Messages: Judging Them or Using Them?

Dwayne Phillips

Revision History
Revision 1.028 August 2002

Recent experiences have taught me that there are different ways we can treat information given to us by others. A few months ago, I was working with a contractor on the opposite coast who was building a hardware and software system. We sent the contractor a statement of work and a product specification. The contractor’s group was working on a high-level design and sent us several preliminary ideas.

One Tuesday afternoon, the user's lead came in my office with a message to pass to the contractor: The users felt that the contractor was proposing a product that was too large physically. They wanted the contractor to remove a major subsystem (the "switching" subsystem). This change would reduce the capability of the product, but the smaller size was more important to the user.

I sent the message to the contractor. The contractor responded the next morning with strong reservations about changing the specification of the product. The contractor’s group did not want to remove the switching subsystem and the group was adamant in its objections.

I was a little surprised by this reaction. We were paying the contractor for every hour of work performed on the contract. The group would be paid for what it had already done on the switching subsystem. We would also pay the contractor for the redesign work the group would do.

Other people in my office had a different reaction. The prevailing attitude was that the contractors were a bunch of whiners. One colleague said, "They complain about everything all the time. They need to shut up and get back to work."

This attitude also surprised me. It seemed that my colleagues were throwing out the message the contractor sent us. Our side judged the message and dismissed it.

I looked into the contractor's message in more detail. Our contracts records showed that five years earlier, our organization had awarded this company a large (tens of millions of dollars) contract to build a large system. A couple of years into that effort we changed the specification of the product. That change also meant reducing the capability. The current contract was to build a product that was only a small part of the system we contracted for five years earlier.

The pattern emerged. Several times over the past five years, we had told this contractor what to build, only to reduce the size and value of the product. We were doing it to the group again. Now I understood the contractor’s complaints.

The contractor’s group was responding to what it felt were dishonest practices on our part for the past five years. The contractor was complaining because the group did not trust us. This information (the contractor does not trust us) helped me to understand several other things that had happened on the current contract that did not make sense.

Our project was plagued by mistrust. My number one priority now became building and maintaining trust. If we, the contractor and our group, did not trust one another, everything we tried to do everyday of the project would be full with problems. This incident led me to think in general about how my organization was handling messages from contractors. In many cases, we were not using the information in the messages (we lack trust on this project). Instead, we were judging the messages (the contractor is a whiner).

I also noticed a tip-off when we were judging instead of using the messages. In most cases of judging, people were talking about the person sending the message instead of the message itself. Statements usually began with, "Those guys at Company X ..." We rarely said something like, "This is a surprising message. I wonder what the message behind the message is."

People give us information daily. This incident taught me to examine how I respond to messages. Am I using the information in the message or judging the message? Am I listening to the message or looking at the person sending it?

Dwayne Phillips has been a software and systems engineer with the U.S. Government since 1980. He can be reached at