English as she is spoke: the science of communication

Quite probably the most essential element of anything in business is accurate communication, and though there are vital communication media that are non-written e.g. technical drawings, imagery etc, the vast majority of communication falls on language.

I’m not one of these reactionaries that don’t like to see new words, terms and phrases appear in our language – it’s a living thing and we must let it evolve.

However, simple errors are a different matter, as they can create confusion and mistakes in understanding. This article on common errors in English chimes with me – as professionals we should be masters of our most important tool, the language we use.

Unfortunately, the fact that English is a second language to many, plus the absence of teaching English grammar for many decades, means that poor grammar is not only tolerated, it’s even copied.

<Rant mode on > My pet hate, showing the illiteracy of some journalists, is “The H.M.S. XXXXXX”.  Complete nonsense – either “Her Majesty’s Ship XXXXX i.e. H.M.S. XXXXX” or “The XXXXX”. Of course, the U.S.S. YYYYY is fine as it makes sense.<\ Rant mode off>

It’s important that we focus on the accuracy of what we communicate, otherwise we’ll get misunderstandings and errors, and errors cost lives, time and money.

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Decision-making for Dummies

I saw this article on selecting ERP solutions and it made me think about decision-making in general (after a master-class from Martin Tate on software selection I don’t feel the need to follow this line of articles).

I googled and found there is a real “Decision-making for Dummies” book already, but it focusses on Business and Personal Finance.

On Wednesday, I was reviewing a project that had got into serious difficulties: a solution had been ordered that was not safe to operate, and had a failure mode that could result in death, serious injury and damage to product worth £enormous. On probing further, it turned out some basic assumptions had been made at the very start of the project:

  1. Another one of what we have already is suitable for this new job
  2. What we have already is safe and fit for purpose

Neither of these assumptions was true! This organization is now retrofitting safety equipment to the original equipment, and the new installation is being redesigned, with consequent delay and rework cost.

So what’s the point? Good decision-making starts with getting the basics right:

  • Understand your true requirements fully
  • Consider as many options as you can
  • Only then move to picking a solution, which you can then be confident is fit for purpose

It is “management nature” to jump to conclusions (Myers-Briggs Intuitives) but when you’re dealing with important stuff, you must be disciplined, and get “M-B Sensors” on the job. And always do a Health and Safety audit!

Playing the numbers game is gambling

While away in Dubrovnik on a business trip, I came down with a bug that, 3 weeks later, has me in bed, feverish and coughing my lungs out.
Ok, I exaggerate, but it’s caused me to ponder about the the way we make decisions based on the weight of experience.

My experience is that throat infections are usually viral and clear up themselves with home treatment in 5 – 10 days, so I didn’t consult my GP until it still hadn’t cleared at 14 days.
Playing the numbers game meant I left it to the point I was uncomfortable based on my experience.
When I saw my GP, she assured me there was nothing that wouldn’t sort itself out without antibiotics. She was playing the numbers game based on her vast experience (but not of me, not having seen me for 15 years).
At first it looked like she was right, then my temperature sky rocketed,  I was shivering and sweating alternately and retired to bed.
Still playing the numbers game, I expected to improve in 2-3 days, but that took me into the weekend.
I finally abdicated decision making to a computer, dialled 111 and answered lots of questions set by my friends the NHS Direct Clinician Team in Bolton, and got booked in for an out of hours appointment. This time I’m expecting antibiotics and will not accept the  numbers game.

This echoes a related diagnostics experience on holiday in the summer, when my normally reliable car developed a nasty whining sound under the bonnet. I took it into a nearby Honda dealer, where the expert, without rising from his seat, assured me it was X and that it was safe to ignore until I got home. It proved to be something completely different, affecting the steering. Another diagnosis he gave so confidently about another minor problem proved to be equally wrong. Playing the numbers game meant he scored 0 out of 2.

People, cars and projects are all complex, and playing the numbers game is something we all indulge it to save time and effort, but it has to be recognized that it is taking a risk, and therefore must be managed as such.

In the project context, playing the numbers is making assumptions, and we all know that “assume” makes an ass of u and me.

I’m glad that Cliff who fixes my car is thorough, diligent and trustworthy – he fixed what was really broken, not what experience suggested.
I’m hoping to get my bacterial secondary infection treated today, unlike a friend’s wife whose TB was misdiagnosed as asthma for 2 years until she found a specialist unit who would look again.

Only play the numbers game if you really have no option.