Chinese Whispers

“A bad word whispered will echo a hundred miles.”
–Chinese Proverb






You’re familiar with this game.  The player at the beginning thinks of a phrase, and whispers it as quietly as possible to his neighbor. The neighbor then passes on the message to the next player. The passing continues until it reaches the player at the end of the line, who calls out the message he or she received.  Most of the time, the final message bears no resemblance to the original.

Unknowingly I started a game this past week. Over lunch this week one of my teammates said that he heard second-hand from someone who said we bombed the previous week in DC, and that the original source was my last blog post.  (See Can Failure Lead to Success?)

Interesting.  A Chinese whisper.  One of the hazards of putting myself out there, I suppose.

I looked through my last blog post and noted one word that could have started the game: fail.  Perhaps the message got decoded and interpreted as “the team failed” which further got interpreted and passed as “the team bombed”.  Much as in a Chinese whisper, the output message bore no resemblance to the original message. It is in fact the opposite, as  I wrote in my last blog post: the team actually shined in DC.

As I have written previously, the team is working in a rather challenging environment of uncertainty and ambiguity over the future direction of human space flight: between the end of shuttle, no space policy as of yet from the Obama administration, and at present unknown recommendations and impacts from the Augustine Committee. From a leadership standpoint I’ve been charting a course for the team in this environment, and it has been a challenge.  I also see that in my messaging the initial condition needs careful crafting in order to ensure the integrity of the message as it travels the hallways.

Where I felt I failed was in delivering an approved strategy on the timetable I established at the outset.  I had a conversation this week with my leadership about that point and was assured that in their eyes, we’re still on course.  Perhaps my timetable was unrealistic, especially in light of the current environment of uncertainty and ambiguity.  So, if there was a failure here, it was one of not meeting my ambitious expectations, not in the result or in the outcome we seek.

I also reflected further on what I could have done differently. One item came to mind – push harder to build partnerships and coalitions with key decision-makers and allies, and not let the reluctance or resistance of others outside the team dissuade me from that objective. Although partnerships and coalitions would not have resolved all the ambiguities in the current environment, it might have led to getting the revised guidance sooner.  In fact, that is one of the items we are now doing – expanding our network of allies on multiple fronts.  This approach ought to help ensure success.

What did I learn this week?  That a message as it propagates can get altered to the opposite in original meaning.  I also learned that the initial conditions – in the choice of words – can exacerbate that condition.  I also learned that no matter what, I will continue to put myself out there, to share my experiences and thoughts so that others may benefit – and so that I might learn in return.

Chinese Whispers