Learning the new language of projectspeak
I have become bilingual. I now speak both English and projectspeak. It’s taken me a while and I’m far from fluent but one feels a milestone has been passed on the roadmap towards this deliverable. Once upon a time I was a journalist, a humble hack toiling in the sweaty no-nonsense newsrooms of the UK. But then I climbed the greasy pole of BBC management and in no time at all – just 20 years – I found myself programme director of the BBC’s largest-ever capital project. The £1.046bn endeavour to redevelop broadcasting house in London was already half way through. Sorry, I forgot to add ‘…its life cycle’ at the end of that last sentence.
And so, at the advanced age of 47, I had to learn a new language – especially if I was going to chair all these meetings with professional project managers in them.
Before 2008 I would have described ‘an operating model’ as Kate Moss. I believed that ‘users’ took drugs, ‘stakeholders’ were the mob of villagers in Dracula films and the only ‘benefits’ I had come across were something of an obsession for Iain Duncan Smith.
But now the scales had fallen from my eyes. I had discovered projectspeak. It was clearly time that I became uberefficient with my optimal organisational and personal capability and so, dear reader, I made it a critical dependency.
At one stage a highly paid consultant spent two hours patiently explaining the difference between a project and a programme to me. Getting this simple distinction wrong, I was to discover, was the equivalent of farting out loud in front of like-minded projectspeaking people.
But suspend such disbelief. It was clearly time for a more contemporary reimagining of my ambient relative contingencies.
And so I became increasingly comfortable as I progressed up my personal projectspeak change curve. My workflow capacity was reimagined within the context of my new work-dynamic as I happily demonstrated my mastery of the projectspeak vocabulary. Words that I had never heard in the English speaking world came and went in a dizzying sequence of back-to-back meetings, all of them illustrated by the inevitable flurry of Gantt charts.
How happy we were – until the fateful day came when we had to reconnect with the real world and speak to our ‘senior stakeholders’. Shock, horror – they were still only speaking English!
It began with the first monthly ‘steering group’ – attended by senior directors of the BBC’s output, former journalists like myself and still passionate supporters of the need for clear, plain communication, both to their staff and to their audiences. I burbled away happily, eager to show off my new-found literacy in the world of projectspeak.
Proudly, I showed them my latest slides summarising financial benefits (excluding cost avoidance benefits which were indicated separately), creative benefits and reputational benefits. Then, like a magician, I pulled my key performance indicators out of the hat supported, of course, by traffic light indicators of their own. I hadn’t quite made it through my risk management methodology when one interrupted… “So you’re going to tell us how much money we’re spending,” he said. “And you’re going to tell us how much money we’ll be saving,” said another. “And you’re going to tell us how New Broadcasting House will help us make better programmes,” said a third, “…and maybe even get bigger audiences,” he added hungrily. “And you’re going to warn us when we’re going wrong,” said the first person.
“Next item please, Andy,” said the chairman. I may have remembered this inexactly over the distance of time. But the shame lingered long and it was a salutary lesson. For these were very senior managers who occasionally nibbled the low-hangingfruits of management gobbledygook themselves.
Phase two of this project, which began in 2006, was completed on schedule in March in 2013 and £30m under its £1.046bn budget after the migration of staff from Bush House, Television Centre and eight other smaller BBC buildings across London. It brought together all of the BBC’s main output divisions under one roof in a single purpose-built creative hub in the heart of the capital. The rest of our ‘stakeholders’, the thousands of journalists, presenters, producers and directors who would be moving into the New Broadcasting House were a questioning, disputatious, creative and even cynical bunch of colleagues. Their patience for projectspeak would last a millisecond.
And so the BBC’s W1 Project (sorry ‘programme’) learned an important lesson – that no matter how much comfort it sought in labelling its plans and processes in ways that other projects (sorry ‘programmes’) would recognise – it needed to translate it all back into plain English when telling other people what was going on.
A small but dedicated communications team made that happen, commissioning internal films presented by well known and trusted faces, sending out simple Q&A factsheets and dealing with the daily cut and thrust of hostile press enquiries or questioning trades union representatives.
Avoiding projectspeak became a key ingredient in our on-air, on-schedule and under-budget success. It probably helped us win the Association of Project Management’s UK Programme of the Year Award for 2013 too.
But why should such translation be necessary? All trades and professions have words which deter outsiders and reinforce a sense of specialness or expertise. But it’s as though project management, a relatively new specialism in the field of human endeavour, has been in too much of a hurry to establish its respectability through jargon. And taken too far, this in itself can actually act as a factor in guaranteeing failure.
One of the Plain English campaign’s Golden Bull Awards celebrated this particular gem from the NHS:
“A unique factor of the support organisation is its systematised methodology for project and programme management of small, medium, larger service re-design and implementation…. building in equality and risk impact assessments the options are taken through a process to arrive at the content for an output based specification and benefits foreseen as a result of the implementation."