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Sunday, May 30, 2010

To-may-to? To-mah-to?

You say to-may-to. I say to-mah-to. So what?

Well, different pronunciations are symptoms of different routes through life, each with its own history, values, practices . . . and language and interpretations. In the course of human events, few factors are more important than communication, and few are less well-understood.

For this very reason, thousands of failures are launched every day in the conference rooms of this country. Well-intentioned people try to function without common definitions. They are project managers, team members and other stakeholders trapped in a culture that dooms a majority of projects to failure, not infrequently total failure.

Overblown, you say? No, this is not simply a point of irritation for lingo freaks. It matters, a lot, to us all. Take, for example, the word “done.” Left to my own devices, I’ll make sure my part of the project is complete, finished according to my understanding of what should be included.

Yet, it may be lacking elements – perhaps important ones – required for subsequent project activities. The shortfalls may show up immediately, or it may be several steps down the road before they erupt. They can, and often do, cause severe schedule and cost problems as somebody else gets hit with an unexpected variance. Their assumptions didn’t match mine, and neither of us knew.

This problem is so pervasive that it is a fundamental piece of the general expectation that projects will never truly meet expectations regarding cost, schedule and quality. This assumption says something about attitudes toward communication, and therein lies a crucial issue for the project manager.

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