Communication Gaps

©2003 Don Gray, www.donaldegray.com

I just got off the phone with Joel. We worked a project 12 years ago where he was the client’s technical rep, and I supplied some specialty software to his company. As we renewed acquaintances, he said that the portion of the project I worked on was never implemented. It didn’t fail because of our efforts, but because the users and the owner never did agree on exactly what the software was supposed to do, or how it was supposed to be used. Using Jerry Weinberg’s definition that “Quality is value to some person(s)”[1], I would now say that even though the software performed as specified, the software had no quality, since it wasn’t valuable to the people it was written for.

So what happened? Did Joel’s company willfully, with forethought and intention, decide to waste money on a software project? Not likely. Why did it take 12 years for Joel and me to have a conversation about the project? Technically the project succeeded, in spite of the fact that the owner and users couldn’t decide what to do with it. At least, we agreed that the software was working as requested. Or did it?

This project suffered from communication gaps. In her latest book, Communication Gaps And How To Close Them, Naomi Karten defines a communications gap as “a situation in which miscommunication, or the complete lack of communication adversely affects the work as well as the relationships among the people carrying out the work.”

“Gaps are frequently caused by misdirected, one-way, poorly time, or badly worded communications. In addition, some gaps result from misunderstanding, misinterpretations, and miscommunications.” [2]

Communication is how we share ideas, get information, request help and assign tasks. The importance of communications to software quality is why communications is included in the CSQE Body of Knowledge. Simply put, good communication is critical to software project quality. Gaps form when the message sent isn’t received, or differs from the message received. Understanding and applying the concepts in Communication Gaps will help us determine how the gap happened, what we can do about the gap, and how we might prevent the gap in the future.

There are several possible reasons messages aren’t received. One reason is the receiver’s preferred communication mode. Recently I tried to initiate contact with a new person. I sent an email saying I would call the following week. When I called, I got the voice messaging system. I left a message, and four days later, after hearing nothing, sent another email asking how the other party preferred to communicate. It turns out they are on extended leave, and email works best for them at this time. They were also kind enough to introduce me to the person I should be talking to in the mean time. Had I continued to try calling, it would be another 2 weeks before I would get a response.

“But both parties to miscommunication too easily forget that although they are using the same words, they speak different languages.” [3]

Another reason messages aren’t received is they get lost in the background noise. I process over a hundred emails a day (and sometimes more than double that, and even more if you include newsgroups). I do use technology to segregate as much as possible, but there are times when I just give up and everything in the inbox gets deleted and the newsgroup gets marked read. If the communication is important, make it stand out. If it’s not important, distinguish yourself and don’t send it.

Naomi describes and explains several models that are useful in understanding communications gaps. These models involve personality types, interactions, and change. Each of these have a unique influence on communication, and examples are provided of how communication might develop gaps, and what can be done to prevent gaps and improve communication.

The main personality model presented is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) that is based on Jungian psychology. The MBTI differentiates 4 traits into 2 categories each (called preferences), Extravert/Introvert, Intuition/Sensing, Thinking/Feeling, and Perceiving/Judging. Understanding how the different preferences prefer to communicate can explain a lot of meeting behavior. When I send out a meeting notice, I include a list of topics so people can prepare for the discussions. This enables the Introverts to consider what and how they want to present their thoughts, thus giving them equal footing with the Extraverts who are happy to think out loud as they form their thoughts

A very useful model for diagnosing gaps or untangling communications is the Satir Interaction Model. The Interaction Model consists of four steps:

  1. Intake: what is seen and heard
  2. Interpretation: how the recipient interpreted the message
  3. Feelings: how the recipient felt about the interpretation
  4. Response: what the recipient communicated in response

In most interactions, the sequence happens naturally and with no major impediments. However, when a gap appears, using the model may help re-construct what happened. I recently asked for what I thought was a minor change to a document. The scathing email reply left me wondering “What happened here?” As we worked through the interaction, I found out that the other person was taking pain medicine, and the “simple” changes would require 2 hours of his time. This shed light on the response, and we were able to find a solution that didn’t require re-working the document.

Perhaps the largest communication gaps occur in the area of change, and as we try to improve quality, we’re changing things.

“Alas, no one can get anyone else to willingly do something that person doesn’t want to do or doesn’t know how to do. In a fantasy world, all those affected by a given change would welcome, endorse, and support it, openly and joyfully. But in the real world, change is unsettling.” [4]

Several change models are presented since no single model embraces all possible situations and solutions. The Satir Change Model provides an excellent framework for the personal stages of change :

  • Old Status Quo – characterized by the known, familiar and the predictable.
  • Chaos – This stage starts with the Foreign Element, which is something that throws the system (individuals or groups) into an unsettled state of decreased or impaired performance. If you’re involved with process improvement, you will at times be the cause of foreign elements.
  • Practice and Integration – Transforming Ideas are new ways and approaches as people start to adjust to the changes brought by the Foreign Element.
  • New Status Quo – The return to relative stability with respect to the Foreign Element.

Communications is critical during change, and the “what and how” you communicate changes in each stage (and possibly with respect to each individual’s preferences).

Other topics covered include Understanding the Other Party’s Perspective, Gathering Customer Feedback, and Service Level Agreements.

Will reading, understanding and using the information in Communications Gaps enable you to prevent all future gaps? As Naomi says:

“Although I’ve described some effective ways to close communication gaps, truth in book-writing compels me to reveal that you can’t ever be gap-free.” [5]

What you will experience is fewer gaps, and when gaps occur, you’ll have a set of tools to analyze and learn from the gap.

[1] Gerald M. Weinberg, Quality Systems Management, Volume 1, Systems Thinking (New York: Dorset House, 1992) page 7.

[2] Naomi Karten, Communications Gaps and How To Close Them, (New York: Dorset House, 2002) page 5
[3] Naomi Karten, op. cit., page 65
[4] Naomi Karten, op. cit., page 304
[5] Naomi Karten, op. cit., page 347

Communications Gaps and How to Close Them, © 2002 by Naomi Karten, ISBN 0-932633-53-6. Published by Dorset House, 353 West 12th Street, New York, NY 10014

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