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How Perception Gaps Create Confusion For Design Teams

Published on
April 30, 2021
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Have you ever worked on a project where you thought everyone was on the same page only to discover the opposite? Depending on how far along you were into implementation, you likely wasted a lot of time and money. And when everyone finally realized they were going down the wrong path, frustration probably impacted morale. Perception gaps can create unnecessary confusion which leads to less than desired outcomes.

Some time ago, I worked with a product development team to implement a set of requirements that weren’t fully defined. The group sat next to each other every day and spent several months working together. As a new member, I felt slightly intimidated. Not only was I new to the project, but I was working remotely. Over the first few weeks, I observed the team dynamics. A constant stream of instant messages combined with colocation seemed to be a good sign of cohesion. 😏

After meeting the team in person, I observed something odd.🤔

Although members sat right next to each other, communication mostly occurred in instant messaging channels. When the team did have in-person meetings, communication flowed one way. Sam, the product owner, would explain the requirements, and team members would nod in agreement. After one such meeting, I asked Sarah, the project manager, for a form of clarification that would demonstrate whether the information had stuck.

Roy: Hey, Sarah, I’m not sure I fully understand the situation here. Could you help me understand? Would you mind drawing a diagram of what Sam has requested the team to implement? 🎨

Sarah: Sure, no problem. Here’s what we’re doing.

After a few moments, Sam becomes noticeably agitated. 😠

Sam: Wait a second. That’s not how the product works. What are you drawing?

Sarah: I’m drawing what we’re building.

Sam: What? We’ve been talking about the requirements for almost two months now. How do you not know what the team is building?

Sarah: This is what we’re building…

The above scenario is an example of a perception gap.

Perception gaps occur when two or more people engage in dialogue about a particular topic. At some point in the discussion, each person forms their own viewpoint on the situation. Because this occurs naturally, the individuals incorrectly assume they see things the same way.

Divergent viewpoints most often are the result of ineffective communication.

When you take a particular point of view, you have a specific image of the situation running through your mind. When you explain your perspective to others, you must be specific about every aspect to help that person see the situation from your viewpoint. Their ability to understand your point of view strongly depends on their unique level of intelligence, experiences, knowledge of the subject at hand.

Unfortunately, we often leave out critical details necessary to help others understand our perspective. When this happens, people become confused, and perception gaps are the unintended result.

Communication is a two-way street.

For others to see the situation in the same light, they have to ask questions. But not just any questions… They must have enough knowledge of the topic to ask the right questions. In situations where they’re unfamiliar, they must feel comfortable expressing this. Unless you have pre-established trust within the relationship, they won’t feel safe admitting their lack of understanding.

When people don’t admit their limitations, they pretend.

Situations involving multiple parties increases the chances of perception gaps. With each new participant, it becomes more challenging to get and keep everyone on the same page. When one person doesn’t feel safe admitting they don’t understand, several people may pretend to follow along.

In such circumstances, one of my favorite bosses, Quinton Rodgers, would often repeat a famous quote:

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw

Perception gaps aren’t a new phenomenon.

Their presence has been observed since ancient times. Socrates spent a considerable amount of time teaching his students about the concept of “forms.” Forms affect our perception. According to Socrates, an item’s ideal representation is called “Forms” or “Patterns.” The things which take the physical manifestation of a form are perishable and imperfect. Although the things that take on a Form’s expression may be indefinite, the Form is singular.

In essence, the “Form” is the ideal state.

Here’s where the situation gets tricky. Your ideal state and my ideal state may be completely different. At this point, the concept of perception comes into play. If you consider one thing to be the perfect “Form,” and I consider another, we’re likely to get off track pretty quickly.

Let’s assume you, and I enter the doghouse business.

We have limited funds. I’ve spoken with a seed investor who has a dog, and he’s interested in seeing his dog test the prototype. I explain to you that the prototype should be square with a triangular top. You suggest the door be arched at the top to provide additional structural support. Of course, it should.

You seem well versed in the art of doghouse design.

Now I am confident in your domain expertise. I have other matters to attend to. I walk away assured that you and the team can take it from here.

When the prototype arrives, I nearly fall over.

How is the investor’s rottweiler supposed to fit into such a small dog house? Not to mention, I sold him on the idea that this would be the only doghouse optimized for a dog’s ability only to distinguish blue and yellow color patterns.

You and I had different perceptions all along.

It turns out that your idea of a dog and my idea of a dog weren’t the same.  You own a chihuahua, so you kept your dog’s dimensions in mind in designing the dog house. I never mentioned the investor’s rottweiler, and you didn’t ask for clarification. When I explained my research on colorblindness among dogs, you assumed they were completely color blind.

Perception gaps can cost your company big!

A recent PWC article outlines how banks have increased investments in digital innovation projects in response to customer demand for online access and the availability of new technical capabilities. The article refers to an IDC report, stating that roughly 70% of all digital transformation initiatives do not reach their goals. According to the analysis, more than $900 billion of the $1.3 trillion spent in 2018 was wasted.

How to reduce perception gaps.

Given these estimates, organizations should make every effort to increase their chances of success. One way to do this is by ensuring that everyone is on the same page.

Assume no one is on the same page.

Identifying when people aren’t on the same page comes with experience. For now, assume that everyone understands the situation differently. Let people know that you’d like them to restate what has been said so you can check their understanding of the situation.

Make it safe for people to ask questions.

I cannot emphasize this point enough. So at the risk of sounding repetitive, I’ll repeat it. When people don’t feel safe to admit they don’t know something, they pretend. When people pretend, it creates confusion. Avoid confusion, built trust, and make it known that you expect people to come forward if they don’t understand. You can do this by setting a good example of requesting clarification or admitting you don’t understand something.

“Confusion is the biggest enemy of good thinking” – Edward De Bono

Create diagrams explaining the scenario.

Diagrams allow you to demonstrate the components, points of connectivity, and relationships which express an idea. When you ask for a diagram explaining someone’s understanding of the situation, you quickly identify whether they know the material or not. Even the worst of artists can easily express their ideas using boxes, lines, and circles. In most cases, items of omission are easy to identify. If others have a different perception of the situation, it will become apparent.

Limit the use of PowerPoint presentations.

PowerPoint presentations create vagueness. Simple bullet points and feel-good images of success cannot convey the complexity of most situations. Additionally, powerpoints allow people to wing-it if necessary to get through their presentation. The slides can mean anything you want; they’re open to interpretation. For this reason, many organizations are moving toward the use of written documentation.

A colleague recently joined an organization that strictly forbids powerpoints. Instead, they insist on a written document of no more than four pages. If the situation is of such complexity that it requires more than four pages, break it up into smaller topics. These topics should be covered separately so as not to overwhelm.

Read the documents prepared for you!

If someone took the time to express their thoughts about a situation, you owe it to them as a professional courtesy to give it the attention it deserves. If you don’t have time to read it right away, that’s o.k. Let them know you need some time, and ask if they have any urgent questions or decisions which are holding them back from moving forward. Perception gaps hide in the details. When you stop paying attention to the details, others stop caring about the impact mistakes have on your goals and objectives.

You know you

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