The Tower of Babel
when communicating becomes a nightmare
The history of the Tower of Babel is the classical representation of the project manager's most frightening nightmare. According to the Bible, the tower of Babel was one of the first major engineering undertakings of humankind, as well as the first major management failure. This paper starts by analysing from a project management perspective the historical myth described in Genesis, highlighting similarities with the day-by-day life of projects.
The project of the Tower failed in a few respects: cultural diversity understanding, communication and organization. Team members were not able to talk effectively with each other and consequently lacked coordination. This deteriorated relationships, resulting in conflicts and jealousies, with different groups isolating themselves.
In complex organizations, Project Managers are often asked to interact with people from very different cultures and with different professional educations. Each is barely willing to talk a different (professional) language from his own. On the contrary, people use very specialised and unintelligible jargons to reaffirm their expertise and unique contribution to the project (or to the organization). However, effective communication and relationship networks are critical to project success. Project Managers need to facilitate circulation of clear information throughout the team and toward the customers. Most of the time, this is a big challenge. Language diversity is, in fact, only the surface of personal (or organizational) habits of thinking, paradigms, values and beliefs. Project Managers must carefully interact with all these cultural layers to ensure success of their projects.
Based on his long experience in program management, the author proposes his advice on how to manage communications on very complex projects.
The Tower of Babel—Myth and History
It is better to clarify from the beginning, in order to avoid any misunderstanding, that the use of the Bible's tales in this paper is only a means to provide several very popular and well-known examples of project management, without any historical or theological implication.
The history of the Tower of Babel is reported in Genesis 11: 1–9. Many generations after the construction of Noah's ark—according to the Bible, the first major and “successful” engineering undertaking of humankind—the second attempt to undertake a mega-project, to allow worshiping of the stars and the Sun, was eventually very “unsuccessful.” The descendants of Noah had migrated from the Armenia, across the Tigris, to a plain in the Middle East: the land of Sennar, or Shinar. Settling in this area, they decided to build a city with a very high tower (probably an ancient “ziggurat”).
The declared purpose of the tower was to reach the heavens, to achieve fame for the people, lest they be scattered abroad into all lands. However, this was in clear contradiction with (possibly an act of rebellion against) God's command to go out and fill the whole earth. The tower probably was designed as well to worship the stars and the Sun, i.e., God's creations, instead of God himself (ChristianAnswers, 2007).
At that time, all the people on the Earth were speaking a common language, even if this seems to be in contradiction with Genesis: 10 in which the sons of Noah were said to each have his own land and language (Wikipedia, 2007). Speaking a common language clearly facilitated communication inside a construction team that was employing several specializations.
The Lord was not pleased with the objectives of the tower's project, which were seen as an act of pride and arrogance (an attempt by man to be similar to God), and he said, Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Thus, God decided to confuse their language so that they would no longer understand each other. As a consequence of that act, the people left off building the tower (the mission was no longer achievable) and scattered all over the face of the Earth.
Noah's ark and the Tower of Babel were the two first major projects of humankind (at least, according to the Biblical perspective). Noah's ark was probably the first example of “project sponsorship” in human history. Noah's project was clearly aligned with the mission and objectives of the enterprise (the creation) and, in particular, of its top management (the Creator). The Lord was strongly supporting his achievement, because this project was essential to the achievement of his strategy.
On the contrary, the Tower of Babel project was neither requested nor supported by the Lord, for its objective was a clear contradiction of his commands. Lack of sponsorship was a clear consequence of lack of alignment with the enterprise strategy (to go out and fill the whole Earth) and probably represents the primary reason for the project's ultimate debacle.
From a historical point of view, the actual location of the tower, if it really existed, is uncertain. Some think (Unmuseum, 2007) that the city was Babylon, whose few remaining ruins (a mound of broken mud-brick buildings and debris) are located in present-day Iraq, and the tower has to be identified with the ziggurat honouring the god Marduk. At the time of King Nebuchadnezzar II (605–562 B.C.), this tower was standing 295 feet high. It was only one of the marvels of ancient Babylon; close to the tower were located the Hanging Gardens, one of the “seven wonders” of the ancient world, and King Nebuchadnezzar's two other impressive palaces inside the city. The tower started to be neglected in 478 BC, when the Persian King Xerses (who had taken over the city of Babylon) crushed a rebellion, and subsequently crumbled.
Language and Effective Communication
The Importance of Language to Establishing Communication
The importance of having effective communication within the team is pointed out by the Lord himself when he notes that when humankind is organised as a team with a common language (prerequisite for effective communication), nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.
In fact, the language reflects not only what people observe but also how they perceive and feel what they observe. In most cases, when translating from one language to another, it is difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce the exact “meaning” of a word or a sentence. This is often due to the fact that a word represents a “concept” (or at least its perception by a population using a common language) in a way that is based on the history, habits and traditions of a certain population. Another language sometimes cannot reproduce exactly the same meaning, simply because another population probably does not perceive that concept in the same way, or it does not perceive it at all.
It is nowadays well recognised (Verma, 1995, p. 19; Mooz, Forsberg, & Cotterman, 2002, p. 22), that when communicating between two persons or two groups (we will call it the transmitter and the receiver), only a very limited percentage of the communication content is passed through by means of what the people actually “say” (i.e., the verbal communication). Rather, a large percentage of the message is passed through by means of “how” they say it (vocal tone, voice volume and speed, inflection, humour, etc.) and by means of body language (arms and hands positions and gestures, facial expression and eye contact, dress, etc.).
One very common mistake in communication is to recognise differences in the spoken language (English is clearly different from Arab or Chinese, as well as from German or French) but to underestimate differences in use of tone, body language and gestures. When we learn a new language, in fact, we usually study grammar and vocabulary, but we seldom analyse the meaning of non-verbal components (where usually a difference exists). In some occasions, the use of a certain tone or gesture (or simply the direction of the eyes) could even change the meaning to the contrary of what is being said. “False friends” exist not only in the written and spoken language but also in body language.
All of the above is not a problem when both the “transmitter” and “receiver” know very well their common (verbal and body) language and have a common “experience” (i.e., common history, traditions, values, etc.), that allow them to decrypt both what has been said and what has not been said. This was very likely the situation in which the Tower of Babel's project team started. The team members were one people (having a common experience), and they had all one language. (They understood each other perfectly.)
Unfortunately, this is not a very common situation in project teams, where the experience of each team component is different and each also uses a different language. This may happen both for the multi-national or multi-cultural (native language, religion, social class, etc.) nature of the team, as well as for its multidisciplinary nature. In both cases, the result is that the “encryption” code used by the transmitter is not the same “decryption” code of the receiver (see Exhibit 1), and the message at the receiver side is either “not understood” (lucky case) or is misunderstood (very unlucky case).
Another problem is related to several sources of noise that may alter the interpretation of the message by the receiver; in this category we may consider the receiver's perception of the transmitter (i.e., the transmitter's reputation), time pressure, emotional status, expectations, distractions, etc.
Exhibit 1 – Simple “One Way” Communication Scheme
The Importance of “Feedback” to Establishing “Effective” Communication
Let's clarify why non-understanding is a much more favourable situation than misunderstanding. This implies the notion of communication “feedback.”
When you “don't understand” something in the message that has been delivered to you, your first reaction is (or at least should be) to ask, “What?” You reply thus in order to have the message redelivered. The transmitter will generally better rephrase the sentence/message in an effort to help you understand it.
When you “misunderstand” something, you usually are convinced that you have understood the message. You actually have understood a message, but, unfortunately, not the message that the transmitter passed (or at least was intending to pass (before encryption). Your first reaction will be to retain what you have understood.
According to George Bernard Shaw, “The greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished” (qtd. in Mooz, 2002). In order to avoid the transmission of an erroneous message, “feedback” should be introduced into the communication. We thereby catch the “bi-directional” nature of the effective communication; this is not only the transfer of information from a “transmitter” to a “receiver” through an encryption mechanism but also the transfer of feedback in a backward direction, through a similar encryption mechanism. The paraphrasing of the concept in the feedback message helps to detect if the original message was carefully transmitted, properly received, and correctly understood. Another technique could be to respond by elaborating on a further concept that will reveal if a common understanding has been reached with the transmitter.
In effective communication, the roles of transmitter and receiver are continuously exchanged. One important rule to keep in mind is to keep the “receiver” switched on throughout the communication (even when in transmitting mode), in order to ensure proper detection of feedback messages. Remember that some yawns by the audience during your speech shall be interpreted as a clear (and negative) feedback (i.e., lack of verbal feedback is not a lack of feedback).
It could be surprising to discover that according to scientific research, we retain approximately one quarter of what we hear. This is probably due to the fact that if effective speaking is seldom part of our professional training, effective listening is almost never part of it. We should remember that effective listening is a precondition to effective communication.
Another important aspect of effective communication is consistency between the various components of communication: verbal, vocal tone, body language, written or graphical, unsaid (common experience). If the receiver detects an inconsistency between these components, she will be alerted to a potential misunderstanding and will activate feedback control. This explains (together with the bi-directional nature of communication) why written communication is always affected by some degree of misunderstanding; it is due to the lack of vocal tone and body language, which usually provides a cross-check, as explained earlier, and usually accounts for a large percentage of the communication content: more than 90%, according to Albert Meharabian (Verma, 1995).
Exhibit 2 – “Effective” (Two Ways) Communication Scheme
Project Team Communication
When members of a group are not able to talk effectively with each other, they consequently lack coordination. This is usually not due to a bad disposition to follow the received directions but to a misinterpretation of them. This may happen both in the chief-executor relationship and in the co-workers relationship. The relationships deteriorate, resulting in conflicts and jealousies, with different groups isolating themselves. This reduces further communication opportunities, leading eventually to the team's complete failure. Such group dynamics are very common.
On the other hand, in a well-organized “team,” the project manager shall lead the communication process, ensuring its effectiveness, in order to ensure that the overall team performances will be satisfactory.
In complex organizations, Project Managers often are asked to interact with people coming from very different cultures with different professional educations. They cannot in fact avoid interfacing with all of the functions inside the organization as well as with all external stakeholders, whose activity is needed to support and properly execute the project.
Just as a matter of example, Project Managers shall interface with the following:
- Executive management—To get direction, report the status of the project, and get the needed support and sponsorship
- Technical and technological specialists—The engine of the project, and the Project Manager shall be in contact with them on a daily basis
- Functional manager—To coordinate the best use of resources (both for the project and for the whole organization)
- Marketing account managers—To have a better understanding of what happens on the Customer side, even outside the perimeter of the specific project, to have support in dealing with Customer, and to identify together new opportunities
- Financial specialists—In particular when financial support is requested by the Customer to fund the project
- Contractual managers and legal advisors—To be prepared when things start to go in the wrong direction
- Human Resources (HR) personnel—To identify and solve any issue with human resources and to sponsor (in coordination with functional managers) team component rewarding according to specific contributions to the project
- Most critical suppliers—To solve critical issues that may affect the performance of the whole project
- Users—In order to proactively identify all users' needs, preventing future problems or identifying new opportunities
- Customers—To ensure their higher satisfaction, ensuring customer retention
- Any other stakeholders whose satisfaction is of primary importance for the project.
Each of these actors of the project has his or her experience, history, type and level of expertise, beliefs and values, and consequently has the language that results from this cultural burden (see the concept of “stovepipes” or “silos” in Mooz, 2002). These languages usually have a common part that is used when concepts to be communicated are very simple. To this level, which could be applicable at the very start of the project, the project team seems to be in the idyllic condition of the people of Babel, characterised by clear communications and ordered actions.
While the project proceeds, however, the complexity of the tasks and the consequent communications needs start to rise. In such conditions, very specialised and unintelligible jargons are, on the contrary, used by people not only in response to objective professional needs (complex concepts need complex terms to be unambiguously identified and explained) but also to reaffirm their expertise and unique contribution to the project (or to the organization). Each actor is usually barely willing to talk a different professional language than her own (this would mean losing professional standing) unless she may see a real advantage to do so.
In this respect, the role of the Project Manager is crucial. He is the only one that has an overall perspective of the whole project and can provide all stakeholders with a clear representation of how they may contribute to the success of the project and how the success of the project can contribute to their needs (career, professional recognition, personal satisfaction, self-esteem, etc.). As project stakeholders, on the contrary, a project failure would have negative consequences for them too, at least for what they have “at stake” in the project.
Communication Issues and Solutions
A typical example of the risks associated with the uncoordinated use of different languages and jargons within the (enlarged) project team is the progress meetings, where all team members and stakeholders are usually gathered together to revise the status of the project and the major issues that are affecting its successful continuation. Some common communications problem that arise during these meetings:
- Each member of the team is focused only on his contribution to the progress meeting, disregarding the other contributions due to lack of proper understanding of the specific jargon being used. Most team members assume their presence at the meeting is related only to their input to the discussion regarding problems that deserve some intervention by the Project Manager in order to be solved. On the contrary, one of the major scopes of such meetings is to foster the inter-functional communication in order to assess how a risk or an issue could affect different aspects of the project, or how it may be converted into an opportunity. In this respect, a proper “listening” attitude by all participants is as important as reporting their specific contribution. The Project Manager shall, from the start of the meeting, direct participants to use a language as simple as possible, to avoid too many acronyms and specialised terms, or at least to briefly explain them during their speech, and to use active listening. This will improve the attention by all other attendees and contribute to a more effective communication inside the team.
- During presentations and discussion, too many details are introduced. The progress meeting is designed to provide an overall view of the project status and trend to the Project Manager and the team. It is not suitable for very specific and in-depth discussions. When the progress meeting is used to resolve very specific issues, which usually involve only two specialists (or a very limited number of), the resulting communication is very unintelligible for all other attendees, too detailed, and is focused to restate and reinforce static positions instead of to move forward and solve the issue. This kind of discussion should not be held during progress meetings, but through a working meeting or technical review involving a more limited number of persons (generally a few). The Project Manager should establish a policy to avoid the introduction of such issues in the frame of these enlarged meetings and, at any rate, stop these kinds of discussion when they arise during the meeting and ask for a specific working meeting to be set up.
Another typical problem is the use of the right “language” in presentations. In order to be efficient, most people re-use the same slides to perform presentations of a specific topic at different levels in the organization or with different stakeholders, applying a simple selection of the number of those slides. Now, if this approach may be viewed as “efficient,” i.e., to reduce the effort to perform several presentations, it is certainly not “effective”; going upward in the management responsibility level requires not only more selected information (lower number of slides) but also a different way to present concepts (less details, more focus on strategic results, collateral impact analysis, etc.). In order to be effective, the presentation (as well as any other type of communication) needs to be prepared with the appropriate “language,” more suitable to convey the ultimate message to the specific stakeholder. It is worthwhile to remember, in fact, that each individual or group has its own preferred communication channel and style; its reception capability is significantly improved when the proper channel and style is used.
All of the above results make very clear the need for a “communication policy” to be defined by means of a “Project Communication Management Plan” (Caltrans, 2003; Mehta, 2004). This document shall define not only the kind of information to be exchanged, the specific tools, and means by which the communications shall be established (inside the team, with the customer and with all other stakeholders) but also the applicable rules and recommendations for how to use these means.
One simple way to help create a “common” language and an open communication environment, at least between team members, is to organize social events with a very informal set-up. When people meet in an informal context (activity not related to business context, casual dressing, familiar and friendship environment, etc.), they tend to see each other from a different perspective. Additional elements are introduced into the relationships, and people are no longer associated only with their roles, their functions and their “business” attitudes. Mutual respect and esteem is generally improved by such experiences. Some negative traits of personalities are discovered to be only “business suits”; others are reconsidered from a different perspective (human factors). They are discovered to have interests (hobbies, sports, friends, sorrows or real-life problems) in common and can exchange ideas on non-business matters. In doing so, they start to use a more “common” language as well.
When such an attitude change takes place, it is quite difficult to come back to the original “business” behaviour. Business communications are positively affected because more communication channels are available. When team members perceive that some other colleagues are not able to follow what they are saying, they tend to be more clear and simple in order to improve comprehension. This happens simply because they are accustomed to doing so in the “external” world, out of the office. In social events, we usually talk to communicate something, i.e., to transmit a message. Our interest is that the message is delivered and understood properly. Generally the cost of such social events is insignificant with respect to the benefit they bring to the project mood and spirit of cooperation.
Other simple means to improve team awareness of communication and language barriers is to perform common training sessions on communication (allowing time for significant exchange of ideas and experiences) and introduce a communication “facilitator” in the team. Both the training and facilitator roles should be performed by experienced communication professionals (consultants) who will focus on improving the communication process, independent from its contents. This approach is particularly recommended in mega-projects, where communication requirements are extremely demanding in order to ensure the overall project success.
Language (and Culture) Diversity: A Risk or an Opportunity?
Communications and relationship networks are critical to project success. Project Managers shall facilitate circulation of clear information throughout the team and toward the customers, and this is, most of the time, a big challenge. As we have seen in the previous paragraph, in fact, language diversity is only the surface aspect of personal (or organizational) habits of thinking, paradigms, values and beliefs. As Samuel Johnson said, “Language is the dress of thought.”
Project Managers need to carefully interact with all these cultural layers to ensure success of their projects. To convince people to use a different language from their own, we shall convince them that it is for their benefit as well as for the benefit of the organization.
At any rate, we should remember that such a language diversity, which in turn reflects a cultural diversity, shall not be regarded as a problem to deal with but as an opportunity to be properly exploited. Cultural diversity in fact adds richness to the team, by allowing its components to analyse problems from different perspectives, with different backgrounds, by using different tools and expertises. Fostering effective communication does not mean to disregard such richness but only to define common rules to allow potential individual contributions to become a strengthening factor for the whole team. Each instrument within an orchestra is playing a different language, but if the director allows them to communicate in an effective way, by giving them the right frame, then the overall result will be certainly marvellous. If not, the result will actually be a “Tower of Babel.”
Project Managers spend approximately 80% to 90% of their time in some form of communication (Newell & Grashina, 2004; Mehta, 2004): face-to-face talks, meetings, presentations, reporting to the customer or to the top management, dissemination of information throughout the team and to the stakeholders, etc. It is therefore not surprising that effective communication plays a fundamental role in project success.
While cultural diversity certainly enriches the project team, the different languages and professional jargons arising from this diversity should be carefully handled by the Project Manager in order to avoid wasting information (and time) and creating a “tower of Babel.” The Project Manager should be aware that dealing with individual languages means entering the sphere of personal habits of thinking, paradigms, values, and beliefs.
In order to establish ground rules for managing communications inside the project team, it could be very useful to establish, from the early phases of the project, a Project Communication Management Plan, duly agreed to by the Customer, team members, and all other stakeholder of the project.
Caltrans. (2003). Project communication handbook. Caltrans - Office of Project Management Process Improvement.
Mehta, A. (2004). Communication in project management. Retrieved 06/2007, from http://www.pmiglc.org/comm/articles/0410_mehta_comm.pdf
Mooz H., Forsberg K., & Cotterman H. (2002). Communicating project management: The integrated vocabulary of project management and system engineering. Jossey Bass.
Newell, M. W. & Grashina, M. N. (2004). The project management question and answer book. Amacom.
“Torre di Babele.” (2007). Wikipedia (2007) Retrieved 06/2007, from http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Torre_di_Babele
“The Tower of Babel.” (2007). ChristianAnswers. Retrieved 06/2007, from http://www.christiananswers.net/godstory/babel1.html
“The Tower of Babel.” (2007). UnMuseum (2007) Retrieved 06/2007, from http://www.unmuseum.org/babel.htm
Verma V. K. (1995). The human aspects of project management (Vol. 2). Project Management Institute.
© 2008, Sergio Gerosa
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – St. Julians, Malta