Communicating Upwards for Effect


Advances in Project Management

By Dr Lynda Bourne

Melbourne, Australia

Effective communication between project stakeholders is always difficult and misunderstanding and confusion are easily created. The key to effective communication is clarity created through simplicity. As Albert Einstein once said “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. This is particularly true when trying to communicate project objectives to senor executives.

The communication problem is compounded by project management jargon; technical industry jargon and language differences. Within the ‘project community’ we have a range of terms that have a specific meaning, Critical activity, time now, EV, etc…  people in the general business community frequently use the same words in similar context but apply completely different meanings.  We say something; they attribute their different meaning and know they have understood exactly what we’ve said – but their understanding is not what we meant!

Albert Einstein also summarized the problem nicely: “The major problem in communication is the illusion that it has occurred.”  Without an accurate understanding it is impossible to agree, disagree or resolve anything.

Lewis Carroll considered communication in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1872): “When I use a word”, Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – nothing more and nothing less”. Interestingly, Humpty Dumpty’s view of communication is similar to that of most people.

The trouble is if you want to communicate with a purpose, the listener needs to understand what you have chosen the word to mean and this is not helped by the English language! A few examples to confuse anyone:

  • The bandage was wound around the wound.
  • The farm was used to produce produce.
  • The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
  • We must polish the Polish furniture.
  • I did not object to the object.
  • The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
  • They were too close to the door to close it.
  • The wind was too strong to wind in the sail.
  • After a number of injections my jaw got number.

No wonder the English language is hard to learn!


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Dr Lynda Bourne

Dr. Lynda Bourne is Managing Director of Stakeholder Management Pty Ltd – an Australian based company with partners in South America and Europe. Through this global network she works with organisations to manage change through managing the relationships essential for successful delivery of organisational outcomes.   Lynda was the first graduate of the RMIT University, Doctor of Project Management course, where her research was focussed on tools and techniques for more effective stakeholder engagement.  She has been recognised in the field of project management through her work on development of project and program management standards. She was also included in PMI’s list of 50 most influential women in PM.

She is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Management (AIM) and a Fellow of the Australian Computer Society (ACS).  She is a recognized international speaker and seminar leader on the topic of stakeholder management, the Stakeholder Circle® visualization tool, and building credibility and reputation for more effective communication.

She has extensive experience as a Senior Project Manager and Project Director specializing in delivery of information technology and other business-related projects within the telecommunications sector, working as a Senior IT Project Management Consultant with various telecommunications companies in Australia and South East Asia (primarily in Malaysia) including senior roles with Optus and Telstra.

Dr Bourne’s publications include: Stakeholder Relationship Management, now in 2nd edition, was published in 2009, the second, Advising Upwards in 2011. She has also contributed to books on stakeholder engagement, and has published papers in many academic and professional journals and is a columnist for PMI’s PM Network. Her next book Making Projects Work is due for publication in 2014.

Editor’s note: The PMWJ Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books published by Gower in the UK.  The articles are coordinated by series editor Prof Darren Dalcher, who is also the editor of the Gower Advances in Project Management series of books on new and emerging concepts in PM.  Prof Dalcher also provides an introduction to the current month’s article, which you can see elsewhere in this month’s edition.”  Information about the Gower series can be found at http://www.gowerpublishing.com/advancesinprojectmanagement.