My Hovercraft is Full of Eels

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“Is the product done?” a certain manager asked during a product review meeting.

“It is done,” replied the engineer building the product.

“Are there any problems?”

“There are problems.”

“What is the problem?”

“It does not work.”

“Why doesn’t it work?”

“It is not done.”

I will spare you the transcription of the subsequent half hour of this not particularly funny comedy routine. The manager and the engineer managed to perform this little dance of talking past one another without ever seeming to realize just how ludicrous it sounded to everyone else in the room. It was rather like Monty Python’s classic Hungarian-English phrasebook sketch, in which translations in either direction are random. In other words, the Hungarian phrase, “I would like to buy a ticket,” might be translated to the English phrase, “My hovercraft is full of eels.”

It was extremely funny when Monty Python performed it. As for the manager and the engineer, well, perhaps they just didn’t have the comedic timing of Python’s John Cleese and Graham Chapman.

As it happens, “my hovercraft is full of eels” moments come about far too often. What was unusual in this situation is that it involved only two people. Usually, considerably more people take part. Thus, instead of a not particularly amusing exchange between two people, there is an extremely frustrating exchange involving several people. The most common failure to communicate is the game of telephone: as the message passes along the line, it becomes increasingly distorted.

What I hear from teams over and over is, “We are communicating! We send email to everyone.” This is where the hovercraft starts to fill with eels. Broadcasting is not really communicating: effective business communications require a certain amount of back and forth, questioning and explaining, before everyone is on the same page.

Who talks to whom? When you send out an email, do questions come back to you? Or do people on the team quietly ask one another to explain what you meant? While it’s comforting to believe that every missive we send out is so carefully crafted as to be completely unambiguous, very few of us write that well. Of that select few, even fewer can do it all the time. Particularly in the early stages of a project, if there are no questions, then there are certainly problems.

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