Communication Overload: Moving The Project Management Needle

Article by Lili Kaneva

Communication Overload: Moving The Project Management Needle
Hey, shouldn’t you be doing something else right now?

How did you answer the question? Do you have a task list for the day and how did you define it? There is a great expression - “to move the needle”. It refers to those actions we perform every day to make progress towards a meaningful goal. It is useful because often it is like taking a cold shower - painful but awakening. Do you know how many of the checkboxes you ticked today actually helped you move the needle? It is a good way to make a retrospective, observe your habits, build discipline …but wait. Why discipline and what does it have to do with progress?


Disciplined Players: When Motivation Isn’t Always Enough

Disciplined Players: When Motivation Isn’t Always Enough

Let’s assume we have a perfect goal ahead of us. It is clear what we want to achieve, how we are going to measure success and even why this goal is important for us. The only thing left is to move that needle by a tiny bit every day until you get there. Have you ever tried this? Let’s try to imagine a day together. Bright blue morning. The sun is up and you are sipping your first coffee brimming with confidence that you will get a lot done today. The laptop says welcome and off you go to your mailbox. Ah! What is this? How could she possibly ask this with one day's notice? OK, it is a quick thing - one hour at most and then you are off to your main task. Half an hour later a chat message beeps. No big deal. It is only a question from your team. It is easy to answer only looking at a couple of rows in that last Project Status Report. Once done, we go back to the unexpected request. Ten minutes into progress the phone screen is illuminated and a Linkedin message pops up. It can’t be. Looking through the notifications turns into a 10 minute scroll through the feed until you suddenly recall you had to complete something and then the important thing but first - lunch…

There is a high chance that after a day like that you feel tired, overwhelmed and you lack the feeling of achievement and purpose. What happened? If the goal is so clearly defined how come so often we end up without any progress towards it? How come our time and attention get hijacked?

One of the possible answers is that you lost a crucial battle. The battle to stay disciplined - fend off distractions and stick to priorities. Who is the enemy?

Getting Your Terms Right

Our capacity to process incoming information is limited. When we try to engage in too many simultaneous acts of communication the ability to process incoming information is exhausted - cognitive issues and anxiety arise. The long term effects of constant communication overload are many. We will look into some of the major drawbacks and discuss how to escape the three main pitfalls we have identified.

1. Productivity Issues

The most obvious result of communication overload is loss of productivity. Did you know that it takes 23 minutes on the average to regain focus after an interruption and knowledge workers switch tasks every three and a half minutes. Can you imagine achieving a state of flow and deep thinking if you have three minutes? The cost of staying in the shallow waters of your mind is that you would link less information from different areas of your brain and at a slower speed. Surely you can recognize this in a real life situation when writing a mail took you two nerve wrecking hours.

2. Team Morale

The brain can only consume so much information. This article in Forbes wisely states that attention is a currency - spend a little here and there and you have used it up without gaining anything. This effect can lead to long-lasting consequences - feelings of helplessness, incompetence and limited ability to make good decisions. To put it in simple words - your overtasked brain is fed up with working and spits out a quick decision, without taking into account all variables, because it wants to be left alone. It is not difficult to imagine that seeing yourself as a poor performer and being impulsive will erode the relationships within a team. Even more interesting is to recognize that communication overload can be an organizational feat which means that this behavior will plague the entire team. It smells like poor and unproductive team culture.

3. Personal Satisfaction

We often go online in search of dopamine. It is a true deal with the devil. Every new web-shot brings us closer to exhausting the brain, prolonging completion of tasks and ultimately anxiety, blame and infobesity (yes, it is a thing!). Come to think about it, it is the intellectual manifestation of satisfying hunger with chocolate cake. Just like cake information overload is not a critical mistake to make once but turn it into a daily habit and the price will be your health - this time mental. Personal satisfaction at work comes from being valued and having a strong sense of purpose. We could make a strong case about the underlying causes of being valued at work but surely they include demonstrated competence, achievement, reliability, connection and personal initiative. This list includes much healthier ways to get long-lasting pleasure in life…much like eating your vegetables when you’re hungry.

You Are the Leader: the Project Manager Perspective

You Are the Leader: the Project Manager Perspective

We explored communication overload from a first person perspective. We should not forget that as Project Managers we are leaders of our teams. This bears responsibility. We can influence the communication inflow towards our team and create much healthier working conditions.

Teams are formed on projects which are temporary in nature. In matrix organizations this means that people will switch from one team to another. Each project has more than its unique goals - it has a unique approach towards governance and more implicitly a unique micro-culture.

As a PM you can be specific about the ways in which your team is encouraged to interact. Set ground rules on things like the main communication channels or portals of information on different subjects. Make it easier for everyone to interact and find relevant information without the need to lose time (and attention) browsing for it. It is best if those topics are addressed in the initiation phase of your project. You can create commitment if you explore what are the approaches which work for your team members and listen to their previous experience and proposals. Joint decisions can be a taken on subjects like:
  • What should be our communication channels for a quick questions;
  • On which topics we need regular meeting;
  • What info we want to see in our dashboards;
  • How can we create an informative workspace (one answer is to use information radiators) for the team;
  • And even what are the boundaries - focus time, calls, accessibility outside working hours.
You can be open with your team about the effects of communication overload on your performance as a team. It is one consideration to have in mind while you are initiating your project but also in the assessment of individual progress. It is more difficult to limit the effects of the environment beyond the project but creating awareness about the risk of communication overload is a solid first step.

So, shouldn’t you be doing something else right now?

You invested your time and energy in reading this article. How does that help you move the needle on your goals? It does in fact. We are your PM community and we know you want to build up your PM skills so this is how we help you. Now that you have improved your understanding on how doom scrolling on Linkedin affects yours and your team's life, you can go back to your original task and stick to it until you hit a home run. We know you can do it!