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Volume 24, Issue 17;   April 24, 2024: Antipatterns for Time-Constrained Communication: I

Antipatterns for Time-Constrained Communication: I


Knowing how to recognize just a few patterns that can lead to miscommunication can be helpful in reducing the incidence of problems. Here is Part I of a collection of communication antipatterns that arise in technical communication under time pressure.
Three gears in a configuration that's inherently locked up

Three gears in a configuration that's inherently locked up. They look like they might do something, but they can't move at all. In this way, they're a metaphor for the concept of antipattern. Any combination of an odd number of planar gears configured in a loop is inherently locked. When we communicate with each other under time pressure we're at risk of attempting to do the impossible without realizing it. We might inadvertently place too much emphasis on communication speed, and too little on communication quality. Image by J_Alves.

Communication can go wrong in so many ways and for so many different reasons that it's a wonder we can exchange any thoughts at all. But somehow, often, we can. And we can do even better if we learn to recognize communication patterns that lead to trouble even though they seem to be useful at first. Because these patterns lead to unwelcome results, they're usually called antipatterns. [Koenig 1995]

This post and two more to come contain elements of one more tool you might add to your toolbox to help untangle miscommunications or — even better — to help prevent them. And to make this exploration manageable, I'll restrict it to time-constrained communication.

The elements of this tool consist of a collection of antipatterns. Quoting Andrew Koenig, who coined the term in the context of software engineering, "An antipattern is just like a pattern, except that instead of a solution it gives something that looks superficially like a solution, but isn't one."

We use many different patterns when we communicate. Among the simplest is what we say when we answer a phone: "Hello". Hello means, roughly, "I'm here and I'm listening; your turn." There are probably thousands of communication patterns. Some work, many don't. The ones that don't work are what we call antipatterns. This post has three examples.

In what follows, I use the name Eugene (E for Expressing) when I'm referring to the person expressing an idea, asking a question, or in some other way contributing new material to an exchange. And I use the name Rachel (R for Receiving) when I'm referring to the person Receiving Eugene's communication. Finally, I assume that both Eugene and Rachel are under time pressure.

With that prolog, here are three antipatterns that increase the risk of miscommunication.

Too big and too complicated
Eugene is busy and he knows that Rachel is too, so he tries to pack his message with his questions, insights, talking points, and all the background information he regards as relevant.
As a Dealing with any subject with too
little time is unlikely to produce
the outcome we want
result, what Eugene is trying to express is too big, too complicated, or requires too much time compared to the time available. If Rachel and Eugene push ahead anyway, confusion and miscommunication are the probable results.
Dealing with any subject with too little time is unlikely to produce the outcome they want. If Eugene's thoughts need more time, the two partners would do well to solve that problem first, and then address the subject of their conversation. If they can't expand the time available, exchanging messages in more compact packets is the best available alternative.
Mismatched knowledge stacks
A person's knowledge stack is the partially ordered collection of terms, experiences, and concepts that are needed to understand a message. For example, when someone asks for your email address, you retrieve it from your knowledge stack and relay it to the requestor. Or when you need to know the local time of day for someone you're planning to engage by phone, you reach into your knowledge stack for that answer or perhaps how to find that answer. Less trivial examples include the meanings of acronyms, or the current assessment of the capabilities of a market rival.
When we fail to verify that participants in an exchange have compatible knowledge stacks, they might get deep into the exchange before they realize that they aren't using words or concepts in the same way. Then they have to retreat and reconstruct the conversation after they've verified that they're using terms compatibly. And they need to check that everyone's stack is free of gaps and omissions.
One way to limit the occurrence of this antipattern is to publish and maintain a "terminology and concept glossary."
Inappropriate focus: the McNamara Fallacy
The McNamara Fallacy is the discredited idea that one can manage the missions of complex organizations by deriving guidance solely from numeric measurements of inputs and outputs. If these "metrics" are correctly chosen, so says the Fallacy, we can make good decisions based only on these metrics. [Baskin 2014] [Muller 2019] In this way, the Fallacy causes us to confuse Objectivity with Importance. More
An antipattern in itself, the McNamara Fallacy appears in many contexts beyond communications. In the communications context, the McNamara Fallacy causes the exchange participants to focus attention on the values of one or a few metrics, instead of the process or entity that the metrics supposedly represent.
For example, if a team is concerned that attendance at meetings is 85% instead of the goal value of 95%, the conversation might focus on percentage overall attendance instead of the fact that on average, all of the "right people" for any given meeting have been attending with regularity.
By misleading the team with objective-sounding data, the Fallacy can cause a team to focus on related but inessential material instead of material that's central to the team's mission.

Last words

These three causes of miscommunication under time pressure are generic in the sense that they don't depend on message content. Next time I'll examine some patterns that lead to miscommunications in ways that do depend on message content.  Antipatterns for Time-Constrained Communication: II Next issue in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Antipatterns for Time-Constrained Communication: II  Next Issue

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Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Koenig 1995]
Andrew Koenig. "Patterns and Antipatterns," Journal of Object-Oriented Programming 8:1, 1995, pp.46-48. Back
[Baskin 2014]
J.S. Baskin, "According To U.S. Big Data, We Won The Vietnam War," Forbes Magazine, 2014. Available here. Retrieved 6 February 2023. Back
[Muller 2019]
J.Z. Muller. The Tyranny of Metrics. Princeton (New Jersey): Princeton University Press, 2018. Order from Amazon.com. Back

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