Communication is the only problem

The only problem we have is communication but the problem we have with communication isn’t as important as the problem we have understanding that we have a problem with communication.

Language evolves, whether on a historical timescale or on the very short timescale of a project or piece of work. In an agile environment we work on small multidisciplinary teams where we spend most of our time “in the room” with each other. This creates a really good working environment where communication can happen quickly and easily and where talking to each other frequently is a core part of the discipline. It also creates an environment where the language we use can start to evolve. This can be both good and bad.

Being a multidisciplinary team means we all have different specialisms and skills. This can mean that when we talk to each other we aren’t always clear. Sometimes this is easy to spot simply because the things people say sound so strange. If a developer talks about “bouncing tomcat” she’s probably not talking about cruelty to animals; if she mentions “optimising our jenkins deployment” she’s probably not talking about upgrading her butler’s jetpack. These are easily noticed and can (hopefully) be explained to those whose with less experience. As part of that explanation team members learn what words best get the message across and so those terms which work best are adopted and used more frequently.

At other times though confusion is not so easy to spot even within a team. When the words that different people use don’t sound so crazy and in fact sound like they make sense. A slight difference in the usage of a word can be lost and often in these situations teams can continue merrily working away oblivious to the confusion until the issue is forced into the open (usually by something bad happening). These problems stem from the fact that we don’t always have the words to describe what we’re talking about. We reach for something that’s close-enough but often our instinct for efficiency means we go for something too simple and too ambiguous.

An example from the service I’m working on right now involves "advisers" and "assessors". These are two separate job roles of people who are involved with the application process and, without needing to describe the detail of what they do, it’s fair to say that advisers at times need to assess things, and assessors definitely could be described as sometimes giving advice. That’s not to say that within the project there’s any confusion about these roles, but it’s clear that to someone without the specific knowledge of the service these two words don’t really convey the differences between these roles. When it comes to describing the process involved in an application as a lay person it would be absolutely no use for you to use your general understanding of the meaning of these words to help you understand.

And yet naturally that’s what you’d do. When I talked about people making assessments you’d think “he’s talking about the assessors”, and when I spoke about the people who give advice you’d be thinking “and those must be the advisers”. But you’d be wrong.

The interesting thing is that you wouldn’t necessarily know it, and because you didn’t know it you wouldn’t be pulling a confused face or giving me those indication that I wasn’t getting my message across. The way our brains work is to construct the most plausible reality from the information we have. There are all sorts of mental tics and biases which mean that we are extremely prone to mistakenly thinking that we understand a situation when actually we don’t. Our brains are constantly in a state of just-good-enough understanding are naturally bent towards not abandoning that understanding unless they're really forced to.

Language evolves and I think the memetic nature of this evolution is such that trying to impose a solution would likely meet with failure. What we can do though is recognise the problem exists and try and be mindful of it. Acknowledging it openly and mentioning it frequently. We can create glossaries of terms we use and share them between ourselves and with new people. We can try and use the terminology we agree upon consistently and (when we get the chance) we can try and name things sensibly. Also when we’re on the other side of the situation talking to an expert about their field we need to look out for and ask about what’s specifically meant by these words in this context, and try not to assume we understand even when the words being used seem recognisable and understandable.

Above all we need to recognise and not stigmatise people not understanding each other. The English language is a wonderful thing; a full and powerful tool. Yet it is also limited and always changing. We need to be aware of the language we use and it's potential for being misunderstood. Communication, after all, is the only problem we have.