Derik Whittaker

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Without Context everything is suspect

Over the weekend I was having a conversation with my wife and we were not communicating on the same wave length.  After a few minutes of talking in circles it dawned on us that we had not established the context around the conversation and we had no real understanding of what either of us was saying.  This lead to remember a time a few jobs ago when ‘lack of context’ lead people to draw the wrong conclusions about a forth coming client visit.

The background for this little story goes something like this.  We had an existing client of ours that had an internal development project underway and they wanted us to come onsite to gain a better understanding of this project as well as to see how our product could integrate/play nice with their project.  Prior to meeting with the client (in person or via a phone conversation) we were presented with a power point presentation which laid out the ideas and intent of this project.  Now keep in mind that this power point was not created specify for our viewing, but it was very, very relevant in respect to the projects goals and aspirations.

As this was the first interaction (from a product development standpoint, not a sales standpoint) with this given client our team had no background or history to draw from when reviewing the slide deck.  As we were reviewing the deck the entire team stopped at the page that was titled ‘Rules of the Game’ and had a few bullet points which said things like ‘Don’t ask dumb questions’ and ‘Don’t make this harder than it has to be’.  Immediately upon reviewing this deck we all go the impression that this meeting was going to be rough and that the client was going to be a little bit on the difficult site.

Fast forward a few weeks till when we were able to get onsite with the client and have a conversation with them.  During the initial stages of the meeting the client was doing a white board session (which I love when a client does this) about their goals and what they had in mind.  During this session the CIO started to go over the ‘Rules of the Game’ with the group.  However, this time because we had more context to go on our perception and understanding of the rules changed 100% percent.  The context of the conversation was not pointed towards us, the product team.  But rather about how he did not want the application to get in the way of the user by 1) asking dumb questions or 2) making their life harder than it needed to be.

About 30 seconds after our client was finished with his whiteboard session the team members all kind of looked at each other and all came to the realization that we had misinterpreted the the message based solely on the fact there was not context in the power point deck.  This realization was great, because now we fully understood the client as well as their intent.  It also made us feel a little better because we had gone into the meeting expecting there to be a bit of hostility and in fact the exact opposite was the case.

The moral of the story is this.  Context is a powerful part of any message.  If you do not clearly communicate the context in a clear and concise manor you are leaving your messages up for interpretation and this can lead to bad things.  The same holds true not only for emails, but also for your code.

Till next time,


Posted 10-19-2009 7:02 AM by Derik Whittaker

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