Mind your language

August 15, 2014

Communicating ideas effectively to another person needs a common language, and a common understanding of the meaning of the symbols used in the language. While this sounds simple, language can take many forms including images, sounds and writing. This post is going to focus on the design and use of images as the language for communication.

The use of images as a language stretches back to the Ancient Egyptians. They developed a written language based on stylised pictures whereas the civilisations in the ‘fertile crescent’ developed cuneiform text.

1.hieroglyphics

Whist we may not be able to read the Egyptian script, many of these hieroglyphs are easily understandable.

2.cuneiform_script

Whereas the cuneiform script is completely indecipherable. However, just because we can identify a goose at the top of the third column of the hieroglyphs, it does not mean we understand its meaning!

A simplified graphical language can provide a really useful way of communicating complex information but when you use the language, you need to be sure the people you are communicating with have the same level of understanding you do and ‘see’ the same message.

One of the first attempts to stylise complex information and to make it accessible and easy to understand was the development of the London Underground map.

The London Underground Map

The London Underground is one of the most complicated systems in the world.  By the middle of the 20th century the map was becoming too complicated for easy use.

1931 Underground Map.

1930 Underground Map.

The concept of the topological map we all know and use was developed by Henry Charles Beck. ‘Harry’ Beck was an English engineering draftsman at the London Underground Signals Office. He developed the first ‘topological map’ in his spare time, based on an electrical wiring diagram.

London Underground was initially sceptical of Beck’s radical proposal and tentatively introduced to the public in a small pamphlet in 1933. It immediately became popular, and the Underground has used topological maps to illustrate the network ever since. There is even a book on the map: Ken Garland’s, Mr Beck’s Underground Map (Capital Transport Publishing 1994). The book describes the enormous care, craft, thought, and hard work of Harry Beck that went on for decades (exactly what it takes to do great information design).

Beck’s version of the 1930 Map.

Beck’s version of the 1930 Map.

This style of communication has carried through to modern times but is not without its problems – you can easily get to the station you want, but there is no indication of how close or how far apart different stations are ‘on the surface’ – particularly if the stations are on different lines.

The current London Underground Map.

The current London Underground Map.

Success is contagious; most transport maps world-wide follow Henry Beck’s lead and a new universal language has been created.

Part of the new Melbourne Tram Map, using a version of Beck’s language.

Part of the new Melbourne Tram Map, using a version of Beck’s language.

The Melbourne map uses the same style as the underground map – lines are vertical horizontal or at 45 degrees, but unlike the underground stations, tram stops are not shown; the designers believe the street names and route numbers are more important.

Part of the Stuttgart Metro map

Part of the Stuttgart Metro map

Based on your knowledge of the London or Melbourne maps, you do not need to be able to read German to have a good idea how to navigate the Stuttgart metro from the Hauptbahnhof to the Zoo. The language of transport maps has become fairly standard world-wide.

However, design of the communication is still important; the designers of each map need to decide what is important (eg, the route numbers on the tram map), what is emphasised, what is suppressed, and what is left out – bad design can reduce the elegance of the communication and block understanding. Whereas innovation can enhance it – the Tokyo train system has its trains painted the same colour as the line used on the transport map – the orange trains follow the orange route and you ret to the right platform by following the orange signs!

A similar convergence of communication style has occurred with in-car road maps. Most books and electronic sat-nav systems use a stylised language similar to the map of North Sydney (below) – another language designed for a specific purpose.

North Sydney

North Sydney

For the purpose of navigating a car to the ‘Aiki Kunren Dojo’, this ‘simplified road map’ is far more useful than the 100% accurate photograph of the same location!

North Sydney

North Sydney

The style of the road map above has been taken ‘virtual’ and global by several organisations including Tomtom. You do not need to be able to read the street names or understand the spoken advice ‘turn left in ……’ to follow the map – the pictures say it all and are just as effective in Shanghai and Munich as Sydney or Melbourne.

10.TomTom

When designing a graphical communication language, useful, accurate and fully detailed are not synonymous! Both of the mapping languages discussed so far are really simple to use provided you have learned to ‘read the language’ and interpret them correctly. But as we all know North Sydney looks like the Google Earth photograph (not the map) and Melbourne’s geography only has a passing resemblance to the tram map – but we have learned how to read the ‘language’ and can then use that knowledge of the language to understand similar maps in different cities.

Project Maps

The same challenge applies to project dashboards, reports, and artefacts such as bar charts and CPM diagrams. Creating an appropriate level of understanding in a person’s mind about the true situation of the project and your intended work plans requires appropriate information to be communicated in a language that is understandable to the stakeholder. In this context, ‘appropriate’ does not mean complete or fully detailed; selecting the right level of detail is in itself an art form.  The bar chart below may be fully detailed and precise but it is not a good communication tool!

11.CPM

And while preferred by many project controls professionals, the CPM logic diagram below is even less likely to work as a communication tool for stakeholders.

12.cpm

These specialist languages are useful to trained project controls professionals and some experienced project management professionals but are too complex for most communication needs.

As suggested above, effective communication does not need fully detailed or accurate representation. What is needed is ‘useful’ information that can be used!  You do not need to be an expert in directional boring to understand the plan for this project (all that is missing is the timing for each stage):

13.storyline

Simple is good, simplistic is dangerous! One of the popular options for reporting project status is using simplistic ‘red-amber-green’ (RAG) traffic lights such as these:

14.RAG health_image

We know there is a scope problem but there is no real indication of the seriousness of the situation or how far into the ‘red zone’ the project actually is.  Rather than the simplistic 3 point RAG scale, the same information can be displayed using more insightful tools:

15.Beter option

Any of the ‘gauges’ will tell you where within each band the project is situated, add in a simple ‘change’ report and the trend becomes apparent as well. The art is knowing how much information is enough.

Conclusion

From the hieroglyphs of the Ancient Egyptians to the Tomtom road map, the art of using pictures for effective communication is creating a set of symbols that communicate your ideas and information simply and accurately, and then taking the time to teach your stakeholders how to read the language.

Effective communication, focused on obtaining the understanding and buy-in from a stakeholder needed to deliver a successful project requires:

  • Understanding who are the key stakeholders at ‘this point in time’ that you need to influence;
  • Understanding their needs and the best way to communicate with them (the Stakeholder Circle®  methodology is designed for this purpose);
  • Communicating the appropriate amount of information in a way that can be understood by the stakeholder; and then,
  • Taking the time to help the person reach a proper understanding.

The communication challenge is recognising that some concepts will be easy to communicate in some communities of stakeholders, others will be more difficult; and people are frightened of things they don’t understand.

Designing an effective communication strategy requires the project team and project leaders to firstly derive a common understanding between themselves, then determine what the key stakeholders actually understand, then determine how to communicate effectively with the key stakeholders to build their understanding to the level needed to get the ‘buy-in’ required to make the project successful.

Effective communication is the tool that builds understanding, reduces opposition based in ‘fear of the unknown’ and generates a framework for success – for more on effective communication see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/PM-Knowledge_Index.html#PPM07


Effective Communication = Effective Project Stakeholder Management

May 17, 2014

A small group of project manager s spent an enjoyable 90 minutes in an ‘un-conference session’ during the Project Zone Congress  earlier this month discussing the biggest single challenge to project success – stakeholders!  Depending on the type of project, between 50% and 90% of the risks in the risk register are associated with stakeholders.

Agreement was quickly reached by the group on the proposition that ‘stakeholders’ are a very wide and diverse group, some supportive and useful, others negative and obstructive and all with different needs and aspirations; so the conversation quickly moved onto the management of stakeholders and the proposition that ‘effective stakeholder management = effective stakeholder communication’.   But what does effective mean?  There is probably not a lot of point in communicating if you do not want an ‘effect’.

To be effective, the project’s stakeholder engagement and communication planning needs to develop an overall strategy for these two closely linked processes and then identify appropriate tactics to maximise the probability of achieving a successful project outcome.

Strategy

Effective communication is the key, and there are three general classes of communication; reporting, public relations and purposeful communication.

Reporting fulfils two useful purposes; firstly it demonstrates you are running your project properly, project managers are expected to produce reports and have schedules, etc., issuing reports shows that you are conforming to expectations[1].  Secondly, copying a report to a person keeps you in touch with them for when more significant communications are needed.  Reporting may not be communication but it is useful[2].

Public relations (PR) cover the broadcast communications needed to provide information to the wider stakeholder community to market the value of the project and to prevent information ‘black holes’ developing that breed misinformation and rumour.  The power of social media to amplify bad news is massive and it is nearly impossible to kill rumours once they have started even if the information being circulated is completely false.  Effective PR using a range of available mediums including web portals and social media can mitigate (but cannot eliminate) this type of negative influence on your stakeholders, both within the organisation and externally.

Developing an effective PR campaign is a skilled communications process but well worth the effort on almost every project. It is far easier to create a good first impression than to try to change an already formed bad impression among your stakeholders. This aspect of project communication is probably the most underrated and under used.

Purposeful  communication is hard work and needs to be focused on the important stakeholders (both positive and negative) with whom you need to cause an effect. Purposeful communication needs to be planned, which means you need to know precisely what effect you are seeking and then work out how to achieve the effect. This usually means you want the stakeholder to start to do something, do something differently or stop doing something.  Some of the tactics that can be used to make your communication effective include:

  • WIFM – ‘what is in it for me’ – try to align your needs with something the stakeholder desires (this is called Mutuality).
  • WIFMF – ‘what is in it for my friend’ – if there is no practical WIFM is there something the stakeholders friends of colleagues may benefit from?
  • Build peer pressure through the stakeholder’s network of contacts.  It’s hard to hold out against a group.
  • Use your network to develop persuasive pressure.
  • Delivering information incrementally in a carefully planned way with different people playing different roles in the communication plan.

Effective communication needs to be designed to be effective within the stakeholder’s culture. This means leaning how the person operates and what is normal for them – you need to communicate within their paradigm.  And you need regular testing of the overall communication process to make sure it’s working effectively.

Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security just because everything in your stakeholder environment is currently peaceful and productive. A ‘big mission’ or crisis can override culture for a short time and make a group seem like a homogeneous team but once the pressure is off people revert to their normal behaviours and unexpected issues can emerge – constant vigilance and maintenance of key relationships is critical to achieving final success

Constant surveillance and routine reassessments of the stakeholder community and of the effectiveness of your communication strategy and tactics is essential to understanding how your stakeholder community is evolving and to monitor the effectiveness of the communications[3]. Based on these assessments you can adjust the strategy and tactics you are using to ensure on-going effective stakeholder engagement.

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[1] For more on the artefacts needed to be ‘seen as a proper project manager’ see: http://eprints.usq.edu.au/20949/3/Whitty_PMOz_2011_PV.pdf

[2] For more on the difference between reporting and communicating see ‘Beyond Reporting – The Communication Strategy’:  http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/Resources_Papers_094.html.

[3] For more on prioritising stakeholders and assessing the effectiveness of communications see: http://www.stakeholder-management.com/shopcontent.asp?type=methodology-description


Communicating Success

October 22, 2013

As reported by PMI’s 2013 Pulse of the Profession™, an organisation’s ability to meet project timelines, budgets and especially goals significantly impacts its ability to survive. The Pulse study also demonstrated that the most crucial success factor in project management is effective stakeholder communication. PMI’s findings show that high performing organisations are more effective communicators and that organisations assessed as highly-effective communicators are five times more likely to be high performers than minimally-effective communicators. To read more download the report: The High Cost of Low Performance – The Essential Role of Communication.

There are probably several reasons for this strong correlation between effective communication and project success. From the broader stakeholder management perspective, projects and programs are only really successful once their outputs have been adopted by the stakeholders within the end user community and are being used to generate value. This means changing the way the stakeholders and the organisation work, which requires change!  Creating the desire for change within the affected stakeholder community requires highly effective communication and interestingly, if the communication is believed, the way people react and feel changes in response to the messages.

Research in Australia, New Zealand and the USA has consistently demonstrated physical changes in people based on what they have been told. Scientific studies ‘down under’ have shown people who are told wind turbines cause health problems experience health problems. The symptoms of ‘wind farm syndrome’ are only found in English speaking communities that have been exposed to anti-wind farm propaganda.  For more on this see: Wind farm:  https://theconversation.com/how-the-power-of-suggestion-generates-wind-farm-symptoms-12833 and https://theconversation.com/new-study-wind-turbine-syndrome-is-spread-by-scaremongers-12834.

Positive effects can also be communicated, in a 2007 study, Harvard researchers told one group of female hotel attendants that their usual duties met the surgeon-general’s recommendations for an exercise regimen. Four weeks later, the researchers found improvements in blood pressure, body mass index, and other health indices among the informed group, relative to a control group of attendants that had not been so informed.

These effects appear to be real, Hilke Plassmann, Assistant Professor of Marketing at INSEAD reports that a study she co-conducted in 2008 measuring neural responses to drinking wine showed different responses to ‘cheap’ and ‘expensive’ wines. But, the researchers deliberately misled participants about the prices of the wines, claiming one cost US$45 when it actually cost US$5 and presenting another as costing US$10 when it really retailed for US$90.

Participants were instructed to sample various wines through a straw from inside an MRI machine which allowed their brain activity to be observed while they were consuming the wine. What was found were changes in the neural activity in an area called the medial orbitofrontal cortex, which is an area that encodes our experience of pleasure.

The findings highlighted the speed with which humans form lasting impressions that synthesise all types of data. The bias kicks in at a very early stage, and for the wine tasters, it really changed their taste perception.

From sportswear to cars, expectations of a product or service can actually create a resulting experience. Consumers are constantly told that the latest Nike running shoes or Mercedes-Benz can offer higher performance. Consumers believe it, they make a purchase and they experience it. What this implies in the realm of project stakeholder management is the conversations around your project will have a direct effect on how people experience the change!  Negative gossip and scaremongering will cause bad reactions, positive news creates positive experiences.

The expectations created by communication (or lack thereof) will tend to become self fulfilling prophecies – to make this work for you, you need to communicate to your stakeholders the expectation that the change your project is creating will be beneficial and good for the majority of the stakeholders.  If this message is both true and believed (the two elements are not automatically connected), the experience of the stakeholders is more likely to be positive.

Achieving this level of communication requires a combination of strategic thinking backed up by effective implementation, with a clear thread of responsibility running throughout.  The best strategists believe:

  • If I can’t articulate how we’re actually going to make this project work, it probably won’t work. They know that there are a lot of gaps, holes, and challenges in their strategies. They tirelessly keep a critical eye on the viability of their plans and stay curious — continuously asking themselves and others, how will this really work? When they find issues, they team up with others and fix it.
  • While it’s painful to integrate execution planning into strategising, it’s even more painful to watch the strategies fail. Good strategists understand that effective planning leads to effective execution and outcomes.
  • Sounding smart is overrated. Doing smart is where the real value lies. Ideas are just that — ideas. They know that if they’re not executed well, their strategies are nothing more than daydreams.

The best executors believe:

  • They need to be involved in the strategy process early and contribute practical insights to the overall development of the objectives.

  • They need to know the “whys” behind the strategy. They want to know the intent and the thinking behind the strategy.

Communicating for success means making a significant proportion of your stakeholders into ‘executors’ who believe in the benefits of the project/program and use their beliefs to influence others. Authenticity is crucial but so is passion and communication.