My life as a translator

It’s a lesson I learned twenty years ago.

In 1991, I left my secure job with a long established video dealership to become one of the first four employees of The Whitlock Group.

Back then, the company was named Atlantic Broadcast, and Kevin Thompson, who was the visionary behind it all, had a conviction that we were doing something very smart, because John Whitlock, who funded the start-up, was also the owner of Virginia’s largest computer and networking firm.

Keep in mind that this was 1991. There were no video servers, no non-linear editors, and virtually no internet. But it was clear to all of us that the age of computers playing a major role in audio and video communication was about to be upon us, and we wanted to be at the forefront of that sea change. Allying a broadacast and AV company with a computer company just made sense. Those of you who have followed Whitlock, and others like them, know just how right we were.

I remember one of the first times we TV guys got together with the computer guys. The computer geeks (we were all geeks then, just geeks focused on different technologies niches.) were all excited to show us some “incredible quality” computer video. We gathered in Richmond, Virginia to take a look at this tiny little postage stamp of grainy video and we TV geeks just looked at each other. Obviously, these computer guys had a different definition of “incredible quality” than us broadcast guys.

That’s when I realized something important: That as technologies merge, often a translator is needed.

The reason is simple. Different kinds of organizations have their own languages. Broadacast speaks a different language than AV, which is different than IT, which is different than architects or managers or educators.

Often these different groups have terms and phrases that the other has no idea about. It’s almost like code. That’s bad enough, but what is worse is that often they have the SAME phrases, with very different meanings or implications, and so they start out thinking they are understanding each other, when in reality they are on very different pages.

Since then, I have focused not just on technical knowledge, but in being a translator between groups on projects.

How important is that translation in having a project go well? Let me share another story. I won’t tell you who it happened with, but it was a major institution.

This institution called me in. They had an asset management project that had been in the works for two years, but the two years had turned into a big battle as the IT and video guys went back on forth on what was needed. I was brought by management as a last resort in essentially as a peacemaker and diplomat to try and get these guys to agree on something, anything, and get the process out of its logjam.

I began by talking to the IT people and the Video people separately. And to my amazement (because management had painted a picture of all-out war between the two groups), the IT and Video were actually pretty close to each other. The problem was that they used different languages to express it. So in the end, I explained to each group where the language had caused the logjam, and within two meetings, we had the project mapped out to each group’s satisfaction.

I see the same thing again and again as various stakeholders in a project state what they need and what they have to have. There’s just too much misunderstanding, and often my role as a consultant in the process has more to do with communication and facilitating understanding, than details and technology.

I’ve discovered the same thing in my other work – as a business and marketing consultant, as a leadership developer, as a project manager, as a personal coach, and as a pastor.

Language matters. And too often we are under the illusion that we are speaking the same language, when too often, we aren’t.  We have different experiences, backgrounds, fields of work, spiritual backgrounds, and each of them color our understanding, and our expectations of how others will hear what we say.  A little time at the beginning of an engagement syncing our language pays HUGE dividends.

Keep that in mind as you go forward. When your situation or your project is complex, touching a variety of people or groups, sometimes a consultant or coach who is good generalist will do you more good than a specialist, because they can translate between the different people and groups and make sure you KNOW what you are getting or asking for, preventing frustration, confusion, and conflict, and saving you time, delays, and money.  They can help you get where you want to go faster and more effectively than a specialist.

Just a thought.  One that pays.

Be well, Travel wisely,

Tom

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