The abbreviation disease

Before you start reading, I want to mention that this isn’t an attack against anyone specifically. This is a behaviour I’ve noticed in teams I’ve worked with over the years. I couldn’t find a better analogy to express this idea.

The abbreviation disease leads people to use unclear short forms to convey something that can very well be expressed using simple terms. While there is a higher chance for people in bigger teams to be infected by this disease, this condition may also be observed in teams of all sizes.

If you’ve ever had someone in your organization constantly use abbreviations while speaking but the folks listening clearly don’t understand what the abbreviations mean, you can be sure that you’ve seen someone affected by this disease.

The root cause of the disease appears to have something to do with our evolutionary need to feel important, indispensable, and powerful (by hoarding knowledge and other resources). However, the urge to use abbreviations may sometimes be involuntary and benign.

Symptoms include obfuscating very simple ideas behind abbreviations that cause fear and confusion for team members when spoken out. This behaviour runs unchecked in teams that don’t have a sense of psychological safety built-in – teams where folks don’t feel comfortable asking questions openly, to get the clarity they should have been given in the first place.

The disease can be diagnosed by watching out for abbreviations (that very few people understand) in your chats, documents, in-person and online meetings. Another tell-tale sign is when your team members end up having behind the scenes chatter along these lines: “do you know what the hell that means?”, “I thought I was the only one who was clueless. Thank God.”

When these become common occurrences, you can be sure your team has a victim who is certainly affected by the disease. The disease actively obstructs people from understanding your products, business and processes with clarity. The abbreviation contagion soon affects more people without clear diagnosis and continuous treatment.

One way to cull the contagion is by intervening early when an abbreviation is used, requesting for clarification. Advanced treatment would mean replacing the abbreviation right away with clear, simple language that everyone can understand easily.

To prevent your team members from falling prey for the disease in the long term, the only solution is to build a culture of letting anyone ask questions at any point when an abbreviation or a jargon is thrown around.

Published by shankarganesh

Product manager. I write about products, user experience and life. I care about the little things, because it’s the little things that matter in the end.

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