Updated: Jun 11, 2021
This post was inspired by a client frustrated by a team communication snafu. I showed her WHY it's so hard to keep everyone on the same page and then created this video to share the same lesson with more frustrated leaders who need it.
Even more intel on this topic is packed into this article to help you succeed. Let me know what you think in the comments below!
Did you ever play the "whisper down the lane" game?
In second grade, my teacher asked us to form a giant circle around the room with him. He whispered something to the person sitting to his right. That second grader had to do her best to whisper the same exact thing to the person to her right. We kept doing this until the last child whispered in the ear of the teacher again. He just about fell off of his chair laughing. Then, our teacher told us what he originally said and asked the last child in the circle to repeat what he had just whispered. The two phrases were ENTIRELY DIFFERENT and we all had a good laugh about it.
I will never forget how amazed I was by this demonstration. As a teenager, I would recall this exercise when I heard a nasty rumor about someone and dismiss it until I received trusted information from the source.
There are a lot of reasons WHY we super cute second graders messed this communication exercise up so royally. However, I trust that if you tried it with adults, it would be just as bad if not worse.
Let's leave elementary school, head back over to Projectland and explore this important topic some more.
Did you know there's a formula that explains why it's so hard to keep a team all on the same page?
Let me take you through it.
Imagine you have a three-person team. How many different ways can they communicate amongst each other?
If you said three, you're right! Imagine drawing lines between the three people in the image above. This illustrates the literal phrase, “lines of communication.” There are only three communication channels among a three-person team.
Next, imagine that you have a four-person team. How many different ways are there for these four people to communicate with each other? (Or mess up communicating with each other?)
You can draw the lines around the table like a square and then two diagonal lines to make six paths.
But, what if you have a bigger team? What if you have a 10- person team? For most people, this many communication channels is harder to visualize.
How do you calculate communication paths?
Luckily math is our friend and it has a little formula for us!
The formula is N times N minus one divided by two, where N is the Number of People. It looks like this:
N * (N-1)
Let's practice with the formula just using the three-person team, so that you can see how it works.
3 * (3-1)
Which is the same as:
3 * 2
Those twos disappear and we’re left with three, which is correct.
Let's practice figuring out how many channels a four-person team requires using the formula.
4 * (4-1)
This is the same as:
4 * 3 = 12 = 6
So let's figure out with the formula how many communication paths there are amongst our 10 person team using the formula.
10 (10 – 1) = 10 (9) = 90 = 45
2 2 2
WOW! There are 45 different ways to communicate amongst 10 people. This helps us to understand why it's so hard to keep everyone on the same page.
How many communication channels are there for a large team?
So, what if you lead a large team or are leading a project that will impact a lot of people? Our Project Gurus certainly lead teams of 100 people or more. If you have team members working all over the world, virtually, in different time zones, this situation presents an even greater challenge.
Let's see how many communications paths there are with a 100 person team using the formula.
100 (100-1) = 4,950
WOW!!! 4,950 potential communication paths across a 100-person team is IMPOSSIBLE to manage.
No wonder the Project Management Institute (PMI) says that 90% of our job as project managers is communication!
This formula explains why projects need project managers with good communication skills.
Have you heard the phrase “herding cats” to describe what it feels like to manage a team?
Cats don't like to be herded and neither do people in Projectland.
Did you notice the giant leaps?
Every time you add a person, the number of paths jumps tremendously! In our few examples, you can clearly see this:
3 People = 3 Paths
4 People = 6 Paths
10 People = 45 Paths
100 People = 4,950 Paths
This is why in Agile and when we’re planning how many people should be on an advisory board or forming a working committee, we prefer to keep the team on the smaller side.
What will you do with what you learned?
Is this formula practical? Yes it is! I have used it on the job.
As a young Project Manager, I faced an Executive Project Sponsor who growled at me when he got an answer from a team member that was different than what I told him in a recent status meeting. I pulled him into a conference room with a whiteboard and showed him the formula.
I said, "At any given moment, a team member might have new information. If you catch him in the hallway and he hasn't shared it with everyone else yet, don't be surprised. That team member is constantly working on his tasks, running into issues and resolving them. He's experienced, so I believe he knows when I need to know about an issue and when he feels he can resolve it without me in a reasonable amount of time. He's a software developer, so he's probably running into 100 issues a day. As you can see, with 10 people on the team, we have 45 communication paths to manage at every moment."
His response, "Wow. Carry on." He never growled about this to me ever again. Math was definitely my friend that day!
Are you ready to take action? Here are some ideas for what you can do with what you just learned:
Do the math! How many people are on your team? Try the formula for your situation to find out how many communication paths there are to manage. Keep the formula in your back pocket, in case you need to use it on the job like I did!
Plan the right communication methods, channels and tools for your team based on how many people need to interact with one another. If there is too much noise, they’ll ignore it.
Share this article with leaders and project managers who work hard, despite these odds, to keep everyone on the same page! You can let them know that you appreciate that this is a hard job and now there's a formulaic explanation for it (that you also know). It may make them feel better. As G.I. Joe used to say, “Knowing is half the battle!”
Join Dawn and ambitious professionals like you in her next live, virtual Practical Project Management (PPM) Certificate course, so that you can learn to lead projects in the real world!
About the Author: Dawn Mahan, PMP is an award-winning consultant, international speaker, Founder of PMOtraining, LLC. and our brand new division, the Project Guru Academy where the learning never stops. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics from Lebanon Valley College of Pennsylvania and was a STEM spokesperson on WHYY in Philadelphia. She believes that math is our friend!
PMI® is a registered trademark of the Project Management Institute, Inc.