The Curse of Project Management Knowledge

    2=Planning, 3=Execution, Leadership

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Are you guilty of using project management jargon and acronyms? Do your team members understand what you are saying? If not, perhaps you have fallen under the curse of project management knowledge.

project management jargon

Can I be painfully honest with you for a minute?

What I am about to say may not feel good. In fact, I am certain that you will NOT enjoy it.

I have been hoping someone else would do the dirty work. But no one has stepped forward (at least that I know of).

You know how you've been struggling with your projects? Are you tired feeling like you live on another planet, and no one understands you.

Well, it's not because you aren't trying. It's not because you don't follow the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). You are a cut above the rest in your knowledge of project management.

So here it is...

It's because you're not communicating. Oh, you're saying lots of words, but few people understand. You start talking about project management and your team members hear the Charlie Brown "Wah, wah, wah."

And if you want to connect with your teams, it's going to require change...painful change. 

"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." –Albert Einstein

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When "Just Talking" Isn't Enough

Take John for example.

John has been a project manager for more than ten years. He received his Project Management Professional (PMP) certification eight years ago.

When John studied for his PMP exam, he learned lots of helpful terms, tools, and techniques. Stuff like Earned Value, Monte Carlo, Crashing, Fast Tracking, Stakeholders, Critical Path, PERT...you get the idea.

He has attended numerous project management symposiums and training sessions to earn his Professional Development Units (PDUs) and maintain an active status of his credential.

John is fortunate to work in the Project Management Office (PMO) with several senior project managers. The PMO Director continually reinforces the need to apply a strict code of conduct. Project managers are expected to use the same terms to ensure consistency between project teams.

Many employees who previously served on project teams have retired recently. New accountants, underwriters, customer service personnel, and information technology resources have been hired. Several individuals have little project experience. Some newbies are being assigned to John's project teams.

If you were a fly on the wall, what would you hear in John's communication?

His technical terms and acronyms may be creating confusion. The newbies are struggling to understand John's explanations, instructions, and assignments.

It's like listening to a mechanic explain the combustion engine.

John, the project manager, attempts to explain an entity relationship diagram (ERD) to his project sponsor. The sponsor politely nods her head while thinking about her next meeting with the Chief Financial Officer.

Understanding the Curse of Knowledge

What is the curse of knowledge?

Because we know something well, we find it difficult to believe that others do not understand it in the same manner. The more we know about something, the harder it is for us to explain it to someone who knows nothing.

Stanford University Study

Elizabeth Newton, a Stanford University graduate student in psychology, illustrated the curse of knowledge with a simple game. She assigned a "tappers" and a "listeners."


The tapper's job was to tap out the rhythm of well-known songs like "Happy Birthday." The listeners were to guess each song.


Newton asked the tappers to predict how many of the songs the listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50%. The result was 2.5%.

Wow. Talk about a communication breakdown.

The tappers were thinking – how could this be? I'm doing a perfect job of tapping out the song. Why don't they get it?

Project managers fall into this trap sometimes. We have used our project management lingo for so many years, we assume everyone understands. The truth is...team members are often confused, frustrated and lost.

The project managers are not trying to trip people up. Their intentions are good, but they are not connecting with their team members. Morse code is sent; gibberish is received.

The more we know about something, the harder it is for us to explain it to someone who knows nothing.

Ways to Break the Curse of Knowledge

You don't need any charms to break this curse, just the application of some simple communication principles. Here are some tips:

  1. Don't try to impress others with your knowledge. Stop using project management jargon and acronyms that others don't understand. Use simple 5th-grade language.
  2. Spend more time discovering your team member's level of understanding and perspective. As you work on your communications plan, analyze your stakeholders. What prior project experience do they have? Do they understand the project? Plan your communications accordingly.
  3. Don't assume too much. Give instructions or explain a concept. Ask the other person if they understand. Ask the individual to explain their assigned task to you.
  4. Use their language. When I speak to groups, I share my presentation with a group representative. I ask for feedback of terms (e.g., stakeholder, project charter, risk analysis) used by the group. Then I use their terms.
  5. Use concrete language. Don't use abstract terms. And give them examples. Complement the verbal communication with visual diagrams or drawings.
  6. Tell stories. One of the best ways to communicate is through stories. Use stories to inspire and to instruct. Stories are a great way to provide background and provide context and perspective to your stakeholders.
  7. Explain new concepts to your team members. Before you perform a new process such as the Nominal Group Technique (NGT), explain the process and give an example.
  8. Define and use a glossary. In the planning documents, define a glossary. For example: When defining a quality management plan, schedule management plan, or risk management plan, include a glossary of terms.
  9. Train new employees. Periodically offer a Fundamentals of Project Management class or a Risk Management Short Course. Introduce new employees to the basic concepts of project management.

How About You?

If you relate to the bad habits I've mentioned, you are not alone. We all make mistakes. The key is awareness. Identify the bad habits and change them.

Look for ways to become a better project communicator. Periodically ask others how you can improve your communications. 

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"Intelligent leadership, creative communication and depth of technical skill all describe Harry Hall." –John Bartuska, Director of HR–ONUG Communications

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