alignment. The option to bypass the strategic planning may be valid in an emergency but not as a routine option. In a well disciplined value creation process, the portfolio management team simply reject business cases that cannot demonstrate alignment with the organisations strategic intentions. The red arrow in the diagram above simply should not be allowed to occur in anything other then an emergency situation.

The Portfolio/Strategic link (blue arrow)
There is a close link between the portfolio management processes  and strategic planning – what’s actually happening in the organisation’s existing projects and programs is one of the baselines needed to maintain an effective strategic plan (others include the current operational baseline and changes in the external environment). In the other direction, the current/updated strategy informs the portfolio decision making processes. The strategic plan is the embodiment of the organisation’s intentions for the future and the role of portfolio management is to achieve the most valuable return against this plan within the organisation’s capacity and capability constraints.

Routine inputs to the Strategic Plan (light green arrows)
The routine inputs to the strategic planning process come from the ‘organisation’ and include requirements, opportunities, enhancements and process innovations (eg, new software releases). These basic inputs are the core information required for strategic planning and form the majority of the new information in each update of the strategy.

The Innovation / Strategic Plan loop (light blue arrows)
This is the first of the more complex spaces – innovative ideas can come from anywhere in the business and are actively encouraged by leading organisations such as Google and 3M. Conversely, an organisational objective may require innovation to allow it to come to fruition. One of the most challenging objectives in recent times was Kennedy’s commitment to “before this decade is out, [land] a man on the moon and return him safely to earth.” The amount of scientific innovation required to achieve this objective was incredible.

The organisation’s governance processes and strategic development processes need to both encourage innovation whilst recognising that not every innovative idea will be appropriate for the overall development of the organisation. This requires the implementation of systems to encourage innovation, collect and sort innovative ideas and move the ‘right’ ideas into the strategic plan, where necessary revising and changing the plan to grab the innovative advantage.

The Feasibility loop (orange and yellow arrows)
Having innovative ideas and creative business cases is one thing, validating the feasibility of an idea is altogether different! The ability to test, validate and work-up innovative ideas into practical project specifications is a critical organisational capability. On mega projects the pre-feasibility and feasibility studies may in fact be significant projects in their own right involving considerable expenditure, feeding back to a gateway or portfolio management process to allow the next stage of the project to commence.

Several of the ‘gateways’ defined in most standard ‘gateway processes’ precede the commissioning of the main project and the organisation needs the capability to make informed decisions based on good quality information. This aspect of the value creation chain is industry specific and may be a central function or distributed across different business centres. What matters is the capability exists with the necessary skills to validate ideas and design projects ready for the more traditional project management processes to take over once the project is formally authorised.

The long term viability of any organisation depends on its ability to innovate. Traditional project and program management focus on doing the selected projects/programs ‘right’. But it is the ‘front end’ processes discussed in this post leading up to the investment decision that determine if the ‘right’ project is being selected for the ‘right’ reasons!

The effective governance of an organisation should require its management to invest sufficient skills and resources in these ‘front end’ processes to ensure a steady flow of innovative ideas, feeding into an effective and flexible strategic planning system, linked to a disciplined portfolio management process; to ensure the optimum mix of ‘right’ projects and programs are commissioned and supported.