Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Emperor has no clothes: Verbal communication is NOT more effective than written communication

It is not true that people communicate better in person that in writing.

The preference for face to face meeting over written communication is deeply entrenched in agile values. The Agile Manifesto (an effort initiated by Alistair Cockburn) enshrines it as "The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation".

Cockburn's well known diagram of the effectiveness of forms of communication illustrates the various forms in terms of a tradeoff between "richness" (real time nature, bandwidth) and effectiveness. But this is linear thinking and it does not reflect how effective collaboration actually occurs. To be fair, Cockburn's article on this topic delves into the issues at length, but ignores an important fact: collaboration occurs over time - not in an instant. His diagram reflects an instant, not an process.

Scientific conferences have it right: Their tried and true approach is to first distribute papers on topics, which interested attendees read ahead of time. The attendees then attend the presentations on those topics. Then afterwards, they gather to discuss the topics in person.

The advantage of this approach is that a paper allows the author to lay out a complex argument, without interruption, from beginning to end. Complex issues often require a lengthy statement of one's point of view before the point of view starts to make sense. In face to face conversation, it is too easy to be interrupted, and too easy for the conversation to be diverted into side issues; and a one hour meeting is most certainly too short to lay out a very complex issue and discuss it to resolution.

Cockburn talks about what to do when lengthy discussion is needed. For example, he says, "They worked on it over the weeks, experimenting with representations of their concerns that would allow them to view their mutual interdependence." But he is talking about having on ongoing discussion in which issues evolve over time, because software development is occurring. That is a different situation than what I am talking about. I am talking about when a decision on a very complex issue must be made, and you don't have weeks to mull it over. In that situation, the issue is essentially static - at that point in time - and you need to decide on a course of action, soon.

In that situation, a much more effective process is to first lay out one's position in writing - to peel the onion - and then, after others have had a chance to read and absorb it, during which they build their own mental models of the issues and your position on it; and then meet to discuss it. The discussion can then focus on the points of contention, making the discussion much more effective.

More effective: isn't that what we are after? Certainly, if the issue at hand is not complex, it is often better to just meet on it and talk it through. But if the issue is multi-faceted and requires deep thought, it is far better to first have each person write up their thoughts, and for each to read the other's thoughts, possibly have a few written discussions on certain points, and then meet in person to talk through the points of disagreement and drive to consensus.

That is how effective collaboration occurs.

Contrary to what the Agile Manifesto implies, written and verbal communication are not an either-or proposition: they do not compete with each other - rather, they complement each other.