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Lost in Translation

Jeff Streitmatter IV Staff Consultant
Reading: Lost in Translation

When I accepted my job at LeadingAgile, I never thought I would be unlearning how to be an engineer.

I thought to be a good engineer, you had to always be right. But upon leaving college to enter the real world, I realized that being right was not the end all, in fact, just a stepping stone to being understood.

Once I began to appreciate that “right” was not so black and white – that there were dimensions to it – I started to see how the same thing is true in organizations.

See, when the language of business becomes reduced to process and rules, we lose fidelity in the bigger picture. We like rules for the same reason we like being right, they keeps things simple, they keeps things light. But if we don’t welcome the unknown, the fuzzy grey in-between, communication becomes a transaction and the problems of every organization manifest from these translation issues.

What Do I Mean By Translation Issues?

There were a few days early in my career where I got to attend a big workshop with leaders from all over the globe flying in to figure out how their company was going to go Agile.    

They explained it was going to be hard because each of their 43 countries of operation had different rules and required totally different executions to be successful in.

A collective process couldn’t work across all that nuance, they thought. Their experience made them believe only dictators could bully their way through the red tape to make things happen in the company. 

And by the way – this pattern is exactly how scandals manifest in large corporations – it’s never one evil CEO’s plan to cheat EPA standards or pollute the environment for profit. It’s simply someone having to meet the unrealistic demands of their boss, who in turn has to do the same for their boss, and on and on.

Inevitably, people are forced to cut corners, jobs get half-done, complexity rises encouraging more shortcuts until the whole thing collapses on itself. 

Their problem was being “right” was a contest of who could be the loudest. And 43 loud voices in a room means 42 are left extinct by natural selection.

The goal today was not to generate 43 solutions, but to agree on one with 43 usable translations.

Who’s on First?

After we made our case, one of the leaders from the back of the room (who I remember kept his arms crossed the whole time) stood up in defiance. He said, “None of the other leaders are ever going to buy into this. Teams must be told what to do – I alone understand what the boss wants!” 

The executive from our side, Brian, smiled patiently and asked, “These are multi-year initiatives we’re talking about, long journeys involving hundreds of teams, how will they know what to do?” 

“I create the backlog for what we need, and the teams go do it,” he quipped back. 

Brian probed again, “What if something doesn’t work according to plan? Things inevitably get messy in the field and the original orders don’t make sense, teams need to know how to react, how will they know what to do

“We hire smart people and expect them to figure it out,” he said with mocking indifference. 

Brian pressed a third time, the hypothetical tone gone from his voice, “With changes multiplied across hundreds of teams, the plan is changing every day. The reality is people in the field are so busy receiving new orders that everything is left half-finished, creating more confusion. It’s a vicious cycle, and soon everyone in the organization is being pulled in different directions. So I ask again, how will they know what to do?”

The room fell silent, everyone’s head ducked in contemplation. Slowly all eyes turned to the front of the room, begging their executive leader for his guidance. He said nothing but turned to face the newest employee seated at the table, she had joined the company specifically for this purpose.

“Grace,” he said, “what do you think?” 

She stared for a long time at the table with transfixed eyes. Breathing out a sigh, she shook her head and shrugged, “Down is Up.. and Up is Down…”

She turned back to the executive now, “If it’s not clear to us in this room, then how can it be clear to anyone out there? If we can’t figure out how to stay connected without erecting more walls, then I think we’re already sunk.” 

The larger problem in their company was actually manifesting right in front of them: people fail to communicate. 

The leaders may know what they want. And the teams may have the craft to understand the ways to get there. 

But if they don’t have a common language to share meaning back and forth, the only way the worlds meet is the leader describing what they want and how to do it in the same breath.

Digging Deeper

We can’t short circuit communication. Brian had to ask his question three times before the effect could sink in. He could ask that question a hundred times and always get different answers. The difference is when you can understand the motive behind someone’s question, you get a much better feel for how to answer. This is the “art” part of communication.

“Why?” is the question engineering school didn’t teach me to ask. I trusted my knowledge. I didn’t realize the power of meeting people where they’re at before sharing it.

After I was introduced to the Trust and Influence Loop, I realized I was missing half of the equation: the detective work to triangulate a need, and the human being behind it, before sharing knowledge that might help. 

If I take the time to show Empathy, that is, being able to see their problem from their perspective, then I’ve proven I’m more interested in understanding them than proving I’m right. Influence is won through the heart, then Trust can follow through from the head.

As individuals and organizations, we achieve more together. We understand better when we can see each other more clearly. Being right doesn’t seem so relevant anymore. 

When we are willing to step outside our understanding, into someone else’s, adopting their terms and their language, the answers show up not as 43 separate pieces of information, but one united point of view.

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