Recently I was interviewed by a Mechanical Engineering student on the importance of communications. I’m approaching 40 years in engineering practice so the examples began to flow and the student’s 15 minute time estimate for the meeting quickly turned into two hours. The meeting itself was a lesson in communications. My awareness of the root cause, that I will describe below, I believe made the information more valuable.
The student and I covered many issues on the topic of communications, but the emphasis of his questioning was the difference between communicating with other engineers versus business majors or the sales personnel. The root issue of communications I believe goes deeper and must be identified to minimize the occurrence.
There have been many occurrences of communication problems in my life and not all involved engineering. In the past, I viewed each incident as individual and isolated events. Of late, I have come to the conclusion there are common causes. Here I address one that I think is more common than realized.
Communication problems are often dismissed as the language, generational, or cultural gaps. These all contribute to the issue but are not the root cause of a large portion of communication problems. If fact, obvious language issues often result in precautions being taken to avoid miscommunications.
About 25 years ago I was among a group of technical people gathered for a seminar. While waiting for the speaker, conversations started within the group. Two people were carrying on an energetic conversation for 10-15 minutes consisting of acronyms -- just alphabet soup. Just prior to the speaker arriving, the two having the conversation realized each used a particular acronym for entirely different and unrelated meanings. Yet these two had conversed as if they were on the same subject. Imagine if the conversation had developed into a disagreement to the point of anger, and the instructor arrived before these two were able to define terms. Both would have left thinking badly of the other and maybe worse.
In another situation I was just hired into a new position by a former coworker, now manager of a program. He asked that I do something which I immediately did. At our next meeting, the manger began to tell me how I should go about doing the task. I was fuming, to say the least. I was saying to myself, "what was wrong with the way I did it?" I fumed and fumed until I finally asked. The manager looked at me in astonishment and said “You did it? I am not use to anything getting done so fast around here.”
One final example. A new VP of engineering admonished me for my poor design and release process causing many problems – no specifics were provided. I was shocked to the point of speechlessness, so I did not immediately ask for specifics that would have revealed the root cause of his dissatisfaction.
I assumed my 2 + year old procedure had grown stale and caused problems. I printed a copy of my Design and Release Procedure and read it line for line, looking for something that was no longer correct. After failing to find any problems, I wrote in large red letters “Tell me what I need to change.” The boss was not at his desk, so I left it on his seat. Sometime later, a much more humble boss came to my office and asked if the release date on the procedure was correct – it was, and about 2 years old, so I said yes, and he left.
All three examples have the same root cause. In each case one or both parties assumed implicitly that the other party knew something that in reality they did not.
Case One: Each party assumed that a particular acronym meant the same to each of them.
Case Two: I implicitly assumed the manger would know that I would quickly act on the simple assignment. We had worked together for 6 years prior, on a different program.
Case Three: The VP had come to believe implicitly that there was no written process. In his mind, every problem that arose appeared to be a result of not having a process. I assumed he was talking directly to the written document that he did not know existed.
As an independent Professional Engineer many of my clients are not engineers. What were once safe assumptions while working in an engineering office with other engineers, I learned quickly was no longer acceptable.
Current technologies allow people from around the world to communicate with incredible ease. This has resulted in the root-cause I suggested above to run unchecked. When we write we need to be aware of generational, language, or cultural gaps as well as office jargon*. All can easily result in implicit assumptions of other people’s knowledge that are false.
The first professional letter I wrote to be send outside the corporation was brought back to me by my supervisor. He called to my attention that office jargon has no place for a formal business letter. Here again, I was implicitly assuming the terms used every day in our group would be universally understood. It took me 40 years to “connect the dots.”**
* Special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.
** To understand the relationship between different ideas or experiences