Hummingbirds, PMOs, and Linguistics

In my previous article, we have shared why the hummingbird is a symbol of an agile PMO. Today, we will discover one more characteristic: vocal learning, i.e. the ability to acquire vocalizations through imitation.  Analyzing the way organizations sing or speak through linguistics provides rich information to PMOs about their beliefs, fears, thinking patterns, social relationships, and personalities. PMOs have a great opportunity to evolve the way they communicate and influence their environment.


Hummingbirds Acquire Vocalizations through Imitation


Hummingbirds can create sounds that are both vocal and non-vocal. Vocal sounds are made with the voice box but the non-vocal aerodynamic sounds are made with their wing and tail feathers. Hummingbirds’ songs are higher pitched than those of songbirds, but they are amazingly rich, and in some species they can be quite complex.

A few bird species share with humans the ability to modify their vocalization late in life. Vocal learning has been repeatedly demonstrated in two bird orders, Passeriformes (specifically the oscine songbirds) and Psittaciformes (parrots). Hummingbirds are the third order capable of vocal learning. Like humans, they have developed the rare trait of vocal learning, i.e. the ability to acquire vocalizations through imitation rather than instinct.

Fig. 1 – Hummingbirds learn to vocalize over time


In the same manner, a PMO creates two sorts of “sounds.” A PMO produces speeches (meetings, training, mentoring…) and writings (PPM data, reports…). A PMO also develops a style through a multitude of signs and actions that permeate his or her environment (the project, the stakeholders, and the larger environment…).

The PMO’s project ecosystem is most of the time rich and complex. It has a distinctive culture. It is in the best interest of a PMO not only to understand this culture (this type of song), but also to benchmark it against different ecosystems, and then to adopt by imitation the best suited one (the most beautiful song).

Many tools are available that PMOs can use to describe the “sounds and songs” of their environment. One of these tools I like is called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, or LIWC[1]. It allows studying the various emotional, cognitive, and structural components present in individuals or groups’ verbal and written speech samples. As a PMO you can use it to analyze your organization linguistic style as well as your project styles.

The graph below shows an example of such an analysis. It compares annual reports provided by three different organizations. Each report counts around 50,000 words.


Fig. 2 – Linguistic Analysis of 3 Annual Reports

Many dimensions are available to the researcher. The graph focuses on seven dimensions: level of analysis, influence, authenticity, affiliation, power, risk, and money orientation. It is up to the PMO to interpret the meaning of such a graph and to elaborate a strategy for his or her own style.

For instance, interestingly, the organization regularly demonstrating the best financial performance (continuous dark blue line) is also the organization showing the less money orientation in its official discourse. The reverse is also true (doted light blue line).

Instead of comparing business organizations, a PMO can compare the words used in projects or in portfolios. A typical PPM data base in a large organization can contain 1,000,000 words. This is largely enough to offer a sufficient level of accuracy in a linguistic analysis.

PMOs have a great opportunity to evolve the way they communicate and adjust to their environment. It is not a question of becoming a chameleon and of losing what makes them special. It is a question of finding where and how to best support their environment through their communication strategy. If we apply this principle to the organization B for example, it means that the (strategic) PMO may push the organization to focus more on the level of affiliation (the “we”) and less on making profits or reducing costs.


Listen to the hummingbird

Whose wings you cannot see

Listen to the hummingbird

Don’t listen to me.

Leonard Cohen, Sweet Little Song



To Your Continued Success!



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