Opinion by Paul Glen

Communication is a problem that can’t be fixed

telefono de cordel 1882
Credit: Biblioteca de la Facultad de Derecho y Ciencias del Trabajo Universidad de Sevilla, CC BY 2.0, via Wikipedia

That’s frustrating to us geeks, because to us, all problems have solutions

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Have you started thinking about what you’re going to do with the coming new year? Most people in IT spend at least a little time reflecting on how they will best take advantage of the year ahead. Whether you have or not, I invite you to take a few seconds right now to think about what problems you’d like to solve and what opportunities you’d like to make the most of in the coming year.

I’ll bet that one of the things that just crossed your mind was fixing “the communication problem.” It doesn’t matter whether you’re a manager or an individual contributor; we all have communication problems that we’d like to fix, whether they are with our business stakeholders, project managers, peers or other groups in IT. We all want to be more in the loop or to more easily get the information we need to be successful. This problem never seems to go away.

If you’ve been in IT for any length of time, you’ve seen other new years kicked off with initiatives designed to fix this problem. In a spasm of goodwill and ambition, managers schedule training classes and standing meetings. Staffers write and distribute status reports. But usually, before the end of the first quarter, these efforts have faded. Training is forgotten. Status reports are skipped as the crises of the day take precedence. Meetings are canceled or attendance grows thin.

Most of us think that these efforts fail because we have short attention spans or fall victim to the daily grind of the urgent. In reality, they fail because they are based on a fundamental misconception that guarantees their eventual abandonment: Poor communication is a problem. But it isn’t, at least not in the way that we technical folks think about problems.

To us, problems have a very specific structure. They start with a clear statement of a current reality: Something is broken or wrong and needs to be fixed, or it’s just sub-optimal and we see an opportunity to make things better. The other elements of problems are assumptions, rules, constraints and solutions

That last element is our favorite. For geeks, there’s little that is more rewarding than solving problems. In fact, we love solutions so much that we see the world through a “problem-solution mindset” that becomes so pervasive that we eventually see everything at work as falling into the problem or solution category.

Our conception of problems and solutions probably goes back to our days in math class — even though the problems we face as adults can be quite different. A problem statement is provided: y = mx + b; solve for x. By applying the rules of math and logic to the axiomatic statements, we find the answer (and it is the answer, not one of possibly many answers). The end is punctuated with a QED. That’s it. Once a problem is solved, it stays solved.

But the communications problem doesn’t conform to that model. No matter how you solve it, it doesn’t stay solved. A single event, like a communications seminar, may provide people some valuable tools that they can apply, but ultimately the communication problem is not driven by inadequate skills. Even processes, consistently applied, while helpful in guiding people to know when and with whom they should be communicating, will not ensure that everyone forever knows what they must know.

The reason that this problem is not subject to solution is that communication is a feature of human relationships, which are complex and ever changing. Miscommunication is a persistent hazard, even when people of good intentions try their best. And people communicate much more than information. They express and react to each other’s emotions.

We geeks need a third category for things that don’t fit cleanly into problems and solutions. We need to add “situations to be managed” to our short conceptual list. They are issues that require constant vigilance and effort but will never be “solved” and finished.

Until we start thinking about our communications problems differently, we will be forever doomed to the cycle of failure that our initiatives propel.

is the co-author of The Geek Leader's Handbook and a principal of Leading Geeks, an education and consulting firm devoted to clarifying the murky world of human emotion for people who gravitate toward concrete thinking. You can contact him at info@leadinggeeks.com.

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