Avoiding communication clash

11th October 2021

Avoiding communication clash


One of the curiosities about written and even spoken language is the potential for imprecision and misunderstanding. This can present much confusion and misinterpretation in communication, especially in transformation and change programmes.

Communication, in the English language at least, depends a great deal on context and if there isn’t a shared understanding of the situation then vast and significant misunderstandings can occur. Even a seemingly precise statement such as “we were waiting for the bill to arrive” can mean very different things to different people. You might be imagining somebody waiting in a restaurant for an itemised statement of what was ordered (although in some dialects this would be a “check”). Perhaps you imagined something different, if you work in government you might have imagined a group of civil servants awaiting the drafting of a legislative bill before they could change a process.  It’s impossible to know what the intent of the statement actually is without understanding more about the context in which it was made, and who made it.

This challenge of individual words having different meanings is a common challenge within business change and transformation initiatives. An “invoice” to an accounts receivable team is probably a document that is issued to request payment from the organisation’s customers (they bring money in) To line managers elsewhere within the same company “invoices” probably represent bills the organisation has to pay (they send money out). Other specialists might refer to “VAT involves” or “tax invoices” as being a specific type of document that others within the organisation may or may not recognise. A self-employed freelancer might see “invoices” as the way that they get paid by the company. There are probably other usages of the term besides these too.

The reality is that all of these perspectives are correct, they really are all referring to invoices. Yet different teams care about different types of invoice, and rely on them for different reasons. This can lead to significant misunderstandings: a seemingly clear-cut statement such as “we need to change the way we process invoices” might lead to confusion over whether we mean supplier invoices (bills) or outgoing invoices (payment requests to clients). Layer on slang, acronyms and industry terminology and there’s a recipe for communication clash. Does VSM mean Value Stream Mapping, Viable Systems Model or Visiting Staff Member? It depends a lot on who you ask.

Understanding the potential for different meanings and the nuance behind terminology can help avoid these types of misunderstanding. One humble but often overlooked technique is the glossary. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it, yet putting together a glossary is anything but simplistic. It requires a great deal of thought and consultation with stakeholders, and often uncovers fundamental differences in understanding. With a glossary, we can introduce precision in communication and highlight different usages of a word. Building on the invoicing example, we might differentiate between “Supplier Invoices”, and “Client Invoices”. Each of these definitions might have a list of synonyms as well as a short description. By defining those terms and ensuring the definitions are agreed, shared and accessible with those we’re collaborating with we can ensure that everyone is on the same page. We can ask questions such as “When you say ‘invoice’ do you mean ‘Supplier Invoice’, ‘Client Invoice’ or something else?”. We can continue to elaborate and build the glossary throughout.

A good and robust glossary ensures that artefacts such as user stories, acceptance criteria or requirements can be succinct. It avoids ambiguity and ensures there’s a common understanding. It also enables people joining an initiative or a programme of transformation the chance to get up to speed quickly.

Like so many techniques, it sounds simple, but the complexity is in achieving shared definitions. Yet doing so is likely to solve a lot of issues in the long run!

by Adrian Reed, Business Analysis Expert