As a practicing project manager, I knew that just merely telling my team, stakeholders, and executive sponsor information did not mean I was communicating effectively. Yes, I was technically communicating but just giving information didn’t mean I was an effective communicator. What was needed is another component to transferring information – understanding.
Understanding is a topic in epistemology which is the study of knowledge. Don’t worry; I will keep the philosophy brief and to the point. Even though the study of knowledge is ancient, the study of understanding is relatively new (just like the study of project management communication). According to philosophers, there three main ways of understanding.
There is know-what in which I have an understanding of some concept, physical object, or process. For example, I know what a work-breakdown-structure (WBS) is in the sense of it being a tool in project management. I may have a simple understanding of what a WBS is because I recognize a WBS when I see it. Or my know-what may be that I know WBS exist but, that is all I know. In contrast, I may thoroughly understand WBS including the history of the concept. Know-what is often the first step in creating understanding.
When I can construct a WBS, I have know-how. As you can see, know-how is more involved than know-what. For me to have know-how, I must possess these six attributes:
1. Ability to follow the explanation of the concept, physical object, or process.
2. Ability to explain the concept, physical object, or process.
3. Ability to draw conclusions from the concept, physical object, or process.
4. Ability to conclude opposing conclusions from the opposite of the concept, physical object, or process.
5. Ability to conclude the correct ideas when given the concept, physical object, or process.
6. Ability to conclude the correct opposite ideas when given the opposite of the concept, physical object, or process.
The third way of understanding is know-why. You may know what a WBS is and how to construct the WBS. However, your understanding is incomplete if you don’t know why you need to use a WBS. Know-why may seem the same as know-what, but there is a significant difference. For example, I may be an expert on Monte Carlo simulations in risk management. I can explain the concept and even create a spreadsheet that uses Monte Carlo simulations for risk management. However, I may not be able to explain why you need a Monte Carlo simulation in your project. I just want to use a Monte Carlo simulation in your simple weekend project to build a deck just because I like building Monte Carlo simulations. I know-what and I know-how but I don’t know-why we shouldn’t use the Monte Carlo simulation in your particular project.
It is unnecessary to have three ways of understanding to be effective. For example, your senior sponsor may only need to know why your project needs a risk register but, has only a partial understanding of what a risk register is. The senior sponsor doesn’t need to understand how to create a risk register. And the senior sponsor needs only a cursory understanding of why a risk register is needed. Just enough know-what and know-why to reassure the sponsor that the project’s chances for success will increase if you use a risk register.
An important decision for a communicator is to determine the level of understanding that his or her audience needs for successful communication. That is why communication is more than information transfer. The communicator and the receiver must use feedback to determine how the message was received and if the communicator created the intended level of understanding in the receiver for the communication to succeed.
[This is an excerpt from my recently published book, The Persuasive Project Manager: Communicating for Understanding.]