The battle of language...

7th November 2012

...Reflections of a Brit living in the US.

I think it was George Bernard Shaw who noted that "England and America are two countries separated by a common language". Having spent time in the US for the last 8 months working with a project team in the US to make them more agile and 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 analyse 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 organisation 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', 'story points' 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 and 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 what 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?
  • 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 and control and servant leadership, but the basic project management concepts are exactly the same. When you strip out all of the methods and terminology you’re 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 encyclopaedia 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 to 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 :-)

- Mike 

Mike Hesketh is an Agile Evangelist with a practical approach. He's worked with a wide range of companies, helping them successfully adopt Agile and Waterfall practices. He is also the author of the Keeping Agile Simple blog and you can follow his thoughts & experiences on Twitter (@keepagilesimple).

We would love to hear your news, thoughts or comments you have on this article – please do send them in via email.

Nassereddin Eftekhar - 8th November 2012

"Thanks for sharing the article.
Since the recorded history of civilization, the concept of PM has not changed. These are tools, techniques and methodologies that have changed! PMs are communicating with the same language only their wordings have changed due to inevitable passing of time!" 

Jose Renato Candido - 8th November 2012

"Underground, not a subway"

Pat Weaver - 8th November 2012

"You don’t need to cross the Atlantic in either direction to build communication confusion! A really good article on this subject has just been published in the free PM World Journal."

Bob Vandenberg - 9th November 2012

"Given that language is the only means available to coordinate, communicate, and provide a framework for interaction, have a clear understanding and basis for what different words, definitions etc. is essential. Or else one would thing that the British dress their cars (boot and bonnet), name their bathrooms after some Lewis guy (loo) and don't get me started on some Brit desperate for a cigarette and asking someone for where they can find one in San Francisco....can we say culture shock of the extreme kind?

PM me if you don't get the last one....LOL" 

Sergey Melnichenko - 9th November 2012


David Whelbourn - 12th November 2012

"I nearly caused a major HR problem when I asked an executive secretary for some rubbers to use at my collaboration meeting :-) She calmed down when I explained they were to "rub out" the pencil lines...

I also raised a few eyebrows when I said I was going outside for a quick fag (I used to smoke in those days)"

Ian Partridge - 13th November 2012

"One rule should always apply in England. It is FOOTBALL not Soccer ;-) I can work with everything else." 

Peter Turchyn - 15th November 2012

"..but what do you keep in the 'boot'? :) "


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