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The topics discussed here grow out of the bread-and-butter issues that confront my consulting and software clients on a daily basis. We'll talk about prosaic stuff like Membership Management, Meetings and Events Management and Fundraising, broader ideas like security and software project management, and the social, cultural, and organizational issues that impact IT decision-making.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Hot-button telepathy

Agile methodology Guru Alistair Cockburn wrote that software development is "a cooperative game of communication and invention." But as George Bernard Shaw told us: "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place." And so we arrive at the challenge when software guys sit down with organizations to make the system do what their users need.

Recently we'd been having a number of conversations with a prospective client. Everything seemed to be going well, and I was pretty sure we were going to get the gig. When we didn't, we of course asked our prospect what particular issues had led them to buy elsewhere. "Well, we loved your software, but there were a few aspects of your approach that really turned us off. One was that you mentioned several times you deliver all the source code with the application. But none of us are programmers; we wouldn't know what to do with it. So we decided we wanted a vendor that did not make us take the source code."

Like so many times in business and life, our first thought was "Boy, these guys don't understand anything! Sheesh!" But then if you want to communicate, you've got to take responsibility for being understood. What mistake had we made that allowed this misunderstanding?

Our mistake was to assume what I call "hot-button telepathy" In our business, openness of applications is a hot-button issue. "Can I have the source? Can I get at the data? Can I host it on my own server" are big questions in our world. So it never dawned on us for a minute that someone might not "just know" that having the source code is a good thing.

Hot-button telepathy is an error users can make too. Your technology vendors do not know the hot-button issues in your non-profit work. You may think every day about the issues involved in fighting malaria in West Africa, or educating girls in Central Asia. But your technology vendors are not. And this can lead to all sorts of miscommunication.

I was at a meeting once where one of the YMCA's we work with was interviewing a prospective networking firm to install a Citrix farm for them. The sales rep, in summing up his presentation, said, "You guys know how to run a health club - you shouldn't also need to learn how to run a wide-area network". Well, saying this almost cost them the gig. Doesn't everybody know that private health clubs are fighting in the courts to have the Y's 501c3 status revoked on the grounds that they are just another health club, and to refer to Ys as health clubs is therefore to deny all the other valuable work the YMCA does in the community? What an insult!

Of course this networking professional was not familiar with this issue, and meant nothing of the sort. After a brief cool-down period the conversation resumed and they won the project. But it just goes to show how right ol' G.B. Shaw was.
Image of George Bernard Shaw from Wikipedia Commons. Description and Attribution.

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