Effective Mis-Communication

How do you know you’ve got your message across?


Got a great reminder today of the bi-directional nature of effective interaction.

A two-person team had to complete a task.  One side knew what the end product had to be, the other had to execute.  The flow of information was constrained.  While they could talk to each other, neither partner could see what the other had.  Sound familiar?

The forehead-slapping insight came at the end when the pair looked at its result and discovered it had produced exactly what the one partner had described, and it was nothing like the spec that had been provided.

How can such perfectly “clear” communication lead to such a messed up result?

For one thing, you need to periodically check in on progress.  The team didn’t.  Each exchange can be thought of as a little experiment.  Experiments in which you are trying to create shared meaning.  

At the end of an experiment, you need to review the result.  Are you on track?  If you are, keep going.  If not, figure out where you are, make any needed adjustments, and carry on from there.

This can be challenging in circumstances where the channels and mechanisms are not ideal.  Challenging, but not impossible.  You have to be very thoughtful about the questions you ask.

“Do you understand what I said?” is usually not a good question.  “What have you got?”  “What you do need?”  “How can I help?” are better.

The other key element is a sense of shared accountability for the outcome.  It’s not just words and information that needs to flow in both directions. 

Success comes only when both sides realize that one cannot succeed without the other.  The designer needs the implementer and vice versa.  The project team needs the client and vice versa.

These are not big things, but they make a big difference.