Voices MANAGING RELATIONSHIPS
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
As project managers, we are aware of the criticality of communi- cation—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
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
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
Bridging the Gaps
So what can we do to address this natural bias?
The challenge is to communicate sufficiently and
• 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’
◦ 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
To improve communications, start by recognizing incorrect assumptions about
By Sheilina Somani, RPP, FAPM, PMP, Contributing Editor