What we say isn’t what they hear

I am frequently surprised now imperfect human communication is, and how ambiguous it is. We think something, we turn it into words, we speak those words, those words get heard by another person, they get interpreted by that person, that interpretation gets stored, and then it gets recalled. Each of those steps is an opportunity for error.

Recently I was thinking back to example of this that caused real problems. I was working with a team that had two projects earmarked for it. One was a relatively small piece of work, the other a major project of a few months in duration. The small piece of work was not time critical, and the Head of Product judged that if it could be done in a week, before she expected the major project to start, then it would be worth doing now. Indeed, an earlier, rough estimate had it as one week’s work. She told the team’s Product Manager that he had a week for that small piece of work.

But what the Head of Product thought she communicated was not what the Product Manager understood. He understood “You’ve got a week” as confirmation of the earlier rough estimate. When the team more carefully estimated the work it was judged to be about 3 weeks of work, but the Product Manager didn’t think much more of the matter. The team spent some more time preparing more detailed designs, and eventually started implementation.

The team had got about half way into their first day of implementation when it was called to a halt. There was much frustration from within the team, mainly directed at the product function. They had spent at least two and half days estimating, detailing and implementing the work. They could have stopped it after only a couple of hours when they realised it was going to take more than a week.

You might think “You’ve got a week” is a clear message, but rightly or wrongly it obviously wasn’t. The Head of Product intended it to mean, “Don’t do it if it’s more than a week,” and the Product Manager heard it as, “The earlier, rough estimate was about a week.”

After I had untangled this I explained the confusion to the Head of Product. I pointed out that the original message was ambiguous, and she said, “But I don’t understand. I very clearly said you’ve got a week.” Obviously my explanation wasn’t clear either.

My lesson from this, and other examples, is that what we say isn’t what gets heard. When I remember I try to say the same thing in different ways, and ask whoever I’m speaking to to confirm what they’ve heard. If they use the same wording as I did then I’m not happy—I want to hear something that is very clearly their own understanding.

Photo by Rocío Fdez. Ledesma

One thought on “What we say isn’t what they hear

  1. If we agree that it will be ready in January. What will the team think? And what wil the customer think? You see?

    Similarly, if someone says: “It will be delivered in six weeks”, my reflex is: “What date?”
    Because after one or two weeks it still may be “I said in six weeks’.
    See also ‘active synchronization’: http://www.malotaux.eu/activesync

Comments are closed.