Jul 082011

What could possibly be misunderstood? It's so simple!

In the 1985 film “Real Genius“, the character played by Val Kilmer quoted the title of this post… or I suppose I am quoting him.

Have you ever been on a project, software or otherwise, where you didn’t realize what you were “drinking?”

In Socrates’ case, it kinda ruined his day. Of course you might ask, “How could he not know it was hemlock?”

Well, I don’t intend to go any further with the Socrates intro, but I hope it caught your attention.

What we have here…

Where I am taking this post is into failures to communicate… for which the movie quote was way too obvious to use.

So back to your project. When I communicate with you, the result is some coordination… though I may not see the coordination in some physical or observable way.

The short and very direct post by Melanie Pinola: “Redefine problems by changing the words you use to describe them” emphasizes the significant differences a single word can make in the way we orient around a simple question. Choosing your words carefully makes a huge difference – in her case it can stimulate difference ways to think about a problem – used ineffectively it could also send the wrong signals to the other person.

Tuning in the receiver

In communicating with you, I signal some meaning that you have to interpret. If you don’t, then I didn’t communicate… as when someone sends you an email request that you never receive. There is no connection, and though your lack of response disappoints them, you have no idea it even happened.

All this talking and asking questions sure makes a guy thirsty...

These missteps occur more often than you think – even if you have some experience recognizing them. The email thing has happened to me before… more than once. I have also made requests of people they didn’t realize I made, and I’ve had requests made of me that I didn’t interpret as requests.

In yesterday’s post, bfmoozand I traded some thinking about communication within the concept of vision. The same fundamentals apply in this case as well – there is no direct line between your brain and mine. They are not connected together, and we cannot “download” information from each other.

All that we can do is make interpretations, and we are stuck with the interpretations we make. To us they seem to be “right”, and if we don’t thinkwe need clarification (another interpretation) we won’t ask for it.

One strength of agile coaches is their capacity to remember this simple truth about communication – nobody truly hears what someone else actually says… they only interpretwhat was said. So we choose our words carefully, we distinguish requirements and specifications from notions that might be more volatile and we set priorities accordingly.

What did you interpret from this post?

  4 Responses to “The immortal words of Socrates: I drank what?”

  1. A couple things triggered me on this one (aside from the obvious proverbial fish hook that snared me on the title alone given our recent discussion concerning the cinematic masterpiece that is “Real Genius”).

    I really like the concept of the dual responsibility of communication. The essence of good fulfilling communication is that balance of attentiveness and respect even in disagreement.

    One of the things this makes me think about is how lacking the art of communication has become. I find too many times that we tend to operate more and more every day in this bipolar communication perception that either two people have to agree or they have to disagree. More often than not most people operate within the varying shades of grey between these two extremes. That’s also not to say I don’t think that is a healthy place to settle either, as if both parties bring the exact same perspective to the conversation, how much creativity can fully be generated from the interaction?

    • Moose, you aren’t accusing me of using a marketing trick on you, now are you?

      I like your use of the phrase “balance of attentiveness and respect”. That opens another thread where we look for two-way communication. That is not always the case, but I accept the direction you went with it.

      You might even consider someone giving an order or command in the military is not really looking for two-way communication all the time, but that at least if the communication goes in the way that is intended it has a chance to be effective for its own purpose.

      In the domain of software projects, or business/IT communication, have you just noticed there was no communication at all, perhaps in a certain area? Not even agreement or disagreement, but nothing observable at all?

      Or even worse, have you left a conversation in which everyone assesses an agreement has been reached, but then participants’ actions displayed that it really hadn’t?

      • Absolutely on both of your two questions. You might have just hit one of my biggest annoyances about development. We spend incredible amounts of time to build and meet expectations, we get it all done to the point where we feel it’s absolute perfection and will likely lead us to the next cover of CIO Magazine, then we hand it over and say “test this and let me know how it goes.” There are times I might have received better feedback if I had thrown it into a dark chasm somewhere and waited for a wandering archeologist to find it years later. It gets even more convoluted when it’s a “business critical” development that needs to be completed and deployed and more than a year later it’s still sitting on a shelf.

        As a developer, this is a difficult response to gauge. Was it never as important as was originally portrayed? Is the requester just unusually busy and do they just have no time right now? Even worse, was what I spent the time to build just completely wrong and not suitable for the intent and I’m just not getting that feedback?

        When we get zero response, much to your original point regarding the bottomless emails, we are left to interpret what is really going on, which may or may not be accurate at all.

        • Well, we need to chat about “then we hand it over”, but I get what you’re saying.

          The first key to metaphorically “closing the loop” is to take pains to make your speech acts clear. It is pretty common now to refer to S.M.A.R.T. goals, and the acronym applies similarly in making requests. Yet how often do you remember to include a “By when?” in your request: we need this decision by Thursday COB or it will delay the release…

          The next key to getting a response is asking for one. That’s simple… but it doesn’t always get the results we want because people are not always respectful of that part of the request. As engineers, we call it the ACK (for “acknowledgement”) that the request was even received.

          But the most important key is the one people may not want to hear – if there is no consequence to declining your request (or just ignoring it), you are stuck, blowing with the wind, leaning on the good grace of the other party.

          Did you notice in my first key the decision by Thursday? As I was writing it, I just couldn’t leave that out of the request. Conditioning ourselves to think of the “or else”… not that we are going to cause trouble, but that it is inevitable if our request is not accepted.

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