Lost in Translation: The Perils of Ambiguity in Business Communication
In recent years, I’ve traveled a lot less than I did before the pandemic. One thing this has led to is me seeing processes and practices with fresh eyes. When you travel regularly, the novelty wears off and a sort of ‘autopilot’ kicks in, and a period of not traveling means that everything is less familiar and more open to scrutiny.
I was recently thinking about the questions that are commonly asked when checking in bags before a flight. I can’t even remember if these questions are asked verbally any more, or if there’s some sort of sign or declaration, but there certainly used to be questions such as:
- “Have you left the bag unattended at any time?”
- “Did you pack the bag yourself?”
I suspect, like many people, if you were asked these questions a semi-autopilot would kick in and you’d say ‘no’ without thinking. After all, presumably these questions are aimed at catching smugglers or criminals of some other type. The questions almost seem redundant for ‘normal’ people.
Let’s examine one of the questions, as I think some of the patterns here are important for business and business analysis more generally….
What does “unattended” mean?
Let’s take the first question (“have you left the bag unattended?”). This question is, upon examination, really quite vague. In fact, I’m pretty sure the actual question airport staff is more specific, but humor me and let’s imagine they ask it in this way.
A first challenge is what the word ‘unattended’ means to one person might be quite different to another. Take the following situations, do you consider them to mean that the baggage has been left ‘unattended’?
- You’ve just taken a connecting flight and have had to re-check your bags. Your bags have been handled by baggage handlers, and have been left unattended in the hold of the plane
- You traveled to the airport by bus. The bags were in the baggage compartment of the bus and you didn’t have access to them during the three hour bus ride. There were several stops along the way where passenger bags were loaded/unloaded. Anyone could have accessed your bag at those times.
- You drove to the airport. It was a long drive so you stopped for gas and a meal. Your car was parked in a car park for over an hour
- You traveled as a group in two taxis. Your bag was in the other taxi, accompanied by your friends but not you
It’s tricky, isn’t it? Technically, if you’ve checked your bags into a previous flight, they have been unattended for a period of time. Yet, you’d likely say ‘no’ to this question… because you know that this isn’t a circumstance that actually counts as ‘unattended’. I suppose as travelers we intuitively know what’s being asked and what matters. Or at least we think we do…
After all, if we were to literally interpret the question “have you left your bag unattended at any time?” then there is no way that ‘no’ would be a valid answer. Of course it’s been left unattended at some times… when it’s in the closet not being used!
Beyond Airports: Why Definitions Matter
You probably don’t work in an airport, so might be wondering why I’m obsessing over the wording of a check-in question. This pattern of ambiguity potentially leading to misunderstandings, confusion or (more usually) people making assumptions is rife in organizations and projects too.
Much like the term ‘unattended’ has ambiguity attached, other seemingly ‘obvious’ terms can be problematic. Take the word ‘customer’, it sounds clear, doesn’t it? Perhaps you’ve even written a requirement or user story which articulates what a customer can do. Yet even such a simple-sounding word leaves room for ambiguity. For example:
- Does someone have to have already bought something to be considered a ‘customer’? Or does the term ‘customer’ include prospects/people in the buying pipeline too? Or do there need to be two terms, ‘prospect’ and ‘customer’?
- If the person paying for a product/service is different from the person using/benefiting from it, which one is the customer? Are they both customers?
- Is the term used to mean internal as well as external customers?
- Are there different customer types? Does a requirement or story apply to all types or only some types of customer?
Things can get even more complicated than this. Who is the ‘customer’ of the judicial system, the prison service, and so on. It very much depends on who you ask, which is why it is important to actually ask the question!
Definitions Make For Concise Requirements And Stories
This comes back to a key point that is (sadly) often overlooked: definitions matter. A glossary might not be considered a new or exciting artifact, but it can really help ensure people are on the same page. With a clear and shared understanding of key terms, requirements and stories can be more concise.
A small investment in a shared glossary can save lots of time in the long run. Starting early is the most effective way of doing this. And believe me, if you don’t create one, there will come a point in time where you wish you had!