Does the following scene sound familiar to you?
It’s been a long day at work. You’ve been going from meeting to meeting, occasionally getting back to your office to get something done, only to get interrupted by phone calls and various queries from co-workers.
You scan through the messages on your smartphone, and come across one that seems important, however it is long. You flick your finger over and over to scroll through 4 or 5 paragraphs searching to identify the “so what?”. You decide to skip over it and plan to read later on when you have time to figure out what’s being asked of you.
Or how about this one:
Your colleague has just sent you a list of requirements he wants you to validate to see if he forgot anything. “OK”, you think, “no big deal. This should only take a few minutes”. The document is a spreadsheet. You open it up and then it hits you in the face like a ton of bricks. The spreadsheet is 283 lines long and has 22 attribute columns. Wow! Where do you begin?
Information overload, we call this. It eats away at your day. It causes you to miss important details. It throws “speed bumps” on your road to project success.
Personally, it took an embarrassing Christmas party mishap to force me to look into a solution to this problem.
As one of the two owners of my consulting firm, you see, I make sure that each year we hold a Christmas dinner and party for our staff and their spouses or significant others. Okay! I don’t organize this event; my partner and I have an assistant who does a much better job than we ever could. So one busy day in early December, I get an email from our head office administrator with details to the event. It describes the theme, the venue, the time to get there, the agenda, sprinkles in a few jokes, fun facts, etc.
Finally, the day of the party, I get in my car, drive from 200 kilometers to get to the venue only to find out everyone had brought a gift! And here I am, the Senior Vice-President, showing up empty-handed.
“Did I miss something here?” I asked our assistant. “Did you not get the message?” she replied.
Typical! Buried at the end of the email message was a note that basically said: “We are having a gift exchange, so bring a funny gift of no more than 10$ in value!” Problem was, of course, I never even scrolled down far enough to read it.
(I was lucky enough though that even at such a late time, there was a shop across the street that was still opened where I was able to get a couple of gift-wrapped miniature bottles of ice-wine for just 9.99$! Saved the day and got a few laughs from the staff!)
That got me thinking. This sort of miscommunication happens all the time in our projects. Then I remembered that early in my career as a consultant, I read in a book that when companies decided to standardize phone numbers in North America, they looked into how long a string of numbers most people could reliably memorize. It turned out to be seven. Hence the seven-digit numbers we have today (okay, with a 3-digit area code but forget about this bit of information for a minute).
I started calling this the “Phone number rule”. It basically states that:
“Since people can only reliably memorize or visualize sets of seven things at most, it is usually good practice to always group ideas and other different items in sets of about seven.”
Out of curiosity, I started looking into this to see if it could actually have some other practical uses, especially for me as a project manager. Maybe this “Phone number rule” can help improve how we communicate in projects and save more than just a trip to the gift store.
- Lucky seven
“…what about the magical number seven? What about the seven wonders of the world, the seven seas, the seven deadly sins, the seven daughters of Atlas in the Pleiades, the seven ages of man, the seven levels of hell, the seven primary colors, the seven notes of the musical scale, and the seven days of the week?”
George A. Miller
The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two
The Psychological Review, 1956, vol. 63, pp. 81-97
In his paper from 1956, Miller goes on to explain about “stimuli”, “variance”, “bits”, “recoding” and other technical jargon. In the end, however, he withholds judgement as to why this number keeps popping up everywhere.
For what it’s worth, and I must stress I have no scientific evidence to back this up, I believe it has to do with anatomy. I’ve come to think that it may have to do with the fact that we are born with ten digits and that our brains have become wired by evolution to recognize what “10” looks like in an instant. Or maybe it’s something deeper, but I’ll leave that to the neurobiologists.
There’s plenty of evidence that this “magical seven” is pretty powerful. Marketing experts are actually quite good at using it especially editors and publishers. Why do you think practical and self–improvement books have titles such as “The seven habits of highly effective people” or “Seven steps to happiness”. (Ok, so the title to this book “The Keys to Our Success: 25 Top Lessons from our Best Project Managers” is the exception that confirms the rule……but we were asked to keep each of our chapters to around “7 pages”)
If you want to convince yourself that this is true, try this simple experiment with some friends or family members (they have to be old enough to be able to count without using their fingers!). I have actually tried something similar with pictures on a slideshow with amazing results.
- Drop 4 different coins on the table (a penny, a nickel, a dime and a quarter)
- Put a cloth or piece of cardboard over the coins
- Gather your friends around the table
- Tell them to pay close attention, as you are about to reveal something
- Remove the cloth (or cardboard) for a second and put it back
- Ask what they saw
Now tally the results. How many got the number of coins right? How many got the kinds of coins right?
Try it again, varying the number and types of coins each time and notice when people start “guessing”. My prediction is that people will generally be able to remember 7 -9 of the coins; any more than that and people start guessing and results become unreliable. How can we apply this to our practice as Project Managers? Over the years, I have found four very concrete and tangible applications of this Chunking Principle for project management. Let me share them with you.
- The Chunking Principle
This phenomenon is also known in instructional design circles as the Chunking Principle. So years later, as I began developing and delivering project management courses, I would read about how it is best to design slides to have no more than 7 bullets when working in Powerpoint. There’s that number 7 again!
In a nutshell, the Chunking Principle says you should avoid the following:
- More than 7 bullets on a slide
- More than 7 bullets on a bulleted list in any document
- More than 7 bubbles on a bubble chart
- More than 7 columns on a spreadsheet
- More than 7 slices in a pie chart
(By the way, did you notice how my bulleted list in the “coin” exercise had only 5 bullets? And this one also only had 5?)
- Work Breakdown Structures
How does the number 7 apply to the WBS, you ask? Quite simply put:
“One should design a WBS in such a way as to never have, in any of its branches, more than 5 to 10 deliverables or work packages”
So the following WBS is fine,
While this one violates the rule
Notice how even though both have 14 work packages (the lowest level boxes in each branch), it’s much easier to see this with the first model than with the second. You literally have to count how many boxes there are in the second branch of the second WBS. That’s the power of the Chunking Principle and it makes communicating your WBS a lot easier and more reliable.
This also proves useful when editing a WBS. People will more easily pick up if something is missing or duplicated in a diagram that complies to the Phone number rule.
- Written documents
The same rule applies to various documents. As project managers, we are told that we spend or should spend up to 80% of our time communicating. If that’s the case, we better make sure people understand what we are trying to communicate. Otherwise, that’s a lot of room for errors and misunderstandings, which leads to huge productivity losses both at a personal and team level.
Writing paragraphs like this one is fine for a whitepaper, an article or a book. But when dealing with technical documentation, keep in mind this other tip someone once pointed out to me:
“People don’t read, they scan”
That’s right, we don’t read. Unless we expect that the writer is trying to tell a story of some sort. The kind I am writing now. If we don’t expect a story, we just scan for familiar patterns, key words and ideas.
There are many reasons for this. They range from the fact that reading on a computer screen is tiring for the eyes and slower than reading paper (approximately 25% slower according to some), to our habit of surfing the web, to the pace of modern life.
Here is more evidence we don’t systematically read everything. Ever received this in an email:
“Arocdnicg to rsceearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer are in the rghit pcale. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit pobelrm. Tihs is buseace the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.”
Funny how your brain can still figure this out?
The same is true for a paragraph. Your brain reads a block of text and tries to recognize patterns and ideas. The longer the paragraph, the more chances your brain will get it wrong.
Keep your writings to short lists of 1-2 line bullets.
- Gantt Charts
Every now and again, I hear this complaint of people being exposed to tools such as Microsoft Project or Primavera P6.
“These tools are way too complex for us. I don’t understand what all these figures mean! Could someone please design a simpler tool?”
Upon close inspection, though, I’ve come to notice that most of these complaints come from the same type of users. These people are being exposed to these tools for the first time by highly experienced planners who don’t think twice about printing Gantt charts with sometimes up to 14 or even 20 columns of data. Everything from Task ID to Early and Late dates, Earned value figures, CPI, Labour cost, Total float, Resources, etc.
Their thought, as experienced users, is “the more info on the same page, the less time I spend looking for it”.
But the people getting these reports do not have brains wired for this kind of information. They are being overloaded.
If you want to get your message across in a clear and simple fashion, stick to no more than 5 or 10 columns. This is definitely a case of less is more.
Finally, let’s get back to our old friend from the beginning: email! All those long emails we send one another, so long that we don’t actually take the time to read them. We scan the paragraphs looking for the information we expect to see. We skip important details because they are buried in a sea of gibberish and unnecessary words. This is where I feel the “Phone number rule” becomes so powerful.
So here is the Chunking Principle applied to email for efficient communication (aside from all the standard rules about emails, such as “who to send the message to?”, “avoid using reply all” and “avoid using capital letters” of course)
- Give the message a subject line that states exactly what you expect as a response or the email’s purpose. Write your email subject line as you would a newspaper headline.
- Start the email with a general greeting. This paragraph is polite, but let’s face it, it probably won’t get much attention. Don’t put anything important in it.
- Write the core of the email, the important stuff, as a series of no more than 5 to 10 bullets, each having no more than 2 or perhaps 3 lines.
- If you’re having trouble writing your email in this format, if you’re getting beyond 5 to 10 bullets, pick up the phone!
That last bullet is a sign that what you are trying to communicate is too complex for email. In this case, you should consider communicating in a face-to-face conversation or at the very least, a phone call. Remember that even phone calls come complete with the instant feedback and non-verbal cues that unfortunately do not come with email.
7. In a nutshell
Remember that the human brain can only reliably understand information when chunked in groups of about seven items at a time. Remember this tip when:
- Developing a Work Breakdown Structure: try to stick to no more than 7 items in each branch at each level;
- Written documents: keep your bulleted lists to no more than 7 items of one or two lines each;
- Gantt charts: avoid having spreadsheets with more than 7 columns
- Emails: use a bulleted format and if you can’t stick to this format, pick up the phone!
I have no doubt this tip has helped me avoid many unpleasant situations and I’m sure you’ll come to use this in all sorts of situations. Perhaps you’ll even begin to convert your colleagues and they will, in turn, stop sending you all those pesky and lengthy emails!
Unfortunately, this won’t do anything to help with spam or chain letters! Maybe in our next book…
You can find this chapter and more fascinating contents in the following book: