'Common' Knowledge?

To Improve Communications, Start by Recognizing Incorrect Assumptions about Shared Understanding

By Sheilina Somani, RPP, FAPM, PMP, Contributing Editor


As project managers, we are aware of the criticality of communication—both transmitted and received. We are familiar with terms such as risk, assumptions and issues. We employ management skills and experience to capture and address these aspects both formally through documentation and reporting, and informally through communication, negotiation and expectation management. In all cases, we operate under assumptions of common understanding.

Yet few of us consciously consider the context of our communications. The term “exformation” was coined by Tor Norretranders in his book The User Illusion, first published in English in 1998. Exformation is the premise that we communicate based on common understanding and shared knowledge. Especially in a project context, we assume that we are communicating within a comparable set of shared experiences or tacit understanding of shared goals, expectations and competencies. This set of preconceptions enables us to “both implicitly and explicitly discard” content that we assume is common knowledge.

As Mr. Norretranders’ book title signifies, our belief in our communication competence can be illusory. Exformation highlights an unconscious set of parameters that we operate within; we expect others to divine this communication proposition.

For example, if we were to talk about a “production plant” to someone without exposure to such vocabulary or life experience, the recipient may begin envisaging some type of foliage and its reproductive system, while we are referring to a large building where items are made to the same specifications on assembly lines.

As project managers facing constraints of time, cost and quality, we have added risk due to the limitations of unconscious communication assumptions. Often we remain blissfully ignorant of our unconscious bias due to exformation. We experience confusion when tasks are completed “incorrectly” or we receive unexpected responses to questions.

The results of this miscommunication may lead to blaming another party based on their language, distance or simply presuming that they do not have the aptitude, skill or capability—without realizing the issues arose due to the assumed exformation premise.

So what can we do to address this natural bias? The challenge is to communicate sufficiently and accurately.

  • Provide a clear context (similar to an executive summary) for the project so all team members work within the same framework.
  • Clarify specific terminology, acronyms and preferred vocabulary.
  • Avoid terms that can mean different things to different people—for example, “later” can mean anything from a few minutes to later in the week.
  • Improve the quality of communication by reiterating the project’s context, including base assumptions and intended outcomes.
  • Respect diversity of language and individuals’ experience level:
    • Phrase things simply and accurately.
    • Avoid colloquialisms.
    • Encourage questions.
    • Test understanding through paraphrase/repetition.

Despite our significant project experience, the diversity of our projects and teams requires that we review and refine our communication skills. By being conscious of our exformation proposition, we can increase quality of our communication, reduce the risk of miscommunication and increase the inclusion and collaboration with those who have different paradigms. PM

img Sheilina Somani, RPP, FAPM, PMP, is the owner of the U.K.-based consultancy Positively Project Management, a senior project and product manager, a speaker and a mentor.




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