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The Language Divide: Why Decision Makers and Developers Talk Past Each Other

Why do project meetings go wrong? Why do we feel like we aren’t getting our points across? And what can we do to understand others and bridge the language divide?

Guillermo Carreras

By Guillermo Carreras

As Director of Delivery, Guillermo Carreras implements BairesDev's campaigns while focusing on Agile development and digital transformation solutions.

10 min read

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Virginia Satir is a name we don’t hear a lot about in software development. That’s because she is in fact a therapist, to be more precise, one of the most influential people in family/group therapy. What does she have to do with software projects?

Satir’s approach to couple’s therapy involved translating the words of one person to another. She realized that most couple issues were in fact communication problems, with people saying things to one another but talking past one another.

It happens way too often, project meetings that go on and on for hours, little to no consensus is reached, everyone leaves exhausted and a bit lost. The decision-maker is unsure of what the developers are doing, and they in tandem, aren’t certain of what the decision-maker wants. If only we could have our very own Virginia Satir…

Understanding Communication

Satir’s work is extensive, but the core lesson is “we don’t speak the same language”. Even if we are both English speakers, my English isn’t the same as your English. So even if we both understand the words we are using, we are relaying very different messages.

For example, imagine a meeting where a project manager is about to present a new technology for the project. For them, the word “new” invokes images of something exciting, of setting new trends, of something important.

For one of the junior developers, who had sudden changes go wrong in the past, “new” is a hassle, having to learn another tool, spending time adapting instead of focusing on building the project.

For the decision-maker, “new” is a code word for cost, both in time and resources, are they going to meet the deadline? Isn’t this project already close to going over budget?.

When the questions start, the manager focuses on opportunities, the developers focus on effort, and the decision-maker focuses on cost. “Won’t this cost too much?” asks the decision-maker. “mMaybe, but it’s better suited for our goals,” answers the frustrated manager.

I’m exaggerating of course, but the point remains the same: communication fails when we have diverging opinions and don’t realize that we’re talking past each other. 

The obvious solution is to express in the most honest terms what we understand by something and then listen attentively to others. Unfortunately, sometimes even we are unaware of our own process, so finding the right words can prove difficult.

That’s when others can help us understand ourselves by asking the right questions. That’s another aspect of Satir’s approach. She realized that we need someone to act as a mirror so that we can see our inner world reflected and learn.

The Language of Decision Makers

Decision-makers come in all shapes and sizes, some of them are investors, others are project managers, and in some cases they’re users. Sometimes we have more than one decision-maker, and other times we have to go through gatekeepers to get to the right decision-maker.

Be that as it may, they all share the same goal, they want the project to succeed, the problem is figuring out “how” it will succeed 

While there are as many motivations as there are decision-makers in the world, researchers have managed to group decision-makers into five broad types according to Hubspot:

The Charismatic

Imagine an extrovert who everyone likes, full of ideas, energetic, always on the move. The charismatic decision-maker is an action-oriented individual that likes to see things on the move. They are emotional and dynamic, which is great for presenting them with new ideas, but not so great for long-term commitments.

Developers working with a charismatic decision-maker are at their best when they connect with that motivation and energy, but at the same time act as an anchor that keeps the decision-maker’s ideas in check. It’s easy to get caught up in their excitement, which often leads to unrealistic goals.

The Deep Thinker

As the name implies, deep thinkers are decision-makers who value reason and forethought. They seek information, are constantly learning, and make informed decisions. Deep thinkers are highly logical, and as such, more receptive to precise well-thought-out information than emotional arguments.

Developers working with deep thinkers will find that they tend to be risk-averse and are more worried about the well-being of their company than innovation. These decision-makers are swayed by logic and safety, preferring the status-quo or the road most traveled.

Thinkers like to connect the dots and reach conclusions by themselves, they are the perfect decision-makers to present abstract and difficult arguments. It’s the kind of person that feels at home with a hard puzzle to solve.

The Skeptic

If you’ve ever worked with someone who raises every objection, then you’ve worked with a skeptic. These decision-makers value their own opinion, knowledge, and experience above anything else and will fight tooth and nail to find flaws in proposals that go against their worldview.

Skeptics are unafraid to speak their minds, to the point where they can come off as rude or hard to deal with. That’s actually a good thing, you can be certain that a skeptic is being the most honest person in the room at any given time. 

Once you earn a skeptic’s trust you’ll find yourself in the company of a great ally, skeptics tend to defend and support those they trust with the same energy they protect their worldview. 

While reviewing a project with one can be exhausting, you can be sure that once a skeptic is satisfied with your answers, there won’t be any remaining objections on the table. Developers who learn to speak from the decision-maker’s worldview are perfect for skeptics.

The Follower

Much like the deep thinker, the follower is risk-averse. They’re rather passive in contrast to other decision-makers and prefer tried and true methods to innovative approaches. You won’t be seeing a follower embracing new trends until they’ve become the norm.

Sticking to what works, showing testimonials, and using well-documented results with a statistical basis will often have a positive reaction from the decision-maker. If innovation is necessary, then the developer should try to support their ideas with as much data as possible. 

Instead of showing the big picture, developers should stick to small and concrete goals, talk about security, testing, and feedback loops to prevent issues. The trick to getting a follower on your side is to show them that you are well prepared. 

The Controller

Controllers like to be in charge, and for good reason. They’re organized, sensible, and accurate. These types of decision-makers are very susceptible to uncertainty, and the less they can control their environment, the more likely they are to step away.

Having said that, controllers aren’t risk-averse, they just don’t like taking risks they’re unaware of. They want to be informed, and they want their answers to come from an expert. For example, if they have an interface question they would rather chat with the UX designer than the project managers.

Like the deep thinker and the follower, controllers take their time when making a decision, it’s better to give them space as they process the information than try to push for a quick answer. The more control you give them, the more pleased they will be.

Don’t Forget About the Individual

If you’re a decision-maker, then I hope these types will help you define your personal style, which will help you express your idea in clearer terms. If you’re a developer or a project manager, I hope that this will help you be more thoughtful about your approach when talking with the decision-maker.

Remember that these broad types are just stereotypes, each person has their own set of values, and understanding them is key to learning how to speak their own personal language.

Guillermo Carreras

By Guillermo Carreras

Guillermo Carreras focuses on digital transformation solutions and Agile development work as well as the management of BairesDev's successful campaigns. As Director of Delivery, he works with PMO, Sales, and Tech teams to provide end-to-end company alignment.

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