A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

31 July 2009

Language Barriers

Communication challenges seem to be a recurring theme in my life over the past week or so. Curiously, being in Puerto Rico was the least of them.

Puerto Rico has two official languages, Spanish and English. In San Juan, you can be all but guaranteed a fluently bilingual professional to help you in whatever shop, restaurant, or hotel you happen to patronize. We found that to be true probably 80% of the time or better throughout the island as well. When we did encounter someone who claimed not to speak English, they usually meant only that they weren't particularly fluent. Between their better-than-advertised English and my pitiful Spanish, our genuine desire to communicate got us where we needed to go in a remarkably efficient and friendly manner. The only real challenge I had was in learning that Puerto Rico is not the right place to practice your Spanish if you're not fluent. Puerto Ricans expect you to speak the language you know, and if you talk to them in Spanish, they assume it's because you know it. Once I understood what was expected, I had no trouble communicating.

Understanding what's expected is key in communication no matter what the language. People who should have almost perfectly congruent dialects, like for example coworkers in an organization, run into communication problems all the time. "Speaking the same language" is not just about vocabulary and grammar. It's about attitudes, expectations, and assumptions about what particular expressions mean.

Case in point: one of my most frustrating communication experiences last week was with one of the people I was traveling with. He is an American and a fluent, native English speaker, so that wasn't the issue. We were talking about planning. He asserted that he has never seen planning work, and further, that a colleague of his has researched and found no firm evidence that planning has any kind of positive impact on project success. He is a proud procrastinator and a firm believer that things should be allowed to happen "organically" -- that if you put the right people on a project, they will just get it done with no planning required.

Now, it's not that I don't believe him. For him, planning has probably backfired more than it has helped. I know, though, that planning does work -- if it's the right kind of planning. My response, which fell flat because he did not understand what I meant and sent the group's conversation in a different direction, was that planning doesn't work when you plan from front to back. You have to plan from top to bottom.

Planners frequently create plans based solely on time. They have a project and a deadline, and they create milestones to connect the beginning to the end. These milestones may or may not reflect realistic time frames, and may or may not account for other variables such as required man-hours, budgets, unexpected equipment failures or other setbacks. Such plans almost never account for the intangibles in a project, such as the relationships among the people working on it or other characteristics of those people that may have bearing on their capacity to do the work. Perhaps most importantly, plans that are solely time-based seldom include the motivation for doing the project. "To get it done by the deadline" is not an inspiring reason to do the work. It doesn't capture the value of the project or its impact on the larger organization. It doesn't speak to the needs of the customer or the potential for personal satisfaction in accomplishing a team goal. It doesn't even really express the consequences of failure to meet the deadline.

If you want your plan to have an impact on the project, plan from the top down. Start with vision and mission -- the reasons why this project is important and how it fits into the big picture. Get all of the team members together to discuss the benefits of completing the project, and the consequences of failure. Brainstorm the critical goals related to successful completion and the obstacles that may get in the way. Make sure everyone understands their own role in the project, how their role fits, where their personal deadlines fall and how their performance impacts the success of their team mates. Be sure each team member has a clear understanding of what's expected and why, and how to "cry for help" if things are not going according to plan. Get genuine commitment, not just a reluctant head-nod, from each and every team member. Once you've addressed the intangibles and the "what-ifs," then you'll have the information you need to create a rough timeline based on the tasks you need to complete. From there, you can determine a realistic deadline, SMART goals, and a concrete plan of action.

Sure, it's complicated. But the critical first step is to make sure everyone is speaking the same language. When everyone knows what is meant by "plan," and has a shared base of assumptions and expectations about the nature of the project, you're well on your way to successful completion.

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