Surprising lessons on language for project managers

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Language is important for project managers. Without a good understanding of the language you use, you can start your project off on the wrong foot, says James Lea, senior project manager at Jacobs.

“Getting requirements right is fundamental to successfully scoping projects, and then estimating, pricing, negotiating, delivering and controlling the inevitable change,” he says. “The natural languages we converse in every day are the dominant way in which we express project requirements and plans.

However, natural language can be ambiguous. Ambiguity in projects can cause resources to be wasted and increases the risk of failure. It’s why you need specifics. “Rather than accept a general-purpose natural language with all its ambiguities, we can remove the parts that cause confusion.”

Learn from ballet

“The secret to a dance troupe’s success comes from years of training, testing and refining skills, underpinned by a vision for each production that is carefully planned and choreographed,” Lea explains. “This vision is captured in a specialist language of dance that describes movement: Benesh.

“Benesh is a notation system that records the positions and movements of a dancer like musical notes on a stage. It is a piece of visual mathematics, a grammar of dance. What has this got to do with projects? Everything. For if we are to succeed in our roles, we need clarity of intent and efficiency of communication.”

Use controlled languages

Using controlled languages and precision communication can make a huge difference when it comes to removing the ambiguity from your project. “Controlled natural languages reduce ambiguity by restricting the grammar and vocabulary, and can be formally analysed in order to identify contradictions and ambiguities,” says Lea. “Attempto Controlled English is an example, and even has its own standard. We can combine natural language and mathematics to form hybrid descriptions, such as Z, a formal specification language used to model high-integrity and safety-related systems.

“While training is required to read formal languages, along with an upfront investment in describing the desired system, the payback is significant: more predictable projects and products.”

Refer back to your project’s intentions

Look again at how your project expresses its intentions and make sure you write them down. Adopt a standard that governs how the goals, objectives and requirements are to be recorded, using unambiguous notations. “Why not develop your own language, syntax and grammar, tailored to your domain? Diagrams are a powerful way to express your intent, highlighting relationships and connections.”

Focus on your stakeholders and clients

Stakeholders and clients trust you to deliver their requirements as a project management expert. However, you need them to be clear on what they want.

“Take the time to work with clients on how best to describe the problem and the solution, using clear, simple language underpinned with formal notations where precision is required,” says Lea. “An investment in training the client in how we notate our work has enormous payback – we move onto the same page. Build a common description of ‘what good looks like’ that is both precise and expressive. Regularly check back, asking: “Is this what you meant?”

Look beyond project management

“As project managers, we owe it to our clients and our profession to describe and deliver complex projects with confidence, laying the foundations for success with clear, unambiguous language,” says Lea. “So explore fields outside project management: how do these disciplines describe and model their desired outcomes? What language and mathematics do they use to convey intent?

”Put language at the heart of project management, and turn delivery into a graceful expression of intent: a dance.”

A full article on James Lea’s views on language in project management can be found in the Spring edition of Project journal, available free to APM members.

Mark Rowland

Posted by Mark Rowland on 1st Jul 2019

About the Author

Mark Rowland is a senior writer on the Project editorial team. He has worked as a business journalist and editor for 15 years, and has won awards for his writing and editing. He has also worked in project and product management, overseeing the launch and continuous development of new websites and publications. Project is the official journal of the Association for Project Management (APM).

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