Communication, you fool!


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Have you ever wondered how it could happen that the message delivered to a client or higher management was totally different than the one which was initially posted by a team or a specific person? It is quite the same as with the Chinese whispers game. How might the corporate edition look like? Check out this little simplified and overdrawn scenario.

Everything starts with a senior developer who was asked to analyze a client project. After a few days he clearly states to his project lead that they do not have anyone within the team who is experienced in the technology used by the client. Additionally, they are also not familiar with the domain that the client is working in. Moreover, requirements sketched out up to this moment are so unclear that his estimation is almost a random number and cannot be depended on.

The project lead knows that he cannot present such statements to their project manager. They need to be softened a little bit and translated to a slightly different language: the team might have serious problems with the technology used by the client. Additionally, not many team members have client specific domain knowledge. Moreover, a lot of additional work is required to define precise client requirements. It is hard to provide proper estimations at this moment.

Projects managers are usually quite specific creatures. They know that technical people are exaggerating a little bit, so the message needs to be updated to reflect reality: there are significant risks regarding the technology used by the client. Some team members have domain specific knowledge. Additionally, client requirements are not clear. Fortunately, they can be clarified with some effort and estimation can be adjusted.

The department manager wants to get acceptance for the new promising client project. He will enhance the message a little bit so the project will be more likely to start: there are problems with the technology used by the client but they can be overcome. We also have partial domain knowledge. The estimate is almost correct, some additional clarifications are required.

The branch manager who receives the message, as you can already expect, will also transform it slightly, and of course it will cause no harm: as always there are some technology risks and our team does not have full domain knowledge, nothing uncommon. Estimation is certain, just to confirm some minor requirements to be fully sure.

Finally the salesman receives the expertise. As he want to maintain a good relationship with the client from the very beginning he will not exaggerate minor problems which can be handled internally – no need to bother the new promising client. The message received by the client is then: there are no major technology problems and with specific domain knowledge (we of course do not have full knowledge, but who has?). The estimation is ready for acceptance, some minor clarifications are needed but they can be done after the project will start as they will have no significant impact.

Woow, wait a moment, what was the original message? Here it is:

There is no one within a team who is experienced in the technology used by the client. Additionally, they are also not familiar with the domain with which client is working in. Moreover, the requirements sketched out up to this moment are so unclear that his estimation is almost a random number and cannot be depended on.

How could that have happened? While of course the above example is a little overdrawn and exaggerated, similar situations really happen. Probably even you have already in such a Chinese whisper. What can we do about it? Sometimes not much. Always stay real, try to get real, and make sure that you are up to date with reality. Be very careful whenever rephrasing messages to not lose their original meaning. Remember what messages you have posted and what exactly you have committed to.

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