A lot happens before ideas become solutions.

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Science Fiction As A Metaphor

Groking the art of communicating

I know this will cost me plenty of geek cred, but I am not a big fan of science fiction. Now, before I start getting nasty emails, I have nothing against science fiction. It's just not my thing. Though I highly recommend everyone read Robert Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land", if only to grok the meaning of "grok".

So why a science fiction themed post? Is it because I'm going to use Roswell, NM as a metaphor? Not in this post. It's because science fiction is a consummate example of effective communication.

Science fiction needs to be able to present concepts and ideas that are so new, and potentially foreign, that they are both futuristic and fantastic while still being believable. And it needs to convey these ideas to its audience clearly and coherently. With enough detail and understanding that the concepts are plausible and credible.

In storytelling, once the "universe" of the story has been defined the rest of the story needs to live within those boundaries no matter how limited or fantastic they may seem. This is especially true for science fiction, where the reader not only expects the fantastic, but still desires to be surprised by something unexpected.

Science fiction's core, its essence, is a metaphor for the type of effective communication that we should strive for as consultants and software developers. Consultants, system analysts and developers (among others) should take a course in creative writing early in their careers. Not because they need a hobby, but because of a specific byproduct of what creative writing teaches: the ability to effectively convey a new idea to their audience.

Chapter and Verse
Anyone one who has worked with me knows these things about me: I ask a lot of questions, I think too much, I sleep too little, and I use analogies, metaphors and pop culture references whenever possible. Why? I'm glad you asked ...

My job frequently requires me to explain new things, or pitch new ideas, to a client. And by "new" I mean new, and sometimes foreign, to the client. Sometimes these concepts and ideas can get technical or complicated. Some of the new technologies can seem like science fiction, and some of my ideas may sound like an alien language. So, I try to communicate them in a manner that my audience already partially understands.

I like to use analogies to convey new concepts and ideas because they make some of "the crazy" easier to digest. Think of the new idea as a pizza topping. Most people already understand pizza. So, by using an analogy to deliver the new idea, all the client needs to grasp is the new topping. As an aside, using food analogies in meetings before lunch can sometimes result in an early lunch.

Did you notice that I used a pizza analogy to explain why I like to use analogies?

Metaphors are harder than analogies because metaphors are broader and apply to a whole topic rather than an individual element. Yet here we are, talking about communication, after an opening using science fiction as a metaphor.

Pop culture references can get tricky. If you don't know your audience well enough you can strike out with a misplaced reference. Once, I used a couple of unplanned (but clever if I do say so myself) Seinfeld references during a meeting. The primary target of my presentation that day did not understand the references. When I explained that they were Seinfeld references she replied, "I don't Seinfeld."

Being good communicators is only half the battle. We also need to elicit good feedback from our clients, which can be difficult at times. You'd be surprised at how hard it can be to get clients to provide anything resembling detailed requirements. Some don't think of their pain points in any detail at all; they think of it as "This should work better." Others don't really see defining requirements as their jobs (they see it as mine). There are clients who make getting any information at all like pulling teeth. And some ask, "are you sure you want to know?" before opening the floodgates (these happen to be the clients that get the best results).

I try to get the process of communication flowing by asking questions. I tend to ask a lot of questions. But not too many at once because that can overwhelm most clients. Some pick up on my approach and start offering more information before I ask. Others view it like an eye exam, anxious that they'll be stuck with any incorrect answers they provide. And finally, there are those who act defensively and withhold information as though it has some special value.

The level of communication that is defined by the client tends to be the universe in which the project — and often the relationship — lives within. So, it's important to get things off to a good start.

The more I know about your business, and the more I know about how and why you do things (or don't do things), the more I can grok your needs (and try to ease your pain points). And I need to grok to be able to provide you with the best solution I can. It's important that you grok that about what we do.

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