Our language is the mechanism we utilize to communicate with each other.  It is the common framework where we share ideas and thoughts with others and hopefully are understood.  In the United States, there are several spoken and written languages used by people based upon their individual background (like English, Spanish, etc.).  Having spent a fair amount of time around math teachers and watching many episodes of the Big Bang Theory, I know there are some who feel there is an universal language called “Mathematics” (yeah right, as Penny would say).

Every industry has its own unique language.   When speaking to people in many industries you feel like they are speaking in another language with the specific terms, jargon, and acronyms that describe their everyday world.  Examples include: automotive (Axil to Dash, OBD, NVH, AWD), agriculture (agronomy, broadcaster, yield mapping, green manure), health care (accountable care, shared savings, EHR, clinical integration).   If you are caught in a conversation with an industry insider (outside of your expertise) without your translation glossary, they may be speaking English, but it might as well be French.  It is easy to be confused and get used to nodding your head with a blank look.

Even within an organization, different departments have their own language.  The Project Management Office (PMO) is no different and arguably one of the most difficult.  Project managers hurl around a plethora of expressions and terminology that can confuse and confound their teammates – even folks like me who have a nodding acquaintance with project management.

We emphasize how important it is to avoid scope creep with charters.  We speak with a lot of passion about the critical path and how integration between work streams is key to our success. We put together binders of documentation to map out our roadmaps and deliverables.  We conduct cost/benefit analyses and develop compelling business cases and ROIs. We make charts of all kinds – RACI charts, Pareto charts, Gantt charts, the always important work breakdown structures (“The WBS”).  All of this is done to help us communicate what we are doing and manage our critical stakeholders and change.

After all, we, our teammates, and stakeholders have the same goal – a successfully implemented initiative that achieves the value the organization perceived it would.  Of course, they should understand all these project management terms and activities.  It is not like they don’t know what some, many, or any of those other terms really entail and they have an ever-growing list of other critical priorities stacking up in front of them that are pulling their attention away from what we are trying to accomplish with our PMBOK methodology.

So, what do my clients really think about our established PMO language?  Surprisingly enough there are a variety of opinions between the leaders and their organizations, but some common themes emerged, such as:

  • They just want to make sure the work gets done effectively, on time and within budget. The specifics about the terminology or methodology isn’t important and sometimes actually gets in the way
  • The project managers who do the best work don’t really talk about any of these things. They just get the job done.
  • Project managers who rely on “PMO-speak” are the hardest to relate to
  • Stakeholders just want the information needed to make decisions in understandable language
  • Some companies have embraced a very project-oriented culture and use many of these terms on a regular basis. Utilizing “PMO-speak” fits with the culture and reinforces what has been identified as important there

The moral of the story seems to be: speak to our clients in a language they are comfortable with – not just the one we are comfortable with.  A project manager’s first job is to figure out what language our stakeholders and project team speak.  Then we speak that language, no matter how comfortable or uncomfortable we are.  Use “PMO-speak” when appropriate but “translating” the client’s language might be the best way to have our messages resonate and become actionable.

If we really need to speak in our special PMO language, save it for project happy hours – after the key stakeholders have gone home.