Language and communication happens at a fixed point in time. We have a thought, and a statement is made. Unlike a word processor, there is no undo feature. Time moves forward, and that statement you made or question you answered is now in the past. This creates a challenge to us, in that our communication is always framed on the stage of how much of the future we are willing to speculate about.
We constantly face a cognitive challenge where we live in the moment, yet the moment is always fleeting. Our fears stop us from speculating too much about the uncertain future, but it is almost mandatory to think of it, just a little.
When the question is posed, “what are you doing for lunch?” We typically think of the most immediate time frame—our next lunch, even if it is currently 6:00 am. This is an example of us opening that perspective from the current moment into speculation of the future. The literal definition of the statement would be “what are you doing for lunch, right this moment,” and if it was 6:00 am the correct answer would be “nothing.”
Yet we don't think of it that way, we stretch our mind's eye forward to the future, consider possibilities, squelch fears and uncertainties we cannot control, and we offer a speculation framed like a fact, “I'm grabbing a sandwich.” Even though other things may come into play by the time lunch arrives—the sandwich shop may close, or somebody may offer to take us to lunch elsewhere. Our understanding of the statement of future speculation is relaxed to allow for the flexibility of change, even though the words are exact.
This perspective of time is important to understand, as it is an important facet of technology conversations and strategic planning. Ironically, in our everyday lives we relax the future speculation without much concern, such as talking about lunch. Regardless of what we do, we frame our perspective of time as a window to the future, and this helps us to be able to communicate. The size of this window is relative to the distance forward in time we allow into our cognitive perspective.
Different people approach this in a wide variety of ways, especially when it comes to technology and the baggage of fear and change that comes along with it. When it does come to technology, we tend to be less flexible about this window, which can be fixed on a specific time frame, depending upon our job. Some people like to keep their window tightly focused and only worry about the next few weeks or months. Others have thrown their window wide open, and they bounce back and forth, sometimes within the same conversation, talking about something which is years away, then talking about something which is immediate.
I once entered into a presentation with a new customer where I was under the impression everybody knew we were talking about future plans—a few years away. But we did not establish the time frame or window of time we were considering. A statement was made about retiring some technology, and while nobody in the meeting spoke a word of complaint, afterwards the flames were stoked high.
The expectation of this window of time across years was that there would be plenty of time to research the situation and make an amenable solution to any challenge that could arise.
But the technology owners—those crusaders who loved their technology—lived in the world of support and maintenance. They had no need for a window of time beyond a few months, which would get them through the next patch and maintenance cycle and keep their customers happy.
So when they heard the statement that we would be replacing their technology, they immediately framed it in their own context—and heard that we would be replacing their technology in the next few months.
Immediately the sirens went off in their heads. Their fears and anxieties shifted into overdrive. They had personally invested years into building the system to be replaced. They knew it was highly unlikely anybody could replace something that took them years to build in so short a period of time.
What about the existing customers who were getting value out of the system, and would have nothing after it was shut down? Either we were idiots for making the proposal, or worse they were the idiots for having spent so much time on something which is obviously easier for somebody else to do.
The message went up the leadership channel that we didn't know what we were talking about, and it was ridiculous to think that we could succeed—the alternative in their perspective was not something to contemplate.
The simple explanation was that the technology replacement was a multi-year effort that would engage and involve the very individuals upset by the prospect—they were the ones who would be invested in making the technology decisions. Instead, they made assumptions based on poor communication, and these led to conflict that didn't need to exist.
It is when we forget to address the perspective of time, to empathize with our audience and learn what their perspective is, that we create problems in communication and in our relationships. Time is a factor to all things. Understanding the context of time for each member of the audience helps maintain stable and healthy relationships.