What’s Your Lingua Franca?

As I contemplated this question, I was transported back in time to a high school Algebra class and a different question.

My Algebra teacher was projecting a graph of the exponential function y = ex. At a time well before the advent of personal computers and laptops, he hand-drew the graph on an 8.5” x 11” sheet of plastic transparency film known as a “foil”, and projected it onto a screen using an overhead projector. Very low-tech but surprisingly effective.

And yes, I am that old!

As he finished drawing the function, he addressed the class with the following question:

Where does this function intercept the graph?”

My hand shot up and I confidently answered: “Y”.

The teacher responded,

“Why? … well, I’m trying to teach you something

The answer he was expecting was y-intercept at (0,1).

No wonder English is one of the most difficult languages to learn. In this case, “Y” and “Why” sound the same phonetically but have different meanings. An example of the many homophones in the English language.

Fast forward back to the present.

One thing I’ve developed on my ongoing journey of growing an Agile mindset, is an acute awareness of the importance of words and language in change initiatives. Two of my greatest influences for this awareness have been:

  1. The concept of “Red List Green List” words from Michael Sahota. Red list words represent words that are command and control oriented. Green list words represent words that are coach and collaborate oriented. Red list words like “push”, “drive”, “sell” and “ensure”, make change happen through a power differential or intimidation. Green list words like “pull”, “inspire”, “listen” and “enable”, empowers change through individual agency and desire.
  2. The concept of “Red Work Blue Work” language from David Marquet in his book “Leadership is Language”. Red work refers to tasks which involve “doing”, “proving”, “complying” and “conforming”. Blue work refers to tasks which involve “thinking”, “improving”, “committing” and “connecting”. Both types of work are necessary. The key is finding the right rhythm for pivoting from one to the other and back again.

I’ve learned that what people say and how they say it betrays a tell to their underlying beliefs, values and assumptions at the time.

A tell that also helps me adapt and adjust my interactions with that person and my approach to change.

I’m in a virtual MS-Teams meeting with a Project Manager reviewing a portion of a MS Project plan. The conversation and interaction goes something like this:

PM: “So, do you have a plan for me on this section of the MPP?

me: “Hmmm, could you give me a little more context as to how this section fits into the bigger plan?

PM: “Yes I will, once I get executive approval for the plan

me: “(Sigh) Ok

Sound familiar?

Most Project Managers I’ve met are most comfortable speaking Gantt. They live in Ganttland where the default language of collaboration is Gantt. Although, some are bilingual switching effortlessly between Gantt and Pert.

There is no overall map of Ganttland.

Well there is, but it feels like visitors without a need-to-know rarely get to see it.

Visitors to Ganttland are shown glimpses of the local terrain map and not much else. Just enough to get you to the next stop on your journey to Somewhere but you’re not quite sure where.

The Gantt language like other languages is filled with words, phrases and symbols that hold special meaning.

  • Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)
  • Milestone (♦︎)
  • Predecessors
  • Successors
  • Resource assignment
  • Resource levelling
  • Critical path
  • Early start (ES)
  • Late finish (LF)
  • Float

Proficiency in Gantt grows with an understanding of these words, phrases and symbols.

So, should I have been upset at my interaction with the Project Manager? Yes. Was I mad? YES! Initially. But then, as I sat with my feelings of anger – no, as Norman Kerth’s Prime Directive floated by in my mind:

Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.

– Norm Kerth

When you visit a foreign land, do you assume they will speak your native tongue?

As a guest, you can show respect for your host by at least trying to speak their language because that may be all they know and understand.

Over time, perhaps they’ll become curious enough to want to learn your language.

In the meantime, when I’m in Ganttland, I’ll speak Gantt with an Agile accent.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do

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