PM Articles > Geof Lory > Canceling Noise

Canceling Noise

by Geof Lory

My grandfather once told me that the older you get the worse your hearing. He explained it as survival technique based on 50+ years of marriage. Hearing loss with age was not a design flaw by God but rather a heavenly adaptation by man as a species. If my grandfather were alive today, I'm sure he would blame more than my grandmother for his poor hearing. We are bombarded by noise everywhere.

Cell phones, iPods, and other plug-ins drown out one set of uncontrolled noise only to replace it with the user's choice of another noise. E-mail, voice mail, the Internet and 152 cable channels provide a steady stream of visual and audio stimulus. Quiet time, once a punitive measure reserved for the undisciplined child, may now be a welcomed reward—at least it would be for me.

But I don't define noise just by the level of decibels. It also is defined by quality: how the stimuli land on the eyes and ears and eventually in the head of the receiver. More specifically, how meaningful is the noise? Communication is challenging enough under optimal conditions; add excessive noise and you multiply the difficulty. With so much coming at us from every angle at almost every second, distinguishing noise from useful information in the communication process is no simple task.

Several years ago when I was doing a lot of traveling, I bought a pair of Bose headphones that are marketed as "noise-canceling." What an interesting concept. Block out the static and noise and allow the meaningful and valuable information to come through. On long trips, especially on airplanes, they have been a lifesaver. I wondered, if they work so well on planes, what about on projects? Projects and teams are full of meaningless noise that could use a little canceling.

Unfortunately, the noise on projects is not so easily managed, but it can be done. The first step in the process is to distinguish the static and noise from the useful and meaningful information. If you skip this step, you risk either plugging your ears and missing everything or becoming comfortably numb and ignoring meaningful information. Operating in this self-protective oblivion can be as hazardous to your health as standing next to the speakers at an AC/DC concert. (OK, I'm dating myself now.) Equally wasteful is reacting to the noise as if it is meaningful and spending precious energy and time dealing with it.

I'm particularly sensitive to noise on projects and do what I can to reduce it, or at least differentiate it from valuable information so I can either cancel the noise or minimize its effect. So, what do I mean by noise on projects? I'm not referring to developers sitting at their desks coding away while plugged into their iPods, although I still find that strange. Project noise is extraneous stimuli that cause a distraction, diversion, or interference with the reception of valuable information or the progress of productive activities. Identifying and channeling or canceling noise is a key skill of a project manager. It is essential to creating an environment that is conducive to maximizing the performance of the team.

Noise comes in all forms and at any time. No one is immune to it, but there are ways to cancel it. Here are just a few different types of noise and suggested approaches you may find valuable as your own personal project Bose headphones.

Technology Noise

Anyone who has called a help desk is familiar with this one. Ask a question, get lots of noisy data but no useful information.

Q: When will the system be back up?
A: We are experiencing technical difficulties.
Q: No kidding. But when will the system be back up?
A: The fubar on our matafratis is not functioning.
Q: Sorry to hear that, it sounds like a personal problem to me. When will the system be back up?
A: I'll have to call someone in tech support. Would you like to hold?
Q: I thought you were tech support. CLICK!

Management Noise

This noise may be better labeled as an echo. As information bounces around the cavernous vacuum of the organization (there is usually more empty space the higher you go in an organization) the quality of the sound diminishes with each reverberation, resulting in an echo that is a poor replication of the original sound. Unfortunately, unlike an echo that loses energy as it changes direction, this noise can pick up steam and even take on a life of its own. Spun project status reports, poorly written e-mails, or untrusting micro-managers can be the initiators of management noise. Sheltering the team from this distraction is critical to keeping the team motivated and on point, even if it means you are the one to take the last ricochet.

Team Noise

This is noise that requires the trained ear of experience. When dealing with the noise within the team the differences are often fine and indistinguishable. Hints and clues are there to help separate the noise, but only experience will refine the senses and increase the ability to pick up on the nuances. Nay-saying and negative attitudes could be signs of struggles within the team or could just be the consequential noise of the project pressure, much like a steam engine that blows the whistle to release some pressure. As a project manager it is critical to stand far enough away to determine if the whistle is a call for help or just letting off a little steam.


This noise, while perhaps audibly the most quiet of all, may be the loudest or most difficult to deal with. Self-noise stems from that little yammer-yammer in your mind that creates FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt). It feeds on the ego and threatens to interfere with your ability to handle the other noises effectively. Self-noise is easily hooked by emotion, lack of certainty and clarity of focus. Being clear about your intent, purpose, and commitment to the goals of the project and team can help eliminate self-noise and leave your mind open to deal more effectively with the external noises.

My BOSE Headphones

I am always on the lookout for noise. When I think I may be encountering noise, my first step is to listen more intently to determine what I am hearing. Then I ask some simple questions:

  • What part of that noise do I know to be true?
  • What value does this noise have on the work I am planning to do?
  • What would be the effect if I had not heard this noise?

Just slowing down long enough to listen and ask these questions helps me stay conscious enough to determine if I am hearing noise or worthwhile information. Only then can I make a decision to act, ignore, or cancel. If you do this, you may be surprised by how much is noise. The more you practice this, the more comfortable you will get with canceling, ignoring, or at least not reacting to the noise in a knee-jerk way. This calm and discerning demeanor will foster a less noisy team where communication flows more effectively and productivity increases. Some of you may remember the old E. F. Hutton commercials.

I do want to offer an additional caveat relative to not taking the time to slow down, and that is to beware of the dopeler effect. Just as the Doppler effect makes a siren sound higher when it speeds toward you, the dopeler effect makes stupid ideas (like noise) seem smarter (like meaningful information) when they come at you rapidly. Speed and its associated lack of consciousness increase the magnitude of the noise while at the same time decreasing the likelihood you will identify it as such and attempt to cancel it. In my next article I'll cover this topic in greater depth, as speed and noise are intrinsically linked.

Related Templates
Brief, regular updates on Issue Status can keep them from magnifying in the management echo chamber. Within the team, you can cut down on the noise by understanding how personality types impact interactions, and by giving everyone a chance to raise the roof when things go well. Track and combat your own personal noisemakers with our time management assessment log.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Interesting observations, I own Bose headphones as well, I only wish they had them when I was flying in North Stars 50 years ago, but then there would not have been anything to plug the thing into.
I must say that the noise is increasing. Our younger crowd, both X & Y, do not like to deal with accountability, so no matter how much those of us in who delegate spell a project out we still are expected to review progress and spell out next steps far more often then we did in the past. True these young people are project focused, but they seem to require a great deal of hand holding, something that was frowned on until a few years ago. As the CEO I am far more interested in outcomes rather than the project itself, so I think I will be wearing those headphone at the office as well as on a 777

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