Friday, 2 November 2012

Reflections from a Brit living in the US - The battle of language

I think it was George Bernard Shaw who noted that "England and America are two countries separated by a common language".  Having spend time in the US for the last 8 months working with a team in the US to make them more agile & effective I can sympathize with that.  I ask for a check not a bill, I'm good not I'm fine, I eat food to go not takeaways and I ride in elevators not lifts.  I talk about organizations not organisations and analyze problems soup to nuts not root & branch.  What I have noticed is how quickly I've adopted these changes into my everyday life to the extent that my family at home often look at me and say "What?".

Reflecting on this at our local tavern (not bar) watching soccer (not football) I've started to make connections between the importance of language in managing change and gaining traction in moving organizations to a new way of thinking.

It seems that every time we want to make a change we insist on shrouding it with special terms and jargon.  So in moving an organization from Waterfall to Agile methods we find that they are two methodologies separated by a common language as well.  So we talk of stories not requirements, products not deliverables, storypoints not effort, sprints not tranches, backlogs not plans, blockers not issues and themes not goals.

During a recent summit of waterfall and agile advocates this week I found myself listening to strongly argued points of view and intense conflict between two project management factions.  We talked about command & control, structure, need for predictability and timely tracking of progress.  What became evident to me, very quickly, is that both sides were in violent agreement about they were trying to do - they just didn't understand each other because they spoke different languages.

To break this down I brought the conversation back to the five standard questions... Why are we doing this?, What do we need to deliver?, How can we deliver it?, Who's going to deliver it? and When can it be done?  I sent the groups away to list the methods they'd use to answer each of these questions without using any of the words that I provided in a taboo list.  They found it difficult to drop the jargon but 30 minutes later they came back and presented their answers to the other group with case studies to illustrate what they meant.

The result? Two almost identical presentations written in English that everyone could understand.  I've often seen cartoons where you can see a light bulb suddenly appearing above someone's head - and it was just like that.

Yes there are differences in philosophy between command & control and servant leadership but the basic project management concepts are exactly the same.  When you strip out all of the methods & terminology your simply left with a group of people who want to know why we're doing something, what's got to be done, when it's got to be done by and how we'll know it's been done correctly.

By removing the language barrier, and the emotions attached to it, working out a transition plan became a lot simpler.  Yes there are culture changes needs, new ways of working and training for those involved.  But the highest barrier to overcome is  the language we use.  It seems such a small change but it really has made a difference - I just wish I'd thought of it earlier!

I started this blog with a quotation so it seems fitting I should close it with one: 
Language is the biggest barrier to human progress because language is an encyclopedia of ignorance. Old perceptions are frozen into language and force us to look at the world in an old fashioned way. Edward de Bono

So a new way of working to add my experience in introducing change... build a common language that everyone understands.

Although, I don't think I can convince the whole of the US to adopt my way of everyday English so I'll pack that in the trunk, fill the car with gas and ride out into the sunset when I return home this weekend :-)



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