Early in my first career (in television), I worked with someone who excelled at telling me (and probably many others) that my work was “not right.” Yet, when I asked what was wrong, the person couldn’t tell me.

manager_communication“What’s wrong with it,” I asked.

“It’s not what I expected.”

“But it’s exactly what was outlined in the brief and the storyboard.”

“But it’s not right.”

“In what way?”

“It came out different.”

“Different how?”

“Not the same as I wanted.”

“What did you want?”

“Not this.”

“Well, then, what would you change to make it what you want?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then how will I know what to do to make it what you want?”

“That’s your job to figure out.”

[sigh] So I took a guess, which was wrong, and went through the same conversation again.

It was only when I resigned from the project that the work – in its original version – was accepted. The people who managed the budget were unwilling to start over, knowing they were likely to live through a replay of the same interaction.

Say What?

It was a textbook case of muddled expectations – of thinking that the plan and its outcome were understood in the same way by everyone. Even with pictures on a storyboard, the interpretation of the final result was different. When this situation is played out across international borders, it often gets worse.

More than a century ago, Wilde wrote about England, “We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” Yet the U.K., whose empire contributed to the global spread of English (aided and abetted by Hollywood films and American rock ’n’ roll), isn’t alone in being separated by a common language. Interact with colleagues in former British colonies, and the challenge increases.

Lost in Translation

I was approached by a company in Africa that was particularly eager to have me help them with branding and marketing. From the start, I could tell (and tried to tell them) that this might not be the very best idea. Yet, despite my observations about the cultural differences, the slightly altered meanings of everyday words, the use of British spelling and terminology, and the apparent mis-interpretation of the steps involved in defining their brand and reflecting that brand in their marketing, they kept insisting they agreed with my perspective.

In each exchange of email and in each conversation, however, I felt more and more as if I were channeling Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” How this all plays out will be…intriguing.

Whether it’s someone who can’t spell out their expectations, who thinks they understand what to expect, who doesn’t know what to expect, or who expects business practices to be globally consistent, every project manager needs to find their own Esperanto. They need to find ways to be so plain, so full of words with single meanings, that the possibility of being misunderstood is reduced to near zero.

Common Language

Inside an organization, it’s very possible to implement a glossary of terms. The resulting documents might sound slightly stilted, but everyone will know what they mean.

Outside, one organization’s preferred terms might conflict with another’s, so there has to be the equivalent of a software middleware layer that lets one system be used by another. What’s worked for my clients and my team is a “grace note” step – a response that restates the project outline and specifics from the recipient’s point of view. It may slow things down at the start, but it reduces or prevents interruptions once work has begun.


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