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“What We’ve Got Here Is A Failure To Communicate!”
By Tom Dennis –
President, Effective Engineering [email@example.com]
In the movie Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman plays a convict in constant
trouble. At one point the warden says to Luke, “What we’ve got here is …
failure to communicate!” Trouble continues until the climax when Luke
runs and is cornered in a church. He leans out the window and mockingly
yells to the warden, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate!”,
quickly followed by a guard putting a bullet through Luke’s throat. In the
corporate world, failure to communicate is a very common problem, and
often results in drastic action; in this world, however, a bullet through
the throat is, thankfully, not a common outcome.
When most projects begin there is great hope and promise for all involved.
A terrific product has been defined, complete product requirements have been
written (he said optimistically), a thorough project plan has been put in
place (also optimistically), and all parties have signed up to deliver what
is necessary to successfully bring this wonderful product to market. There
is a strong degree of trust among all the many parties from multiple
organizations, including product development, product management, sales,
marketing, finance, manufacturing, senior management, etc. All the world is
in harmony. It is virtually impossible for things to be much better from
this starting point, so there is really only one direction that things can
go – downhill. Along the way, problems will arise, eroding trust and
For example, while requirements have been agreed to and signed off, they are
really a set of statements negotiated among a group of people. These
statements combine the original expectations of the group. If every member
of the group agrees on the statement, that is great; however, more often
than not, requirements statements consist of some consensus of conflicting
expectations. When the actual implementation of those requirements goes off
track from one or more group member’s expectations, then trouble will arise,
and the “signed off” requirements will no longer be as firm as was
thought. There will be a perceived “failure to communicate”.
Similar breakdowns may occur throughout the project, despite best planning
eN-041104 – Project Planning: Plan Based On What You Know, and On What You
Don’t!). As per this e-Newsletter, the project will encounter
known knowns, unknown knowns, known unknowns and
unknown unknowns. There will be problems in translation between the “languages”
of different organizations (see
eN-050602 – Speaking in Tongues, and
eN-050707 – Can You Hear Me Now?). There will be levels of
dysfunction among specific people or groups (See
eN-050901 – Dysfunctional Families). There will be “agreements”
that things can be done that really cannot be done (See
eN-060608 – Unrealistic Expectations). There will be a myriad
of unexpected things that will happen (see
eN-050303 – When Bad Things Happen To Good Projects).
As further examples, assumptions you made will prove to be untrue.
Predicted times to accomplish tasks will prove to be overly optimistic. New
features will be identified and demands will be made to incorporate them (of
course without affecting the schedule). People will get sick or leave. New
people will require more training than anticipated. Problems such as these
and many more happen in any, and virtually every, project.
When such problems arise, they are typically exacerbated by a reluctance to
admit these are problems. The magnitude of the problems may be hidden and
not communicated. Consequent delays ensue and milestones are missed. People
begin to lose trust, and to feel that their trust has been betrayed. They
will then take such “betrayals” personally and this will further
damage relations, sometimes permanently. People involved, particularly
management, will be “surprised” (always a bad thing). Commitments
that have been made by other organizations only indirectly involved in the
daily efforts of the project, based on commitments from the project plan,
will be drastically impacted. Sales forecasts may become meaningless,
revenue projections may be drastically wrong, commitments to key customers
may be missed, etc. There will be a view that there has been a betrayal of
trust all around.
What we’ve got here is not primarily a failure to meet
expectations or that expectations have been violated over the course of
projects. Expectations are always violated. It is inevitable! All
projects start in ignorance and confusion (although not recognized as such
at that time), and are completed in the relative clarity of hindsight.
People shouldn’t really be surprised that expectations get violated, but
they are. The process of completing projects is the process of learning; as
we learn, assumptions change, expectations get violated (inevitably), and
feelings get hurt. When people’s feelings get hurt, trust is eroded, and
when the problems are finally exposed, the explanations will not be
accepted. The explanations of strangers, such as consultants like me, often
will be accepted, even if they are the same, because there will be a level
of trust with the consultant that no longer exists with those who concealed
the problems. This can be great for the consultant, but not necessarily for
the company, for although the problems may get corrected, the damage in the
relations inside the company may not.
No, what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate! The very
human problem of hurt feelings due to unmet expectations can be mitigated
only if there has been a very open and free flow of information throughout
the project, and especially when the inevitable troubles arise.
Communications is required at every step along the way. When the first
problem arises, it should not be hidden or minimized. It should be
communicated. By doing so, a larger community of people can discuss
alternative, often more creative ways to address it. The project team
should hold regular meetings to discuss and resolve problems as they arise.
Informal meetings or lunches should be held with the stakeholders in other
organizations in the company so that they’re aware of problems and can
contribute to solutions. And so it should continue throughout the project.
There should be no surprises! By eliminating “failures to
communicate”, problems can be addressed in a fashion that all
stakeholders can understand and concur with, even if they don’t agree. The
lesson is to recognize that there will inevitably be problems and “betrayed”
expectations, but these can be properly dealt with only if we
communicate, communicate, and communicate some more!
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