Communication Debts and Brazilian Office Mornings

· November 7, 2014

As a programmer, I often end up trying to explain non-technical concepts to non-technical people using things that I’ve picked up as a programmer. Often it doesn’t pay off. “Don’t Repeat Yourself” or “Tell - don’t ask” is not always easy to explain or translate, even if they hold truths and wisdom.

Today I tried to explain Technical Debt to a director of a hospital. That didn’t really work - my mistake. However, the Technical Debt metaphor is based on something that most grown-up people understand: financial debt.

Financial Debt

In this instance, we talked about how communication could be improved (as it always could be, I would think) in the hospital. In order to explain this, I drew this graph for her:

You know about debt, right? I asked her. The longer we wait to do down-payments, the more the debt increases, due to the interest rate it incurs.

I removed the $-sign and wrote “Communication” in its place.

Communication Debt

Because it’s the same thing with communication and interaction. The longer we wait to communicate with someone, the more confusion, misunderstandings, interpretations, and beliefs we make. It’s like we’re trying to ‘cover up’ the missed communication and fill out the blanks with our own minds.

The only thing that can pay off the communication debt is to meet again. Then we can clear out any misunderstandings and sync up, hopefully making sure that we’re talking about the same thing.

The Bad News

Communication debt starts ticking the second we part. You meet someone else and get new information. I start to think for myself. I talk to my group, you talk to yours. Things happen. We form our separate opinions.

Now imagine that this went on for 1 day, 10 days, 1 month, 6 months… and that’s when we end up in strange situations like “she doesn’t want to talk with me” or “I simply don’t understand them”.

The Good News

We can do something about this. And it’s simple too. We control the dial to this problem; namely, we decide how often we meet.

If we meet only once a year - communication debt has built up over this time.

If we instead try to meet four times a year: much less communication debt.

Meet every week - almost no communication debt.

Brazilian Office Mornings

One of my good friends worked for 6 months in Brazil. I asked him how that was and the first thing he said was: they never start to work in the mornings.

As it turns out, it’s very rude not to greet everyone in the morning. When you step into the office you walk around and greet everyone. Basta! It’s been like this since ancient times.

And since not everyone arrives at the same time… well, there’s a lot of walking around greeting each other.

This can be applied to management too, called by some Management by Wandering Around. Dan North describes the habits of one team lead to walk around taking up orders for coffee and tea in the afternoon.

Hi, what do you want to drink? Ah, black coffee today. Ok. How’s work? Ok - awesome. Anything else?

See what he did there? Just a very friendly question and then open for communication.

I’ve tried this at my hospital where I work now. I make it my thing to just walk around to each department (it’s 10 so it takes about 12 minutes) and ask them how they are. It’s about as far as my Indonesian stretches now. But from these simple questions, you can tell a lot. Facial expression just by seeing me coming (Oh no, not him again… not today), the tone of their voice, are they Ok or do they shout “AWESOME” (like the ladies in the laundry room always do…) things like that.

Also - sometimes they ask me a question. Or I can explain something that they didn’t understand.


Walking around, keeping the conversation going is basically just keeping the communication debt to a minimum. That, and to be and spread happiness.

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