On the meaning and interpretation of project documents
Most projects generate reams of paperwork ranging from business cases to lessons learned documents. These are usually written with a specific audience in mind: business cases are intended for executive management whereas lessons learned docs are addressed to future project staff (or the portfolio police…). In view of this, such documents are intended to convey a specific message: a business case aims to convince management that a project has strategic value while a lessons learnt document offers future project teams experience-based advice.
Since the writer of a project document has a clear objective in mind, it is natural to expect that the result would be largely unambiguous. In this post, I look at the potential gap between the meaning of a project document (as intended by the author) and its interpretation (by a reader). As we will see, it is far from clear that the two are the same – in fact, most often, they are not. Note that the points I make apply to any kind of written or spoken communication, not just project documents. However, in keeping with the general theme of this blog, my discussion will focus on the latter.
Meaning and truth
Let’s begin with an example. Consider the following statement taken from this sample business case:
“ABC Company has an opportunity to save 260 hours of office labor annually by automating time-consuming and error-prone manual tasks.”
Let’s ask ourselves: what is the meaning of this sentence?
On the face of it, the meaning of a sentence such as the one above is equivalent to knowing the condition(s) under which the claim it makes is true. For example, the statement above implies that if the company undertakes the project (condition) then it will save the stated hours of labour (claim). This interpretation of meaning is called the truth-conditional model. Among other things, it assumes that the truth of a sentence has an objective meaning.
Most people have something like the truth-conditional model in mind when they are writing documents: they (try to) write in a way that makes the truth of their claims plausible or, better yet, evident.
Buehler’s model of language
At this point, it is helpful to look at a model of language proposed by the German linguist Karl Buehler in the 1930s. According to Buehler, language has three functions, not just one as in the truth-conditional model. The three functions are:
- Cognitive: representing an (objective) truth about the world. This is the same “truth” as in the truth-conditional model.
- Expressive: expressing a point of view of the writer (or speaker).
- Appeal: making a request of the reader – or “appealing to” the reader.
A graphical representation of the model –sometimes called the organon model – is shown in Figure 1 below.
The basic point Buehler makes is that focusing on the cognitive function alone cannot lead to a complete picture of meaning. One has to factor in the desires and intent of the writer (or speaker) and the predispositions of those who make up the audience. Ultimately, the meaning resides not in some idealized objective truth, but in how readers interpret the document.
Meaning and interpretation
Let’s look at the statement made in the previous section in the light of Buehler’s model.
First, the statement (and indeed the document) makes some claims regarding the external, objective world. This is essentially the same as the truth-conditional view mentioned in the previous section.
Second, from the viewpoint of the expressive function, the statement (and the entire business case, for that matter) selects facts that the writer believes will convince the reader. So, among other things, the writer claims that the company will save 260 hours of manual labour by automating time-consuming and error-prone tasks. The adjectives used imply that some tasks are not carried out efficiently. The author chose to make this point; he or she could have made it another way or even not made it all.
Finally, executives who read the business case might interpret claim made in many different ways depending on:
- Their knowledge of the office environment (things such as the workload of office staff, scope for automation etc.) and the environment. This corresponds to the cognitive function in Buehler’s model.
- Their own predispositions, intentions and desires and those that they impute to the author. This corresponds to the appeal and expressive functions.
For instance, the statement might be viewed as irrelevant by an executive who believes that the existing office staff are perfectly capable of dealing with the workload (“They need to work smarter”, he might say). On the other hand, if he knows that the business case has been written up by the IT department (who are currently looking to justify their budgets), he might well question the validity of the statement and ask for details of how the figure of 260 hours was arrived at. The point is: even a simple and seemingly unambiguous statement (from the point of view of the writer) might be interpreted in a host of unexpected ways.
More than just “sending and receiving”
The standard sender-receiver model of communication is simplistic. Among other things it assumes that interpretation is “just” a matter of interpreting a message correctly. The general assumption is that:
…If the requisite information has been properly packed in a message, only someone who is deficient could fail to get it out. This partitioning of responsibility between the sender and the recipient often results in reciprocal blaming for communication. (Quoted from Questions and Information: contrasting metaphors by Thomas Lauer)
Buehler’s model reminds us that any communication – as clear as it may seem to the sender – is open to being interpreted in a variety of different ways by the receiver. Moreover, the two parties need to understand each others intent and motives, which are generally not open to view.
The meaning of project documents isn’t as clear-cut as is usually assumed. This is so even for documents that are thought of as being unambiguous (such as contracts or status reports). Writers write from their point of view, which may differ considerably from that of their readers. Further, phrases and sentences which seem clear to a writer can be interpreted in a variety of ways by readers, depending on their situation and motivations. The bottom line is that the writer must not only strive for clarity of expression, but must also try to anticipate ways in which readers might interpret what’s written.