Miscommunicating with the Written Word

What a wonderfully poor medium it is to communicate with written words. I'm sometimes amazed that we're able to communicate meaning at all. Here are two good examples of how hard it is to communicate with written words.  A few weeks ago I was traveling and decided it was time to schedule another Certified ScrumMaster class. I emailed my assistant, Tonya, and said, "Please book the Hyatt in Denver for July 31-August 2." A day or two later she emailed back saying, "The hotel is booked." With that crossed off my mental to-do list I moved on to the next thing.

About two weeks later I'm again on the road and Tonya emails me saying, "Did you want me to find a different hotel in Denver or are you just not going to do that class?" I'm very confused because she's told me the "hotel is booked." Since that's the case why is she asking me about booking a different hotel? We exchange a few more emails until I finally realize that her reply to me ("The hotel is booked") did not mean "I've finished with that task; the hotel is booked." It instead meant "The hotel is already booked by someone else; now what should I do?" What's interesting is to look back over the communication--nothing is wrong with what either of us typed into our emails except that we were each coming out the question from a completely different context.

Here's a second example of how easy it is to miscommunicate: I'm in London this week teaching some classes for my good friends at Conchango. Since I can't watch the basketball playoffs as I normally would this time of year I've been taking the opportunity to try to learn the rules to cricket. To someone with absolutely no prior exposure to the game it's quite confusing especially as it seems to go on forever. I mentioned to my class today that I'm trying to figure the game out. One of the participants in the class shared with me the following instructions. These are apparently marketed as "Cricket Rules for Foreigners" throughout the UK:

You have two sides, one out in the field and one in. Each man that's in the side that's in goes out, and when he's out he comes in and the next man goes in until he's out. When they are all out, the side that's out comes in and the side thats been in goes out and tries to get those coming in, out. Sometimes you get men still in and not out. When a man goes out to go in, the men who are out try to get him out, and when he is out he goes in and the next man in goes out and goes in. There are two men called umpires who stay all out all the time and they decide when the men who are in are out. When both sides have been in and all the men have been out, and both sides have been out twice after all the men have been in, including those who are not out, that is the end of the game!

These rules are obviously intentionally obtuse. Notice how they are (probably) perfectly correct yet they say nothing about how to really play cricket. What strikes me is how similar these rules are to many requirements documents I've seen in the past--they may be accurate and perhaps clear to someone who already knows what is being said but they sure don't convey any true understanding to the reader.

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Mike Cohn specializes in helping companies adopt and improve their use of agile processes and techniques to build extremely high-performance teams. He is the author of User Stories Applied for Agile Software Development, Agile Estimating and Planning, and Succeeding with Agile as well as the Better User Stories video course. Mike is a founding member of the Agile Alliance and Scrum Alliance and can be reached at hello@mountaingoatsoftware.com. If you want to succeed with agile, you can also have Mike email you a short tip each week.

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