PROJECT MANAGEMENT IN NOISY ENVIRONMENTS1
ALEJANDRO DOMÍNGUEZ-TORRES, JADOMING@MAIL.UNITEC.MX, WWW.UNITEC.MX
Keywords: Bandwagon effect, Communication, Noise, Message, Project Manager, S-curve, Stakeholders.
A project always tends to breakdown an established set of rules of how work has been accomplished. Parties
involved directly or indirectly with a project may be against, be pessimistic about, be in favor of, or be optimistic
about its results. Among the several ways parties can express their feelings to others are through commentaries,
opinions, gossips, and rumors around project issues. These expressions produce interference in the transmission
and understanding of messages about how a project is managed. These are types of communication noise since
they compromise the original meaning of messages. Having as background a basic communication model, this
paper stipulates who produces noise and why it arises. It shows the effects of noise in project progress,
introduces a noise classification, and presents a set of actions to deal with noise in Project Management, as well
as project manager challenges and constraints.
BASIC COMMUNICATION MODEL IN PROJECT MANAGEMENT
As in a number of environments where human communication is present, in Project Management (PM) there is a
basic communication model (Figure 1) that is made up of senders, receivers, messages, decoders, encoders, noise
and a communication medium (PMI, p. 224). As PMBOK Guide quotes (PMI, p. 224): “the components in the
communication model need to be taken into account when discussing project communications”, a fact that
occurs in all of tasks performed during project progress.
Sender Medium Receiver
Feedback - Message
Figure 1. Communication – Basic Model (PMI, p. 224).
In this model senders or sources of messages are primarily stakeholders (including the project manager) since
they are actively involved in the project and their interests may be positively or negatively affected by execution
or completion of it (PMI, p. 376). Thus, a stakeholder selects a message from a set of possible messages to be
transmitted to other stakeholders (the receivers).
Since a project is an endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result (PMI, p. 368), it may
generate several reactions among stakeholders and third parties depending on if they are either against or in favor
of project, or if they are either optimistic or pessimistic about project results.
In general a project tends to breakdown an established set of rules of how work has been executed in past. For
example, if parties involved directly or indirectly with a project (stakeholders or third parties; e.g., advisors,
users, work unions, etc.) are against project or are pessimistic about its results, they may feel uncertainty, show
resistance to change, and incite internal confront. In a similar way, if parties are in favor of project or are
optimistic about its results, they may incite others give support to that project. In both cases, the ways of parties
This paper was presented at 17th Annual Conference of the Production and Operations Management Society "Operations Management in
the New World Uncertainties" Boston, Massachusetts, April 28 - May 1, 2006.
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express their feelings to others parties are through of a set of commentaries, opinions, and rumors around project
issues. These expressions produce interference in the transmission and understanding of messages of how project
is managed. Such expressions are considered as noise in the sense stated by the PMBOK Guide since they
compromise the original meaning of messages. (PMI, p. 224).
There is another way in which noise is produced, this is when certain parties (stakeholders or third parties) do
not receive the corresponding project messages they expect from other parties or messages received do not
correspond to project facts. In the first case, noise is produced by a reduction of the medium of propagation
while in the second one it is due to a wrong perception of project progress.
In general, it can be said that people with vested interests on project outcomes starts noise, and that persistence
of noise is the result of sharing its anxiety, lack of information, and lack of trust (PD Webpage).
However, some care must be taken since not every message distortion is due to noise. In fact, another common
way of message distortion appears when the communication medium capacity is overloaded or exceeded; i.e.,
when the number of messages produced in a certain period exceeds the capacity to transmit them. On the other
way, message distortion also appears when it is exceeded the capacity of stakeholders to decode messages.
The first reaction to noise may be often defensiveness, anger, or even counterattack. Most of these responses
differ from the best project practices. In order to be more constructive, it is necessary to understand noise
Since noise interferes with transmission and understanding of project messages, it may produce some changes on
decisions to be taken over project tasks. That is, at the end noise may produce changes on project development.
These changes depend on noise intensity. Thus, if noise is not comparable to project message level, its effect on
project development vanishes. On the other hand, if noise is comparable to message level and if it is not reduced
or mitigated, at certain time (threshold) there may appear one of the following effects on the project progress
trend, which is graphically represented by a typical s-curve:
Temporary disruption or displacement in the trend (Figure 2a). This is when noise causes a time delay
in project progress.
Change of the rate or direction of the trend (Figure 2b). Noise causes project progress to behave in a
slower or faster way than before.
Displacement of the trend (Figure 2c). This is a less common (not impossible) project progress behavior
since it implies to increase it almost instantly or in relatively short period or time.
Trend disruption (Figure 2d). It means a non-project continuation.
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Project (a) Temporary disruption Project (b) Change of rate or direction
threshold Time threshold Time
(c) Displacement (d) Disruption
threshold Time threshold Time
Figure 2. Effects of noise in project progress trend.
In order to understand when noise may change project development, consider a rumor produced around a project
(here a rumor is understood as a piece of purportedly true information that circulates without substantiating
evidence). As it is known (see www.answers.com/rumor), the information content/payload of this rumor can
range from simple gossip to advanced propaganda techniques.
Simple gossip does not have any effect on project progress since it can be mitigated by either simple
communication techniques or waiting until it vanishes. However, if rumor is propagated using propaganda
techniques, then it can influence stakeholders' opinions actively, rather than to merely communicate the facts
about project. In this last case, a “bandwagon effect” may be produced among stakeholders and third parties; that
is, parties start to behave in a certain way the others mimic them and then project progress overshoots its normal
course of events (positively or negatively) often rapidly. At this time (threshold) is when project manager has to
take actions of corrections and return to the appropriate rate to sustain growth (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Bandwagon effect produced by noise.
Bandwagon effect does not represent the way parties behave individually. In general, at threshold, the behavior
of a particular person is random in the sense that it does not show a specific pattern and it does not seem to have
any purpose and objective. This randomness also occurs in time since in most cases the occurrence of noise
cannot be accurately predicted with any precision. Thus, noise may be considered as a random and persistent
disturbance that obscures or reduces the clarity of the message.
Therefore, it may be concluded at least that (Brenner 2002):
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Noise may become more damaging with time.
Noise may be credible.
Packaged noise may spread more rapidly.
When a project is in progress and noise exists, project manager may consider four options: address it, do not
detect it, neglect it, or have an inaccurate perception of it. The last one is perhaps the most dangerous option to
In order to help solve the problem of noise inaccurate perception, theory of knowledge is invoked: the best way
of knowing something is trying to categorize it. Two types of categorization there exist for human
communication in literature. The first one is according to noise sources in the area of general communication
(Yang), while the second one is according to rumor intentions taking place on public diplomacy (PD Webpage).
Both categorizations can be easily extrapolated to noise occurring on project management communications.
Thus, following Yang, it can be said there exists:
Environmental noise: Outside interference that prevents project manager from gaining project
Physiological-impairment noise: Interference caused by parties‟ physical problems that can block
his/her effective sending or receiving of project messages;
Syntactical noise: Interference caused by parties‟ incorrect use of communication language rules (e.g.,
Psychological noise: Interference produced by parties‟ stress, frustration, irritation, etc.,
Intellectual noise: Interference caused by parties‟ great amount of opinions and points of view about
Cultural noise (influence): Interference produced by parties‟ preconceived, unyielding attitudes due to
cultural group belonging. Being “closed-minded”;
Organizational noise (confusion): Interference caused by the way messages arranged in order;
Semantic noise: Interference caused by words meaning, such as project management or project
technical jargon, dialect, etc.
Having in mind this categorization, a good exercise could be to relate each project process to certain types of
noise. The result of this exercise can be used as a guideline to project manager to know what kind of noise is
expected when a particular project process is being executed.
On the other hand, extrapolating ideas stated on PD Webpage, noise could take one of the following forms:
Intentional noise. It is generated to achieve a purpose; e.g., „you might follow PMBOK Guide if you
want to be successful in managing projects‟.
Premature noise. It is an early version of what will eventually become the truth; e.g., an in-house noise
about pending personnel, procedural, and infrastructural changes.
Malicious noise. It is generated to damage project manager, some stakeholders, or to tend relations
Outrageous noise. It is composed of stories so unbelievable that most parties think they cannot have
been made up.
Nearly true noise. It is built around a kernel of truth.
„Birthday‟ noise. It comes around as regularly as birthdays; e.g., legends around projects developed in
Malicious noise is perhaps the most dangerous type of noise in this categorization. If this is the case, project
manager should understand and accept what (s)he can and cannot change about the situation. In fact, project
manager has some control over his/her reputation and his/her relationship with stakeholders and he has little if
any control over what other people choose to say about him/her.
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As in signal processing theory, some terminology may be given. Based on a specific categorization, each one of
the aforementioned noise types could be called “colored noise”, where one type of noise defines one and only
one color. Similarly, noise is called “white noise” if it is made up of all of colored noise types. However, because
of parties‟ bandwagon effect around noise, most of the times it is not easy to determine if a specific colored noise
or even if white noise is occurring.
Noise may occur at any moment during project life cycle phases, however since stakeholders or other third
parties have a high influence at the start of project and this influence gets progressively lower as the project
continues (PMI, p.21), the attention of project manager to predict noise must behave similarly as parties‟
influence, as it is shown in Figure 4.
attention to noise
Figure 4. Project manager attention to noise over time.
DEALING WITH NOISE
Noise is always present in any project and cannot be avoided, cannot be eliminated, or even cannot be wished
away; it can only be controlled. Thus noise cannot be mitigated at all. In fact, its elimination requires an endless
effort by the project manager and to use countless resources. However, noise may be considered as project gifts
since it can open lines of communications among stakeholders and third parties, can be viewed as symptoms of
larger project environment problems, and can let the project manager address issues before they become
Extrapolating the ideas stated on PD Webpage, sometimes it is easier to discourage noise than it is to stop it. The
way to discourage noise is to engage in open and honest communication with important stakeholder and party
groups, and to respond to stakeholder concerns before they become a source of anxiety and speculation.
PD Webpage states some additional ideas, such that in some particular cases where noise is composed of jokes
the best response is to do nothing. Responding to noise can backfire by giving it more credibility than it had to
begin with. The key to judging when, and how forcefully, to respond to noise lies in understanding how
concerned stakeholders are by the claims. When noise starts to threaten project management relationship with a
stakeholder, it is time to the project management speaks up.
A strategy to control noise consists of defining and applying a set of preventive and corrective actions. In
literature, it has been reported the successful application of preventive and corrective actions to manage and
control rumors in environments different to project management (Brenner 2003, Brenner 2004, Burgess and
Maiese, Daniel, DiFonzo and Bordia). Some of these actions has been extrapolated and successfully applied by
the author to noisy project management environments. Of course, the responsibility of implementing these
actions entirely belongs to the project manager; so action effectiveness depends on the value given to it.
Preventive actions are based on the fact that credibility is the most powerful tool the project manager possesses.
In fact, credibility can suppress noise and even limit their formation. Thus, the project manager must be clear, be
early, and be right in applying the following preventive actions.
Preventive action 1: Anticipate noise. This action must be the standard in any project. Prevention and
not correction must be the rule adopted by any project manager.
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Preventive action 2: Strive to increase and maintain trust and credibility. The project manager must
reliably pair your words with matching activities. When information is provided, the project manager
must always tell the truth and do not exaggerate or lie for short-term benefit; e.g., (s)he does not talk
falsely, this is another way that noise starts in the first place.
Preventive action 3: Keep stakeholders informed. The project manager must periodically inform
stakeholders about project progress and related events.
Preventive action 4. Tailor each communication. Information given to stakeholders must satisfy
particular information needs. Newsletters, memos and briefings are excellent methods to provide
information. They can become the “official” words on the project and prevent noise from starting.
Preventive action 5: Set up a “hotline” communication channel. This is to be in permanent
communication firstly with stakeholders and then with other parties if possible. This action helps
provide factual responses when needed and at any time. Internet instant messengers can help achieve
Preventive action 6. Be judicious about communication openness. Many people believe that
implementing a broadband communication channel with parties prevents noise. This is not certain at all;
in fact, while secrecy does stimulate noise, openness limits it only if it reduces anxiety. In other words,
openness can even make things worse, if it adds to anxiety.
Preventive action 7. Anticipate parties‟ anxiety. If it is known of a probable source of anxiety or
worry, get out in front of it. Do not wait for noise to form. Take corrective actions early, and make
those actions known (see corrective actions below).
Preventive action 8. Fill voids by complementing and repeating information given. When parties
worry, they make up what they do not know. When it is said nothing about a topic, parties are worrying
about, then it is leaved a void to be filled by noise. Before occurrence of this, it is better that project
manager fills voids by complementing and repeating information given.
Preventive action 9. Monitor possible effects of noise with respect external events, stakeholder
attitudes, and parties´ behavior. This is in order to interventions can be enacted early in the life of noise.
Corrective actions must be considered as the last ones to be taken by the project manager since they are based on
repairing project manager credibility when it gets tattered. If this occurs and before the project manager responds
to noise, (s)he must address the following questions (PD Webpage):
What type of noise is this?
Is this any truth to it? Does it point to a problem I need to fix?
Is the issue important to stakeholders? Which ones? Why?
Are stakeholders paying attention to noise? If so, what is their response to it? Do they want to hear
something from me about it?
Can I provide information that might dispel noise? Do I need to be more open with information in
What is the underlying concern or anxiety expressed by noise? Can I do anything constructive to
What is the state of my relationship with parties influenced by noise? Could or should I do anything to
improve the quality of that relationship?
Are there credible third parties who might help dispel noise?
Answering these questions is not an easy task. In fact, repairing credibility indicates that something has been
wrong in managing project. In order to help give answers, it is recommended the project manager implement the
Corrective action 1. Avoid a “no comment” response. Do not be a project manager advocating a “no
comment” posture in response to noise. In any event, explain why it is given.
Corrective action 2: Determine what colored noise is actually circulating. It requires the support of
some “noise reporters” (some of them could be stakeholders or third parties) who are in a position to
hear circulating noise. In general, these reporters should be very active in the environment and be
interested in being beneficed from project product. It is also important that these individuals to be
widely trusted by stakeholders.
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Corrective action 3: Determine which part of noise content is due to either true or false information.
There are at least two ways of implementing this action,
o A naïve way is that once noise begins to cause problems in project progress, it is helpful talk to
some stakeholders and to ask the source of the problem according to them and their knowledge of
the situation. This will diminish stakeholders‟ fears and uncertainties.
o A more sophisticated way again requires the support of “noise investigators” (who may be the same
people as the "noise reporters" or others). These reporters can help determine, from their
perspective, the accuracy of information pertaining to their group that produces noise. While there
will certainly be cases were the practices of secrecy and deception make reliable information
checking impossible, there will also be many cases in which some noise can be partially reduced.
This noise investigation action may be structured at least in two ways, as long as it provides
information that is widely regarded as trustworthy and reliable:
- The first way is that “noise reporters” might be organized into a committee made up of people
from both or all sides that meet periodically to exchange information about current noise and
then organize efforts to determine noise‟s source accuracy. These committees should also
involve people with access to the information needed to conduct effective investigations.
- The second way involves widely trusted neutral intermediaries who systematically contact key
parties involved in a conflict to identify and investigate the latest noise. When these
intermediaries hear a story that they think is likely to be untrue, they initiate an investigation to
try to determine whether or not the story is accurate. Also needed is a plan for handling
inconclusive investigations. This means that the investigators have to clearly acknowledge
cases in which they are unable to determine the reliability of noise‟s source.
Corrective action 4: Determine mechanisms for diminishing noise contents and replacing it with
reliable information. In order to be successful in implementing these mechanisms, project manager must
take into account that:
o “Noise investigators” need some reliable procedure for promptly reporting their findings to project
managers and stakeholders (again, e-mail and instant messengers could help). In cases were there is
no agreement on what has happened, they should report what is known, what is not known, and
what is still being investigated. They should also report differing interpretations of available facts.
o There must be a plan for reducing noise. Since noise becomes stronger and more difficult to stop
over time (bandwagon effect), it is very important to act quickly before the false information is
repeated so many times that it becomes accepted as truth. In this case, project manager must
consider in his/her plan the following points:
- Refute noise via an appropriate level source. For example, instrument refutation via a
stakeholder leader or a sponsor.
- Refute noise via a trusted outside source. For example, consult and disseminate the opinion of
experts in the corresponding topic.
- Refute noise with a clear, strong, concise, and memorable message based on results obtained so
far and on previous experience.
- Refute noise based upon the truth.
- Refute noise with consistent messages. Do not provide contradictory information and always
complete facts without repeating the false information itself.
If after applying these corrective actions noise persists and has developed in such a way it is comparable to
project messages, then the project manager must change the rules for managing the project for example,
publicly delegate responsibility to a new high-visibility stakeholder. Care must be taken since all of the project
processes are interdependent; change of rules implies a change in the whole rules used to manage the project.
Thus, uncertainty and ambiguity will apply since stakeholders will be unsure how to proceed.
Under extreme conditions, the project manager must not try to apply the old rules of project management faster
or better. Rather, project manager must start challenging assumptions in order to drive strategic process change.
In these circumstances, the project manager will succeed if he can read the way of managing the project, and
master its rules, quickly and successfully.
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Project management mismatches occur when the project manager retain the old rules to manage the project after
appearing of noise comparable to messages. Frequently project management mismatches can lead to complete
project breakdown. Moreover, failure to capture the potential of using new project management rules stifles the
process of project management innovation.
The project manager must remember that stakeholders are like chorus: each one has a different accent, tone, and
voice. Thus, (s)he must try to harmonize and synchronize stakeholders‟ work styles.
CHALLENGES AND CONSTRAINTS
Managing projects in noise environments is not an easy task. The project manager must be aware of noise and its
effects on stakeholders, parties, and project management and results. In fact, project manager should challenge
the following situations (Clements and Drake, DiFonzo and Bordia):
Expect to encounter harmful noise during all of the project management phases.
Take into account that noise often starts from the very first conception of project.
Be alert to the possible negative effects of noise within three main domains: consequences to
project and project management, stakeholder attitudes, and third party behaviors.
Formulate a pro-active plan to prevent and correct noise.
Inhibit noise activity and its associated effects by reducing and/or placing bounds upon uncertainty
and by reducing belief in noise through effective formal communications.
These challenges are more difficult in implementation than they appear. In fact, project manager actions may be
limited to the following constraints (Clements and Drake, DiFonzo and Bordia):
Resources for rapid response to noise are rarely budgeted; this is certain if project is managed with
Stakeholders and sponsors pay insufficient attention to communication versus attention to
Rapid respond to noise is not always possible if project is decentralized.
Brenner, R (2002). Responding to Rumors. www.chacocanyon.com/pointlookout/020424.shtml. Visited
Brenner, R (2003). There is no Rumor Mill. http://www.chacocanyon.com/pointlookout/030326.shtml. Visited
Burgess, H. and M. Maiese. Rumor Control. www.beyondintractability.org/m/rumor_control.jsp. Visited
Clements, J. and C. Drake. Dealing with Rumors. www.comminit.com/strategicthinking/stepicom/sld-1681.html.
Visited November 2005.
Daniel, M. Rumor Management Strategy.
http://faculty.kfupm.edu.sa/mgm/danielm/Rumor%20Management%20Strategy.htm. Visited November 2005
DiFonzo, N. and P. Bordia. How Top PR Professionals Handle Hot Air: Types of Corporate Rumors, Their
Effects, and Strategies to Manage Them: A study to the Institute for Public Relations.
www.instituteforpr.com/pdf/1999_rumor-study.pdf. Visited November 2005.
PD Webapge. Rumors/Urban Legends. http://home.att.net/~eccentricstar/cs_rumors.html. Visited November
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PMI. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge: PMBOK Guide. Third Edition. Project
Management Institute. 2004
Yang, S. The Human Communication Process. www.wam.umd.edu/~suyang/Ch%201_Spring05.ppt. Visited
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