“It’s just semantics” of a phrase that ironically has more than one meaning. There’s the face value version, and then there’s the way in which it is used to dismiss what is regarded as trivial and unimportant, often by those who get bored by detail.

The thing is, it is “just” semantics that too often acts as a serious barrier to collaboration working effectively between people and teams.

I was recounting the model of four systemic barriers to collaboration that Morten Hansen described in his imaginatively titled 2009 book Collaboration yesterday. One of those four barriers Hansen calls the Transfer Barrier, and occurs when people have different understanding of the same words, or use different words for the same concept.

For example, when I started my last job in the Housing sector, it took me a good few months to realign my mental models when I heard the word “developer” so that I saw people with spades and bricks and concrete rather than geeks cutting code.

I’ve always assumed that the transfer barrier occurred between professions or between people from different countries. But my colleague Andy Kemp pointed me at this article and it appears the problem might be even more profound.

The research it explores reveals that even for seemingly common concepts, the variation in understanding is mind-boggling. Take, as they do, a penguin. Does your mental model of a penguin make it big or small? Light or heavy? And so on, to such an extent that:

The probability two people selected at random will share the same concept about penguins is around 12 percent…

…the team’s results suggest that at least 10 to 30 quantifiably different concept variants exist for even common nouns such as penguin.

So you know that thing when annoying people ask seemingly dumb questions about what people actually mean? Well maybe you should be that person because, after all, it is all semantics.

2 thoughts on “Pick up a penguin

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