We put the “X” in ConteXt.


Look at the two Xs above.

They are exactly the same color and shade.

I know… I know…!   The one in the yellow box looks grey…. and the one in the grey box looks yellow.

But once again, here is the fact: these Xs are of the same color and shade.

If you don’t believe us – look at that little connecting line at the bottom center.  It’s the same bleeping color.  How can that be?  They look totally different when you look at them individually.

What makes this mind blowing revelation take place is – context.  It’s only when we (literally) understand the background of the situation that we can appreciate what makes the foreground (the readily apparent) really, truly understandable.  And sometimes, as in this case, knowing the background changes the ‘readily apparent’ as ‘not the facts’.

Now, recall that according to some experts (and probably your own experience as well) a project manager’s job is mostly communications. Some say that it’s as much as 90% of our job. But it’s not just ‘sending email’ or even ‘active listening’, or ‘frequent status updates’, although all of those are important.

For communications to be effective, we have to provide the right background (which you LITERALLY see above) for the communication to make sense.

This means thinking about the format and media of the message. This means providing orientation for your audience (after first absolutely knowing who that audience is). This means balancing the amount of context and background with a competing need to be concise and clear and to avoid being condescending.  And as you’ll see later, from an EarthPM perspective, it means balancing your project’s needs with the enterprise’s portfolio needs, which are likely much longer-term in nature and holistic in their viewpoint than your project’s handover of its deliverable.  No offense meant.  Just sayin’.

In other words, just as we have to balance the competing constraints of time, scope, schedule, cost, quality, risk, and resources, when we communicate, we have to balance the need to be concise and clear with the need to send “the right color X”, which means sending along the right amount of context.  And this is even more true when integrating sustainability into Project, Program, and Portfolio Management, which will become increasingly important over the next few years.

On top of all of the other things we do as project managers, more and more, we have to be sure that our project is in the proper context with the overall enterprise goals, and the the benefits (and other byproducts) that our project generates are in line with the enterprise vision.  That means thinking about the PRODUCT of the project in the steady state, not just the handoff of the PRODUCT of the project to the operations folks.  Once again – it’s about context.

Our advice to you in this area:

• Know the stakeholders and their needs for background BEFORE you send any messages or convene any meeting

• Front-load your message – by that, I mean to put the ‘walk-away’ message early on in an communication; but don’t stop there, back up and give rationale and context as well

• Where necessary, and using things like hyperlinked text, provide the OPPORTUNITY for getting more background for those who need it, and in this way avoid cluttering up your message with too much context. But you DO need to provide it. Look again at the Xs if you need a reminder

• Consider the medium you’re using. Certain communications are tainted by the very medium you use to send them. Think: would a phone call be better? Would this information better be conveyed with a graphic (bar chart, pie chart) to make the point clear for the (majority) visual thinkers in my audience?

• Re-read your communications one more time before sending, with the idea of context foremost in your mind. Would ALL of the stakeholders be able to get your “walk-away” message with the amount of context you’ve provided? If not, consider ‘painting’ the background a little to make sure you have the right color “X”.

• Now let’s REALLY get serious about context. Make sure that you, yourself, as a project leader – not a project manager – are connected to the context of your project in the environment (excuse the pun) of the CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) statements that your enterprise makes. This can be accomplished with a simple visit to your external “ABOUT US” tab to see what your enterprise is touting to the world about its CSR efforts. That’s true leadership: knowing how you fit into the vision and passing that golden thread along to your team members.

If you’re interested in learning more about the visual aspect of this image, there’s a very good article and radio show clip about it right here.