What can a Hollywood actress teach us about finding the right communications channel? A lot, it turns out, and even a little about torpedoes.
If she were alive today, Hollywood siren Hedy Lamarr would be 100 years old. I mention this because Lamarr was more than an actress who cut through the glamour and hype as an inventor, she was also instrumental in developing a technology that allows everything to do just that: find a channel through the noise.
Before she was a Hollywood movie star, Lamarr lived in Austria with her husband Friedrich Mandl, who owned a munitions factory. Mandl had fascist connections, with Mussolini and Hitler among his dinner party guests. When Lamarr, born of a Jewish mother who converted to Catholicism, discovered that her star power had the ability to draw these leaders in, she realised she was indirectly helping fascism spread throughout Europe and left Mandl for the United States.
In Hollywood she met composer George Antheil, who was experimenting with automated instruments. It turns out all those soirees listening to munitions talk could serve humanity after all; just like a radio-controlled torpedo could easily be turned off course with broadcast interference, so too could multiple automated instruments cause a cacophony if the signals were jammed.
With Antheil, Lamarr developed frequency-hopping spread-spectrum. In a torpedo, the code for the sequence of frequencies would be held by both the controlling ship and the torpedo so the sending and receiving device of the signal would together randomly choose a channel to communicate on. This made it difficult, almost impossible, for enemy ships to scan and jam all of the channels. In music, it meant each automated instrument would play its own tune without cross signals meant for other instruments.
Lamarr’s concept is today put into practice in modern devices: Bluetooth, WiFi and CDMA all use frequency-hopping to avoid jamming. And just like those devices, you too need to find a wavelength on which you can communicate different aspects of your project.
Different stakeholders are looking for different things from a project manager. The general public asks when you’ll finish the rail upgrade but what they really want to know is what the impact will be and for how long they’ll have to put up with the disruption. The client wants to know your progress, shorthand for ‘how much of the budget have you spent?’ and ‘how likely are you going to go over schedule?’. And your team wants to know what shape the project is in, also known as ‘can we go home on time and sleep well?’
Politicians are notorious for not giving a direct answer to genuine questions. Here’s a newsflash: you’re not a politician. Cut through the noise by finding the right pitch and we’ll all get the message, just like Mandl did when Lamarr escaped his fascist circle of friends.