Communication impedance mismatches on projects
Most folks have been in situations where something they’ve said or written has been comprehensively misunderstood by the recipient of the message. When this happens it’s as if the other party is on a different wavelength, thus completely missing what’s conveyed. In this post I propose the term communication impedance mismatch to refer to this phenomenon. Below I explain why this bit of jargon, which has its origins in electrical engineering, is an appropriate one to use in this context. I also look at some reasons why communication impedance mismatches are so common on projects. In this connection, readers may also want to have a look at my earlier post on obstacles to project communication.
What’s an impedance mismatch?
So, what is an impedance mismatch? A good place to start is with some definitions from Wikipedia. Electrical impedance is essentially a measure of opposition to the flow of alternating current in a circuit. The impedance of a circuit component depends, among other things, on the frequency1 of the alternating signal. Now, for a fixed frequency, it is possible to adjust the circuit impedance so that power transfer through the circuit is maximised. This is called impedance matching. Basically, if impedances aren’t matched, power transfer through the circuit isn’t optimal.
Impedance matching is the principle behind radio tuning (and hence a connection to communication). In brief, radio tuning works as follows: impedance varies with signal frequency (or wavelength); so, for a fixed impedance, signals of a specific frequency – the tuned frequency – will be “let through” while the others will be “blocked”2. Although I’ve been using frequency as the variable here, I could just as well have used wavelength as the two are related. So, the wavelength metaphor that I used earlier is really quite apt- if the other party is on a different wavelength they will not get the message.
Anyway, this technical term from physics and electrical engineering has a history of being appropriated by other fields (see this post, for example). As an example from software development, the object-oriented programming crowd use the term to refer to the mismatch between data representations in a relational and object-oriented worlds. The term has a nice “jargony” feel about it. And seeing that it’s been appropriated by others before, I have no hesitation in appropriating it for the communication lexicon.
Why are communication impedance mismatches common on projects?
OK, so why am I so fussed about communication impedance mismatches on projects? Here why: at least one study claims that poor communications are the most frequent cause of project failure. It is therefore worth looking at why communication impedance mismatches are so common on projects. Here are some reasons that come to mind:
Team members don’t know each other well: A project is, by definition, a time-bound undertaking with a clear start and finish. Hence, in many cases, the people involved in a project would not have worked with each other before. Even worse, they may not even know each other. Such a situation is fraught with the potential for communication impedance mismatches. To alleviate this, it is sometimes recommended that team members spend time getting to know each other before the project begins. This is often done via team building activities, which I confess I’m not a great fan of. I much prefer letting people find their own niche within a team, rather than forcing a false sense of togetherness through contrived activities. Either way, a project manager has to be conscious of the potential for misunderstandings caused by team members simply not knowing each other well enough.
Projects are high-stress environments: Projects can be high stress environments, especially when things aren’t going well. Paradoxically, it is when things aren’t going well that good communication is needed. However, in times of stress, one generally finds that communication impedance mismatches rule. Minor misunderstandings can be blown all out of proportion. At such times, a good project manager acts as an impedance matching device, getting all involved parties to communicate with each other on a common wavelength.
Communication gap between the customer and supplier: The objectives of customers and suppliers on projects are typically different, and often even contradictory (for example, the customer wants it done cheap whereas the supplier wants to make as much money as reasonably possible). This fundamental tension between the two parties often leads to communication impedance mismatches. These can be resolved by a project manager who understands both points of view, and looks for negotiated, or collaborative, solutions that take into account both parties’ objectives.
These are just some of the reasons for the ubiquity of communication impedance mismatches in project environments. There are a host of others, which I’m sure you may have come across in your work. I’d welcome additions to the list through your comments.
Communication impedance mismatches occurs whenever communications – written, verbal or otherwise – are misunderstood. They often occur in a project environment because of the temporary and time-bound nature of projects, and also because projects are comprised of parties with conflicting interests. A project manager has to be aware of the potential for communication impedance mismatches, so that he or she can act to reduce them before they cause unnecessary strife.
1The standard mains frequency is 60 Hz (or cycles/second) in the US and 50 Hz elsewhere..