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Pervasive Language


I was watching a movie with my brother the other day and the rating warning came up, “Rated PG-13 for Pervasive Language”. I found myself scratching my head and wondering: what the hell is pervasive language? Maybe the people in the movie are going to talk a lot? Perhaps it’s just two guys talking to each other like in “Dinner at Andre’s”? I couldn’t help thinking, “This is going to be really boring…”

Actually I’m kind of an expert when it comes pervasive language. You see I’ve got kids and they never seem to stop talking. I go to Agile conferences, and brother do those folks ever talk a lot! You just can’t shut those Agile people up. That’s what we mean by pervasive language, right?

As a sailboat racer I’ve heard an awful lot of pervasive language (of the pirate variety). You hear it out on the race course all the time. It  is interesting to see the way the quantity of dialog changes based on the experience of people on the boat.

New/Green crew – There is an awful lot of talking going on:“Get the sheet!”“No, the other sheet!”“It’s right there in front of you!”“No, not you, damnit!”

The chatter is virtually non-stop and it can easily escalate to screaming when there is a little stress. The language is certainly pervasive. It is all about how to do the work and very little talk about heads up thinking about strategy or weather. Being on a boat with a new crew demands a lot of patience and a huge amount of talking.

Old timers/Experienced crew – There isn’t much talking at all. There is never screaming on these boats. It’s like everyone on the crew is part of a collective Vulcan Mind Meld. Everyone just knows what to do. When something changes, the whole group knows exactly how to react with a minimum of information exchanged. When there is discussion, it is strategic in nature, “The wind looks better over there…” These are the teams that just quietly and efficiently kick your ass on the race course.

It strikes me that there might be similar patterns of communication on software teams.

New teams have a lot of chatter as they go through the usual forming, storming and norming patterns we have all come to know and love. There are lots of questions and debates about the way things are done, who is doing what, how the work is done, etcetera. Cram all these people together in a common room and you have a recipe for some real noise!

Older, more experienced teams are much more likely to be quiet workers. I’ve worked with some teams where you would walk into their room and all you would hear is the ghostly clicking of keyboards. Everybody was deeply engrossed in their work and making progress.

Of course there are exceptions to these rules. There are teams that are just naturally composed of noisy, gregarious people. Others are naturally quiet. But the broad generalization does seem to hold true.

Now there are some times when you will hear the experienced crews/teams become noisy: When they are learning something new. Introduce a new element that they haven’t had to deal with before and listen to the chatter level rise. It might be caused by the introduction of a new team member or perhaps a new tool (like a new asymmetrical spinnaker). Once we are kicked back into learning mode, the need for communication on the team rises dramatically.

The point I’m trying to make here is that the level of communication that teams engage in is heavily dependent on things like experience and context. Don’t make the mistake of judging a team’s communication simply by how pervasive the communication is (it is equally foolhardy to judge a movie for the “pervasive” quality of its language). Experience, culture, context and personality all play important roles influencing the ways teams communicate with each other. Even beyond all that, there is the question of the quality of the team’s communication.

So what kind of noise is your team making? A roar? A whine? Or are they just humming along?


The New Science of Building Great Teams, Harvard Business Review

#communication #language #pervasivelanguage #Teams

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