The term would be “death penalty,” but TV editorialist Emily Litella would hear “deaf penalty.” She would rant on with increasing fury about it until the news anchor would correct her faulty perception.
Instantly deflated but not at all contrite, Emily would smile sweetly and say, “Never mind.”
It was a standard Gilda Radner schtick in the Saturday Night Live phony newscast, and it usually was pretty funny.
Something similar frequently afflicts projects and other human activities, and it’s never funny – at least for the people it happens to.
Mishearing what is said or misunderstanding what is meant can lead to costly mistakes and shattered relationships, especially when the environment is complex and pressured, and the stakes are high.
In many interactions, the escalation from remark to conflict to alienation is fueled by unexamined assumptions and failed communication.
Think about it. When someone does something that appears insensitive or hostile, our instant response often is negative – especially if we don’t know the person well, or haven’t developed a dependable connection with him or her.
We may signal our disapproval, and the original person may respond with his or her own annoyance or perhaps hostile withdrawal. There can be rising negativity that does serious damage to the relationship – and to any joint effort that involves them.
But what if the original act or word resulted from a simple lack of information, or an innocent misunderstanding of some kind?
What if my reaction had been a low-octane inquiry (“Gee, how come you feel that way?”) or a nonaccusatory comment (“I’m a little surprised you feel so strongly about that.”) You’re gently probing for meaning.
You improve the odds for a happier outcome with such an attitude, and not just in your words. People are very sensitive to tone and body language. If you have developed an instant dislike, they know it. And vice versa.
They monitor those nonverbals continuously without really being aware of it. And their own signals tell you how they feel, whether they want you to know or not.
In the management of projects, a frequent complicating factor is that team members are drawn involuntarily into temporary partnership from separate specialties and organizational units.
They may not understand each other very well, and sometimes they are wary because of a history of unsatisfactory collaboration between their organizations.
All of the above – terminology, definition, personal issues, communication slips and organizational mythology – builds up to mandate careful preparation and sensitive communication practices on the part of the project leadership.
And, amid the uncertainty and time pressure that often becloud the origination of projects, definition and clarification frequently don’t get anywhere near the attention they deserve.
Failures of understanding and preparation erupt, often much later, into serious problems. At that point, the problems are far more time-consuming and uncomfortable than the communication and negotiation would have been ‘way back at the beginning.
Still, it’s hard to get project team members to sit still for adequate establishment of priorities, deliverable specifications, risk management and communication protocols. They want to get going.
For that matter, project managers themselves can be impatient.
The upshot is a failure of proper emphasis on working out the foundational agreements and specifications that are vital to the success of all the succeeding decisions and activities of their projects.
Well then, someone has to have the mindset and the process to get this stuff done properly right up front.
The model is the inquiring project manager.
Nothing is accepted with a superficial “OK.” You stop and take a good look at whatever it is. You ask for a thorough description, then one more level of detail. You want to know what has been done in skills inventory, risk management.
You want to be sure everything possible has been thought of, and taken care of.
Otherwise, much unnecessary project work will be required to make up for the omission and repair the damage.
When project outcomes fall short of goal, it is often because of what happened – and what didn’t happen – at the time of preparation and launch.
You never get to smile sweetly and say, “Never mind.”
See also: "Mis-sending Mixed Messages"
See also: "Mis-sending Mixed Messages"