The Three Languages
I'm indebted to Dougald Hine) for giving me this idea - although I had read about something very similar in a post by Venkatesh Rao. It's the idea there are different languages with which you talk to different people in a project. Dougald identifies three languages, Rao spots a fourth, which we'll talk about a bit later.
The three languages that Dougald talks about are:
In Language: This is the language that the people are who involved in a project actually talk to each other. In software development, this is the language of developers. This needs to be pretty honest and warts-and-all because it's practical, it's the language that people need to speak in order to get things done. This is the language that gets most improved by Agile. The daily stand-up, sprint planning, retrospectives, they help the team talk to each other, they help the team identify the problems that they're having with the job in hand. They focus work and discussion with the job in hand.
Out Language: This is the language that is spoken to the public outside of a project. If a project is trying to sell something, or get support for itself (which is just another kind of selling something) it needs to be able to explain to people outside of that project how that project will affect them how it will change their lives for the better. This is selling the sizzle of a sausage, rather than talking about the brutal and unpleasant business of pushing mashed offal into tubes of pig intestines at acceptable levels of bacterial contamination. This isn't a language that technical people are likely to get right. It needs professionals, who are focussed on just this kind of communication, marketing people, copywriters, community managers who can understand the users of a product and talk to them in exactly the right tone of voice.
Up Language: This is the trickiest one. Almost everybody has a boss. And "Up Language" is the language that you use to talk to your boss. It's curious stuff.
OK, this is one way of thinking about it. Up language is what you say to a king. And a king can never hear bad news. Because the king is in charge, and if there's bad news - well in some way that's the king's fault.
If you tell a king bad news well, then he'll shoot you, either metaphorically or literally. That's why shooting the messenger is a thing. So what to do? Well, it easiest and simplest thing, the thing that comes to most people without any trouble is to lie, is to tell the king that everything is fine, and the dealine will be met. And actually, with some kings, that's all you can do.
Sometimes, you can teach the king to spot when you're not telling him good news. And a smart king will start to learn that when you don't give him good news, this means that there's something bad that he actually needs to pay attention to. But even the smartest ones don't seem to want to be told it straight. Why is that? I think it's something to do with deniability. If the King is given bad news, the King can't ignore it, he has to do something about it.
Two things are going through my mind as write this.
One is a quote from David Allen - the Getting Things Done guy. I'm sure he got it from somewhere else - "When they jump you in an alley, it's too late to train." People who go to public schools maybe (the English meaning of public school - i.e. not public) get this kind of training by default. But how does everyone else train for this? What would training look like? I think I really need to put this training course together - for my own benefit, if for nobody elses.
The second thing is how this relates to Patsy Rodenberg's idea of the "Second Circle". Briefly, her idea is that there are three types of communication.
First circle: You aren't really talking to anyone but yourself, you're introverted, passive listening, possibly listening to others. Whispering, if talking at all.
Third circle: You're not listening to anyone else, you're TELLING people things, often loudly, assertively. Bellowing, shouting, yelling.
Second circle: Actual communication. Listening, talking, checking understanding, paying attention. Being present in the moment of the conversation, opening up, chatting.
It seems that each of the languages that Dougald Hine talks about - the in language, the out language and the up language tend to one of these circles:
In language tends to be Second circle - if a team is functioning at all. The "storming" phase that occurs after the "forming" of a team - according to Tuckman - is a period in which members of the team lecture each other (Third circle), or keep quiet (First circle), even though they have things they'd like to say. But a team that's functioning properly has to be talking in Second circle. There has to good two-day communication and discussion about what's happening right now.
The idea of Agile: stand-ups, retrospectives, pair-programming is to increase the trust of the members of the team in each other and improve the quality of the conversation, moving it into Second circle and keeping it there.
Out langauge tends to be Third circle. A company, an organisation, tells its customers things. Although, with the advent of the internet and social media, some of the most successful companies have managed to turn their relationship with their customers into a dialogue.
Up language tends to be First circle - with its corresponding Down language being Third circle. This is the most difficult and dangerous thing for a project, and for an organisation. Information needs to be exchanged. There needs to be some second circle communication.