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The project manager's bedside manner

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The current APM Body of Knowledge has more than 250 acronyms listed and if I’ve learnt anything from the profession; it’s that it has an almost endless capacity to invent more.

I’m sure project management isn’t the worst profession for inventing jargon but it did invent PRINCE as a shortening of PRojects IN Controlled Envrionments and I once read ‘... this is known as a Project Management Plan or PID’. It does seem that if the profession sees an opportunity to invent an acronym, even if it requires a level of creativity rarely seen outside the Tate Modern, it will.

Of course, all professions have their technical terms to help engender necessary preciseness. Doctors need to understand the difference between an ostium secundum atrial septal defect and a sinus venosus atrial septal defect because the wrong treatment is a matter of life or death. But this is an internal language used by the professionals to avoid mistakes and is recognised as such.

Likewise, speaking professional-to-professional, project managers need a quick and effective language that helps them deliver a project efficiently and effectively.

However, to the outsider, these phrases mean very little and will be understood even less. The medical profession has another, more engaging, language. The bedside manner is used to explain complicated concepts and reassure nervous patients. It requires simple, well structured language to engage with people who don’t share the same level of technical understanding. It sounds obvious, but it’s often overlooked.

This is more than simple courtesy; the doctor needs to work in partnership with the patient for the treatment to be effective. Similarly, the project manager needs to develop a partnership and trust with their client and other stakeholders to deliver their projects.

And yet, there are occasions when we make our language more complicated and less accessible. Or is it simply that we forget who we’re talking to or how they want to receive information? Delivering information in a blizzard of acronyms and technical terminology creates a barrier which prevents understanding. It could even make one appear less, not more, competent because by showering someone in jargon you can easily give the perception that you’re doing nothing other than creating a smokescreen.

So, competence is only half the story when it comes to building a respected profession. Resisting the temptation to force a professional short hand on those outside the professional sphere yet critical to project success will bring great dividends in profession’s profile. Developing the project management version of the bedside manner may be a difficult concept to grasp, but the use of plain English could be a good place to start.


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  1. Richard Renshaw
    Richard Renshaw 16 July 2011, 08:22 PM

    @ Scott thank you for the good post. From a personal perspective the art of communication is conveying a message and receiving a message. When receiving a message the meaning needs to be clear. The dictionary could be an Oxford English dictionary or a Websters English dictionary.On occassion there may be words used within the discipline of PM that may be found within either of these dictionaries. In my own mind there is benefit to have a set of reference books which would include a national PM Body of Knowledge, a PM Methodology (popular is PRINCE2), a PM standard, a PM Competency Framework and a PM Organizational Maturity Model (P3M3). In due course ISO standards shall aid the convergence of terms and expressions initially in respect of PM and later hopefully Programme Management and Management of Portfolios. Using modern technology it's not too difficult to then stretch to translation of documents to other languages. For example say you were in Hong Kong and wished to follow the philosophy of the meaning of PM principles based upon plain English and then having a check process that after translation to a non English language the meaning is still aligned to the source document. The concept of the acronym RPP as an example I suggest in Hong Kong shall become widely understood as a reputable credential yet the language base be Chinese not English. APMs Registered Project Professional (RPP) certificationThanks again for the opportunity to contribute.Kind regards Richard