What George Orwell Can Teach Us About Project Management

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“What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about.”

George Orwell

George Orwell’s essay, Politics and the English Language, is the last essay in his wonderful Penguin Book called Why I Write.

In the essay, he castigates writers of his time for using ready-made phrases to express themselves. He believes these ready-made phrases muddle their intentions and worse, muddle their thinking about the subject and makes it hard for the reader to clearly understand what the writer is talking about.

As an example of his time he cites the phrase: “The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot.”

He comments, “It can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming: in other words he is not really thinking.”

Avoid read-made artifacts

While none of us likely use these kinds of phrases in our project management life, there is a lesson we can learn from Mr. Orwell.

Too often we use ready-made project artifacts when we’re managing projects. We grab reports we’ve used a million times. We adopt schedules in the same format we always have. We put budgets into the usual spreadsheets or send out reminders using the same words we do on every project.

We may vary the text slightly or alter the colors on our to-do lists. But, in general, we use the same toolkit for every project.

The danger of reusing documentation

Like Mr. Orwell’s warning of the danger in using ready-made phrases, there is a danger in us using ready-made project artifacts or phrases in our project communication.

Communication is the lifeblood of any project. It is how people get information they need to make decisions about what they are supposed to do on the project. It helps people know the status of things, requirements, action items or how people are feeling.

It directly influences how people act and what they do to help move the project forward.

When communication is clear, it helps the receiver understand more about the project.

It creates trust, shows that we are tuned-in to the receiver’s needs and it helps us move the project closer to where we need it to be. When communication is muddled or off-the-shelf, people feel like they are just another cog in the process. They can feel lost and uncared for.

This leads to disengagement and mistrust which moves the project, and our team members, farther from our goal of a successful project.

Use artifacts to convey meaning

The artifacts we use, like words, convey meaning and paint a picture to our team members and stakeholders. They are communication objects. They can be useful, if the receiver interprets them as such. They can be impediments, if the receiver takes them the wrong way.

They can create noise in communication, fading into the background of the hundreds of other pieces of information we are bombarded with daily. As project managers we can pay attention to the communication objects we create to make sure they are useful.

As Mr. Orwell says, by using ready-made phrases and stale metaphors, “you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.”

We can improve our projects by avoiding stale communication objects, by paying attention to the artifacts we produce and send out. We can make the people on our projects understand their importance, increase trust on our teams and have more successful projects.

Read Mark’s book about project communication: Reinventing Communication.

A version of this article first appeared in 2015.