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Friday, 09 August 2013 12:08

Reviewing a document? Remember Wittgenstein’s words!

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One of the things we all spend a lot of time in business doing is reviewing other people’s documents. They may be text documents or slide decks. We can spend huge amounts of time trying to get our head around what the writer(s) meant. Sometimes, for example in responding to a tender, really understanding the document is critical to ongoing success.

The problem is that any document, especially a document of any length, contains ambiguities – the full meaning is indeterminate. There is more than one interpretation and exactly what the writer meant is uncertain. If you are spending any length of time interpreting a document, trying to get your head around what the author wrote, then there is a big possibility that there are several possible interpretations of the words. Then the chances are, unless you know the writer well, you have chosen the wrong one.

Let's consider an extreme example. One of the earliest recognised philosophers was Heraclitus – he’s the one who is meant to have said “no man ever steps into the same river twice”, although this precise form of words is contentious. We have a few tiny fragments of what he wrote – mostly in the form of the just quoted aphorism. None of the words are in his original documents. We only know of him from quotes by later philosophers. Yet this does not stop people spending huge amounts of time analysing what he wrote and making claims for what Heraclitus meant.

Let’s step back for a minute and think about this. No-one can really claim they know what Heraclitus meant, at best they can say what they think Heraclitus may have meant, or what his words mean to them. Yet people say with complete confidence that they know what Heraclitus meant.

This false confidence in understanding others words is risky. Think of all the documents you read. At best you should assume there is some chance that your understanding of what the writer meant is wrong. If you want to be inspired by a writer then this does not matter. If you really want to understand what the writer meant, then it does.

Wittgenstein is another philosopher whose words are open to huge interpretation. One of his most famous statements is “Don’t think, but look!”. I love this phrase. I don’t claim to really know what Wittgenstein meant – but I have my personal interpretation. One way of interpreting this is when it comes to trying to understand others, don’t think about what they mean by their words, understand them by looking at how they use their words in practice.

How does this link to my topic? Well simply, if you are trying to read someone else’s document the truth is you may never understand it unless you have actually observed how they use words. If you just sit at your desk, quietly thinking more and more about what they have written you may form an interesting understanding – but whether it is exactly what the author(s) meant is questionable. 

When you need to review a document, if it’s important you really understand the writer(s) intentions, reach out to them and see how they use words. Observe, listen, and interact with the writer. It will be a lot more productive than spending hours and hours reading and interpreting at your desk.

Read 43067 times Last modified on Saturday, 19 October 2013 16:44
Richard Newton

Richard Newton wears many hats. Included amongst these are his work as a consultant, author, blogger, change leader, company director, and program manager. His most well known project management book is The Project Manager: Mastering the Art of Delivery. He is also the author of the best-selling Dream It, Do It, Live It which applies project management principles to achieving personal dreams.

His articles and blogs can be followed at www.changinghats.com. Information about his company can be found at www.enixus.co.uk. His books are available at bookshops and online sellers worldwide.

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